The way an eye adapts to various lighting conditions, such as extreme darkness, I believe that an eye, or a perception, adapts in a similar manner to a certain visual principle, i.e. a means through which a given visual structure is realized. So, let me open this sentiment a little.
Consider, for instance, Lego-made structures. My argument is that the longer one observes, say, a fire truck made out of Legos and becomes familiar with it, the more the “representative fascination” of the object start to wear off and non-representative aspects begin to rise to the surface, like the Lego bricks themselves and details (scratches, Lego logos) related to them. It’s indeed the visual structure behind the representation that starts to emerge when the representational layer loses its illusive charm through familiarity. In the end, one cannot escape the fact that the Lego fire truck is just a collection of Lego bricks put together to make it appear as a fire truck, but not being a fire truck at all, how ever self-evident it may sound.
What, then, my ultimate point is and what led me to this line of reasoning were these numerous stormy sequences in video games of late that have had a particularly profound aesthetic effect on me in terms of visual realism. And it’s not obviously just me: GameTrailers, for instance, used exactly the thunderstorm imagery from Modern Warfare 2 in their review to emphasize the good looks of the game. Also the first Modern Warfare was first demoed by using the stormy intro sequence with a lot of rain and lightning. And the mother of all video game trailers, the Metal Gear Solid 2 reveal video, did the same exact thing back in 2001.
So, I believe it’s really not so much the rain component of the storm that makes such visuals so convincing, but the lightning that illuminates the scenes seemingly in random just for a couple of frames. And it’s the flashing lightning that interrupts the aforementioned adaptation, i.e. process of familiarity of given visual structure. This is especially true in cases like MW 2 in which the lightning casts real-time shadows on the environment, completely altering the visual landscape for a moment. Consequently, the polygons, textures, and shadow maps gain back enough of their representational power to trick an adapted eye, so it’s the fire truck once again instead of Lego bricks, even if just for a little while.
When talking about lighting, or in this case, lightning, it often comes back to the original Doom. As I previously wrote, what made Doom particularly scary was the back-then realistic illumination scheme, and I may add that the situations where Doom’s visuals were most credible had to do with flickering, strobe-like lighting conditions.
Of course, this kind of an effect has to be employed wisely, and in no case overused, otherwise the effect loses its appeal rapidly. Additionally, there should always be a natural phenomenon explaining the effect, such as a malfunctioning fluorescent tube in Doom or a lightning strike in MW 2, in order to work as described.