The Light Side of The Dark Forces

Back in the 1995, in the wake of the Doom-generated first-person-shooter-hype, LucasArts couldn’t help but make one themselves, Star Wars: Dark Forces that is. Doom was known for its graphical breakthroughs, including buttery smooth frame rate in majority of computers and diverse lighting, but particularly of its addicting multiplayer component, which was literally a game-changer. So, why didn’t LucasArts incorporate multiplayer on their doom-clone, while the multiplayer was the hottest thing out there at the time? One reason they gave us was they wanted to concentrate their resources solely to “excellent single player”, but I’m not buying that. I think the real reason for leaving multiplayer out was an aestethical one.

Doom and majority of its contemporaries, including SW:DF, used this technology called ray-casting which allows fast but limited 3D-space to be presented in your screen. There are two types of lighting in developers’ disposal when using this kind of ray-casting: static and dynamic, and the latter is unsurprisingly the problematic one. The dynamic lighting (or should I say shading) is realized by using something called depth cueing which darkens objects afar in order to simulate darkness (or in some cases fog) and to give certain kind of depth to the image.

However, the shading is constrained to distinct layers parallel to the screen due to the ray-casting technique and the limitations it poses.

The parallel layers can be easily spotted in SW:DF and alike and they have to do with the optimization of the performance.

When comparing SW:DF to other similar games, SW:DF seemed to have more sophisticated way to light its surroundings when firing the gun. In SW:DF the light emitted by player’s gun illuminates more realistically only the nearby surfaces, while in Doom the whole 3D space flashes evenly when using a weapon, which is rather unrealistic apporach.

The depth cueing really is, and was even then, the oldest trick in the book. Anyhow, the way SW:DF employs it, is not only to dim visibility in the distant, like it’s used in Doom or alike, but also to add brightness near when using weapons or the flash light and that’s the reason in my mind why there was no multiplayer in SW:DF. While the effect is feasible to render from the perspective of the shooter (but since the shading engine can operate only on parallel slices), it would be impossible to render in a multiplayer mode radial lighting the player 2 emits from the player 1’s point of view.

What backs up my case is that another ray-casting title 3D Realms’ Duke Nukem 3D, released a year later, didn’t have the SW:DF‘s gun lighting solution but did have a multiplayer. And so did the Shadow Warrior released year after DN3D also by 3D Realms.

Of course, there would have been plenty of workarounds for the situation, for instance they could have just ignored the effect altogether in multiplayer mode but that would have been a compromise from LucasArts’ behalf. Perhaps they hated compromises as much as I do.

Real-time graphics truly has always been about dreadful trade-offs and compromises, and I don’t see any change in that in the near (or even distant) future. In a way, those things make the real-time graphics even more exciting, since the limitations often feed creativity.