Scientifically Beautiful Shadows

In the vain of the previous, somewhat pessimistic, post, it is only apt to discuss now cases where dynamic lighting performs extraordinarily well, one of which being Valve Software’s Portal 2.

The first Portal was a massive critical success and received huge amounts of good will from the gaming community, not least for the virtue of coming basically from nowhere as an “extra” in the Orange Box, taking everyone by surprise with its novel gameplay and a twisty storyline. One can, thus, only imagine the overwhelming pressure to succeed that must have taken place when making the sequel, Portal 2.

Unfortunately, the will and eager to top the first one shows what comes to the storyline (I’ve never cared about scripted stories anyway), but visually, it’s light-years ahead from the first one, as it should.

Indeed, Portal 2 is filled with intriguing visual details and design decisions to the point that it depresses me to single out just one for now, but, as said, one area in which Portal 2 shines the most is the overall illumination scheme. Technically the lighting consists of carefully placed dynamic lights with dynamic shadows and complementary pre-calculated static lighting, and on the surface there’s really nothing super-fancy about it.

So, even though real-time shadows per se in Portal 2 aren’t groundbreaking by any means, the impact they had on me in terms of pure aesthetic pleasure was considerable nevertheless. The intro-sequence in particular is something of a showcase, presumably by design, for the new lighting system (and for the pre-calculated physics) that differentiates Portal 2 immediately from its predecessor, conveying a message that this time Portal 2 is not a cutesy little side project, but a serious full on retail product.

In addition to the dynamic lighting, the geometry in levels, such as platforms and wall plates, are heavily animated this time around, which wasn’t the case with the first Portal. Of course, since Portal barely contained any dynamic lighting, it would have been problematic, to say the last, to move geometry around to the equal extent as in Portal 2. One function of the dynamic lighting in Portal 2 seems to be indeed to obstruct the static lighting in dynamic objects so that they blend in to the environment when they change their orientation and/or position. It’s like aesthetic cement that smoothes everything out in the end.

Besides being enchantingly beautiful in itself, Portal 2’s visual landscape is a testament for what a few, or in Portal 2’s case, usually just one, real-time light source casting shadows can do to a scene when implemented right.  Of course, Portal 2 benefits from the unreal and dreamlike environments, in the sense that the lighting doesn’t have to replicate often-convoluted natural world scenarios, but that of highly contained and stylized indoor settings instead.

And everything would be done in vane if the performance failed to deliver, which isn’t even remotely the case with Portal 2. Thanks to the art direction and partly gameplay mechanics, the levels in Portal 2 are often lightweight in terms of geometry due to their blocky and abstract architecture, which allocates resources to other things, such as real-time lighting and physics. Consequently, Portal 2 runs actually better than the visuals would let one assume, which is always an ideal scenario when dealing with real-time imagery.