The Pixel Crush

-------------------------------------------|Digital Animation & Game Criticism|-------------------------------------------

Saturday, 27 August 2011

The Colour of a Crysis

Several related topics have been stalking through my brain pastures of late, and I thought it might be time to coalesce them into a blog post.

They are in fact, all related to light, and the way it acts in the physical world, or the artistic lighting of a scene. Whilst I was in Spain writing my script, I also spent lots of time capturing the different behaviours of light, the way it casts shadows, shines through materials, reflects, and bounces from surface to surface. This is something I am keen to replicate in my third year project and so this reference and observation will (hopefully) be useful, though all this has allowed my lack of colour theory knowledge to resurface.
Olly the photographer.

Two videogames that have recently redefined what the visual benchmark is for modern graphics are The Witcher 2 and Crysis 2 (another set to do the same appears to be Rage). But its not what they do technically that I want to focus on, actually that's a massive lie, I would love to drool praise all over both the Red and Cry engine's graphical capabilities but it would be a) propaganda b) predictable and c) un-constructive. Both games have extremely coherent art styles that tie together everything from design, to colour palette, to rendering features and lighting is one of the most integral aspects. Especially in Crysis 2.

I might have mentioned it before, or possibly in my brief real-time rendering presentation, but Cryengine 3 is one of the first: and very few, game engines to implement an approximation of the indirect lighting techniques used in photo-realistic rendering. This completely changes the usually flat lighting of a videogame into a gorgeous explosion of colours and tones, each bleeding into the next. Here are some examples, lets see if I can pass off this polygon porn as analysis.
The Ceph like to coat the walls with jam.
 Crysis doesn't feature a lot of down moments in its pacing that aren't about exploring, there are a few character based moments but these are usually interrupted by someone smashing you through a window or making something else break: like an entire street for example. Therefore it is atmospherically consistent to have a dramatic colour scheme, and none are more so than the complimentary colour scheme: where one colour is set against its opposing colour on the colour wheel. Crysis often sets the orange glow of a halogen light against the blue shadows of sunlight, as seen above, simultaneously contrasting the colours and the interior/exterior of the environment.
A flooded motor way.
This is one of the better screen-shots I managed to get of the indirect lighting. First the sun strikes the rubble, and then illuminates the wall as it bounces from the rubble, creating a nice gradient and cohesion between all the disparate props.
Beautifully tessellated bombed out brickwork.
 High dynamic range lighting is a really big deal in modern games and the player will often never notice the exposure changing as it adapts to the lighting conditions but here you can see as I've left a dark room and looked up: the sky is completely over-exposed so as to reveal the light cascading down the walls into the darkness.
Yes, even I have a shadow.
Shadow is what allows the indirect lighting to shine (ha!). Creating darkness makes the subtleties clearer and creates contrast as the player transitions between environments. I think how all this works is that the game engine analyses the lighting pass of the render, and the zdepth (distance from objects in the scene) and proceeds to generate point lights using the colours from the brightest areas in frame. This way bounce lighting is simulated at very little cost. Also I recommend looking at some of these full screen, Nelson did me proud.
The nights were some of my favourite moments.
At night the indirect lighting becomes all the more important as its used to fill the environment in the absence of sunlight and, as you make your way towards times square and the station too, many many artificial light sources fill the frame with a clash of colour. This is something that differentiates the pre alien invasion world to the atmospherics and dull tones of the occupied New York.
Complimentary Colour.

Here is a really obvious example of the compli-
mentary colour I was talking about. See right >>
Colour connotes temperature and often the cool blues are used in the more science based labs of Crysis, while the warm yellows illuminate the parks and streets.
Symbolic Lighting.
Lighting can have meaning beyond temperature though and during this intense escape as the streets are torn apart the sun is setting. The symbolism here is hardly deft but when the player is being chased in a tank by alien gunships as the ground crumbles beneath them its only something that's going to register on a subconscious level, if that. Also evening light makes for nice long shadows that are always interesting compositionally.
Bounce lighting exemplified.
 Just in case you've been confused this whole time: the bounce lighting I'm talking about is just what it sounds like, it enters through the window, and illuminates not only the first, and brightest wall, but also the one facing it.

Crysis 2 was written by Richard Morgan, a British science fiction novelist. He professes a 'complete addiction to videogames', sounds a bit unhealthy to me...but it interests me because I have a theory.

In Crysis you play as a man in a suit who's A.I can transform the suits surface to perform cloaking, armour and power functions. This is signalled to the player through a digitized voice announcing your every action, various on screen visual cues (power meters, image artefacts from physical trauma) and the suit likes to reboot every time you get sufficiently crushed by something. It seems as though this concept was dreamt up by someone who would like to live inside of a computer, and therein lies the appeal to the Crysis demographic. "Can it run Crysis?" is the question that validates, or conversely voids, the £500-£1000 you just spent on a fancy new gaming PC. Crysis' forte is immersion through graphical prowess so the target audience has invested a lot of money in living inside a computer. Something that playing the Crysis games aims to simulate, to live inside a computerised suit that separates you from the world around you, and is something they are immensely accomplished at. Its like a meta fantasy of empowerment. As a player, but for the first 10 minutes of gameplay, you are two layers of reality removed from the fictional world the game perpetuates, and one of those layers in itself is fictional. Yet it all feels so deeply physical. Have a trailer:

Pixel Propaganda

Here is the full library of screenshots I took for this post. Spoilers.

I read a really interesting interview with John Carmack, legendary programmer at id Software. He has some pretty interesting things to say about the state of graphics.


  1. Very interesting read !
    Me and two of my friends are trying to create a small level in CE3, trying to replicate the wonderful visuals of Crysis 2. The article gave me more insight on how wonderful the whole game is !

    1. brilliant! I did try and use the CE3 editor but didn't get very far. It is a gorgeous renderer though. Good luck with your mod.


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