Understanding Light

There are a few developers in the video game space who go above and beyond the call of duty when putting a game together. I’m referring to developers who radiate deep, otherworldly understanding towards the medium in question, and possess enough ambition, technology, and talent to pull the developer’s vision off, more or less accurately.

One developer who qualifies as such in my eyes no questions asked is Polyphony Digital, responsible of the Gran Turismo series released exclusively on the PlayStation platforms. In short, GT series could be described as one long, meticulously calligraphed love letter to the automobile industry and everything related, or, conversely, an ultimate, yet affordable fantasy for car enthusiasts at large.  And while the people playing the games sometimes tend to cut corners, Polyphony Digital is definitely driven not to, which comes crystal clear when scrutinizing the newest installment in the series, Gran Turismo 5 released on the PlayStation 3.

Granted, GT 5 suffers from a few painful compromises, not least of which being the dreadful decision to include tracks and cars from the previous iteration only to bump up the numbers printed on the cover. Yes, I really hate the solution as it renders the visuals inconsistent, to say the least, and I’m all about consistency. I believe Polyphony Digital CEO Kazunori Yamauchi hated it too.

What wasn’t compromised in GT 5 was the simulation of light, which is, I would argue, very close to optimal the hardware in question can handle. The beauty of it doesn’t lie in the definition of the simulation per se (e.g. shadows in the cockpit can be quite jaggy), but in the profound understanding of how light interacts with various materials and optical apparatuses such as a camera or an eye in terms of exposure. Indeed, when simulating an entity or a phenomenon, everything is done in vain if one doesn’t grasp the core nature of the object being simulated, and GT 5 seems to avoid that shortcoming to a great extent. The lighting obviously knows what it’s doing.

Furthermore, the aspect that strikes immediately with the lighting is the extremely clean, non-obstructive look of it. The thing is, the extensive use of bloom, color grading, and obnoxious lens flares (there are good ones) are usually cheap strategies to salvage the image from the mediocrity. Bad post-processing is indeed like an old, wrinkled lady trying impress people by plastering her face with a tons of make-up. GT 5 stands on, in addition to the excellent modeling and texturing work, such a robust lighting solution, both precalculated and real-time, that it needs no saving make-up to look appealing and, above all, real.

However, the ultimate testament and benchmark for the GT 5’s rock solid lighting model is the Photomode with which one can produce near photorealistic images. The Photomode is like a window to the future and PD’s nod to the gaming community that “If we just had more horsepower available, this would be the level of realism we’d be dealing with now. We understand light. We have the technology.” Indeed, no other game comes even close to GT 5 as far as photomodes go, not even Forza Motorsport 4 by Turn 10 Studios.

As said, the beauty of GT 5 stems obviously from other factors too, such as the texturing and modeling work, but in the end, everything comes down to the simulation of light. There’s no way around it. And it’s exhilarating to see that there are developers who get that exceedingly well.