Burning Light

One of the key features of real-time imagery that defines it and sets it apart is the thoroughly explorative nature of it. The core real-time imagery experience indeed resembles very much the act of unboxing a new toy and figuring out what that toy can do. Consequently, one cannot understate the importance of games of the transitional era such as Doom (1993) that made it ultimately possible to genuinely wonder “what’s there behind that corner?” or “where do these stairs go?” within the real-time context. I guess one had to be there to grasp the full significance of this.

What made Doom such a profound evolutionary step was the fast and responsive agency in a 3D space, making the exploration almost frictionless. I personally came a little late to the party which, fortunately, made the experience that more mesmerizing since I was able to run Doom in full screen at relatively high frame rate. The utter feeling of everything being right in front one’s face was almost overwhelming and something I had never experienced until then – or after, for that matter.

It can be said that a first-person view popularized by Doom only really made sense with a somewhat sophisticated (fast, texture-mapped) 3D engine, so it was only natural that early games of that graphics paradigm were first-person ones, generally speaking that is. As texture-mapped 3D imagery became more mundane and stabilized a paradigm due to consoles like Sony PlayStation, we started to see other uses for polygons and textures than depicting the virtual from the first-person view.

Tomb Raider (1996) wasn’t perhaps the first game to utilize a third-person view in a 3D space, but it was the one which de facto created the basis for the modern third-person paradigm. The third-person view wasn’t so much about experiencing the world firsthand, but depicting the interaction between the 3D space and the controllable character more in detail. This made the exploration of the world less frictionless, but it gave the opportunity for developers to build a strong brand around the recognizable protagonist. Think of Lara Croft, Marcus Fenix, or, say…

Remedy Entertainment’s Alan Wake (2010) is indeed an epitomic example of a modern third-person game that did excellent job at branding the main character with multilevel narrative and the clever use of a real-life actor. However, the ultimate main character of Alan Wake was the outstanding simulation of light that, for obvious reasons, had received extra care and attention from the developer. The volumetric lighting effects were in particular really something to marvel at, both in terms of technological achievement and artistic use.

So all that being said, the one thing that boggles my mind in Alan Wake is the rendering of the flashlight beam that in many cases overexposes the image in such a way that the exploration of the environment becomes quite frustrating. As I tried to establish above, real-time imagery is at its core very much about exploration and discovery, thus it’s extremely distracting and, more over, counterintuitive to have a blind spot right there where one supposed to focus one’s view on, making the third-person view for exploration even more disconnecting that it already is.

Of course, it could’ve been an error in the exposure engine since the beam works, more or less, fine most of the time, but still, an error (or artistic decision) of that magnitude that defeats the whole purpose of having a flashlight is something that I can’t get my head around with. Overexposure is indeed a classic strategy to aestheticize light and illumination, and quite an effective one too, but the problem is that plain white conveys no information whatsoever.

All in all, ever since I saw polygons being drawn on the screen, I’ve felt compelled to explore that non-existent space inside out, although admittedly not so much in later years. Nevertheless, the carefully constructed 3D space goes in vain if one cannot explore that space in a satisfactory way.