Fully Dynamic Darkness

It’s almost redundant to state that John Carmack, the co-founder of id Software, is one of the most important creative minds that have ever pushed consumer real-time imagery forward. Of course, Carmack is most known for coding the graphics engines for the Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and Quake games that each elevated the visual fidelity of simulated real-time space to a new level.

In terms of pure technology, Doom 3 has been to me the most interesting id release yet, although it received mixed reactions back in 2004, to say the least. As a game, sure, it left much to hope for, but as mere real-time imagery, Doom 3 is a pretty fascinating piece of work.

For one, as far as I know, Doom 3 was one of the very, if not the, first commercial games to include a completely dynamic lighting model with real-time shadows, and in fact, still remains to be one of the few. The idea of fully dynamic lighting is indeed beautiful and something to be proud of, but it did come with a cost – a pretty considerable one.

We all know that indirect illumination is a bitch to simulate accordingly in real-time, and since Doom 3 didn’t contain any, it was for that very reason dark as, well,  Hell. In Doom 3 if something wasn’t lit directly by a light source, the area in question remained 100% dark, which is, of course, highly unrealistic and aesthetically almost unbearable. So, even though the lighting model was consistent and performed well on paper, Doom 3 was indeed deemed too dark at the time and mods that attached a torch to the weapons surfaced rapidly, bringing more precious illumination into the darkness.

All things considered, one could say that Doom 3 (or id Tech 4, as the engine is called) was most uncompromised graphics engine that id has produced yet, in that it didn’t “fake” anything but did everything in real-time, which ended up being its weakness.

So, it’s interesting to see id now going back to semi-static illumination with their upcoming title RAGE, considering such lighting was last seen in an id game back in 1999 when Quake 3 was released (Quake 4 was an id Tech 4 game and not developed by id). Consequently, RAGE does look much better on the surface than any id Tech 4 game due to the pre-rendered indirect illumination, but ideologically it’s a step backwards.

The more I think of Doom 3, the more it comes across as a proof of concept. That Carmack had this grande idea of fully dynamic lighting solution and then ran with it, ignoring all the aesthetical problems (and of such related to realism) it created in the process. I do believe dynamic systems are worthy in themselves within real-time imagery, but simulation of light isn’t just there yet – even today, let alone in 2004 – that it could be adequately handled fully in real-time.