Creating the atmosphere of Until Dawn

Creating the atmosphere of Until Dawn
James Batchelor

By James Batchelor

November 23rd 2015 at 10:56AM

Supermassive Games’ executive director Supermassive's executive director Will Byles reveals how lighting, photography, and Renaissance art helped build this year’s biggest horror success

Where did you start when creating the atmosphere for Until Dawn? What were the key things you wanted to accomplish?
Horror’s an interesting genre, especially when it comes to games. Games are often about empowerment, learning and perfecting skills to overcome greater and greater challenges. Horror is about creating fear, and fear is often a result of disempowerment. People are frightened of the dark because their power of sight has been compromised, effectively reducing their abilities for both fight and flight.

Film handles the dark very effectively with a technique originating in Renaissance painting and made popular by artists like Rembrandt and Caravaggio called ‘Chiaroscuro’, which is Italian for ‘light dark’ – literally meaning ‘clear dark’. It’s the use of high contrasting areas of light and dark for composition.

Traditional photography is very effective at using this technique due to the nature of how light reacts with the silver halide emulsion on film. There is a very predictable curve, often known as the ‘D-logE’ curve, which allows photographers to accurately plot the density of the emulsion: ‘D’ – density of emulsion – against “log E” – logarithm of exposure. Three or four exposure levels of difference here can make a significant change in density, thus creating Chiaroscuro. 

With video – or in our case digital – those differences in exposure lighten and darken much more evenly and give a more prosaic image. The best way to think of this is by watching a battle scene in a high-end movie and then watch the ‘making of’ documentary of the same scene; the difference in feel and quality of the footage will be stark.

The challenge for us was to get that same feel as film, to create a level of fear without just darkening everything down. Unfortunately, game renderers are designed to do the opposite of Chiaroscuro. If something gets too dark, the engine will try to brighten it and vice versa. We had to invent some new techniques to get around that. 

What were your sources of reference and inspiration when it came to creating a horror atmosphere? What other games, films or TV shows did you draw from?
There was a lot of inspiration from the classic slasher movies like Friday 13th, Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, but also the less obvious ones, like John Carpenter’s The Thing, Psycho and Evil Dead, as well as the 

post-modern, self-referential movies like Scream and Cabin in the Woods.

From TV, there are some great horror series; Buffy and the brilliant Supernatural being just two. Games like Fatal Frame and Silent Hill were also huge inspirations.

Ultimately, we embroiled ourselves so deeply in all forms of horror media over the course of the project it’s hard at this point to cite all the specific points of inspiration; safe to say that there were a lot. 

The challenge for us was to get that same feel as film, to create a level of fear without just darkening everything down. Unfortunately, if something gets too dark, the game engine will try to brighten it and vice versa. We had to invent some new techniques to get around that. 

Will Byles, Supermassive Games

What role did the lighting system play? What effects did you use, and why?
Getting the lighting right in horror is vital, and traditional game lighting is not the ideal setup. As I mentioned earlier, Chiaroscuro was the look we were going for and game engines are not set up for this. Real-time lighting is computationally expensive and lighting bakes of environments aren’t dynamic. A typical solution for embedding characters in their “baked” environs is the use of probes and IBLs; effectively a localised, spherical snap shot of an area affecting the ambient light of an animated object or character.

The trouble is, ambient light is a disaster in Chiaroscuro. So we were faced with some very difficult choices: limited real time lights vs ambient artefacts, for example. As is often the case, compromise was key, heavily using screen space to modulate the ‘logE’ part of the aforementioned equation, replacing density with luminance.

How did the game’s different environments affect your lighting design? 
Along with fear of the dark, we also wanted to go from claustrophobic to exposed, subterranean to precipitous, freezing cold to cosy warm, as well as affording the characters – and, by extension, the player – the ability to affect their surroundings with some form of light source. 

A large part of this was achieved using particle effects and volumetric lighting. Outside shots used moonlight, of course, but we wanted to create little fragile pools of warmer light around the characters, like Emily and Mike with their flaming torches. Inside we tried the reverse; theatrical lights, effects and candles from Josh contrasting with the more sterile flashlight beams from Ash, Chris and Sam.

What technology did you use for the lighting? Was it proprietary or third-party, and why did you choose this tech?
We used the Killzone: Shadow Fall game engine as the basis for the lighting pipelines, adding pipelines and modifying the existing ones to allow us to get a more filmic look, as opposed to the CG look most renderers deliberately achieve. 

An interesting difference between movie lighting and game lighting is the bespoke, ‘per shot’ lighting of film. To simulate it we had a pipeline that allowed per shot lighting set-ups in all parts of the game where player control was limited; in our more traditional cutscenes, for example, or the conversational choices the player is asked to make. Where player control was in full, during the exploration sections, we used custom lighting rigs that only affected specific characters.

We also made a number of rendering feature improvements and optimisations, from tile lighting and order independent transparency, to hair-specific shading to allow back lighting to shine through it.

We used the Killzone: Shadow Fall game engine as the basis for the lighting pipelines, adding pipelines and modifying the existing ones to allow us to get a more filmic look, as opposed to the CG look most renderers deliberately achieve. 

Will Byles, Supermassive Games

How did you handle photography? How did you balance between capturing the style of horror films while still making this accessible as a game?
This is always a very contentious issue between design and art. Cameras, and indeed editing in movies, need to convey mood, location, action, emotion, composition and obfuscation. Cameras in games – aside from cutscene cameras – are continuous, not edited, and are for orientation and locomotion; where you are and where you can go, often fixed to first or third-person. We wanted to have all of the movie camera attributes working in conjunction with the needs of orientation and locomotion. 

The simple solution to this is we had to do a lot of testing. We developed a set of rules that we always aimed to adhere to. The best example, perhaps, is: ‘never make a 90-degree camera cut when a character is at a junction in their path’. Ignoring that one never failed to confuse and disorientate.

How did you get a strong performance out of your actors? How can you ensure their performance reflects the atmosphere you’ve created?
Well, I would love to say that I was responsible for the strength of their performances, but the truth is that they are just very good actors, incredibly talented and professional. 

In my view, actors are at their best when they are given the room to explore their character and allowed to interpret them in their own way. Of course, there is direction, but it’s just that: direction; pointing them in the direction of where you would like a scene to go and letting them do what they’re good at. 

The worst sort of direction for actors, in my opinion, is being told ‘do it like this’ and a director acting it out. It’s like telling an artist where to push their pencil. Frustrating for everyone and ultimately crap. 

Performance, along with almost everything else in games, is and has been limited by technology. As technology gets better the need for over the top acting becomes less of a requirement – though may still be an artistic choice, as in the early chapters of Until Dawn

Will Byles, Supermassive Games

Why is good performance so important in video games today? Why is it important in a game like Until Dawn?
Performance, along with almost everything else in games, is and has been limited by technology. At any stage in the last 35 years developers have had to limit themselves to the available technological constraints. It was the same in the early years of movies. When movies had no sound, performances had to be exaggerated to convey emotion. Until recently, games had very limited facial animation and body skinning techniques, meaning performances needed to be more explicit. 

As technology gets better the need for over the top acting becomes less of a requirement – though may still be an artistic choice, as in the early chapters of Until Dawn. Subtlety of character also becomes achievable, like the gradual character transformations in the middle and end of Until Dawn

Actors are also increasingly comfortable with the abstract style of capture involved, more akin to green screen than a recording booth. The danger with this level of subtlety is that there are some players that will miss it entirely – though from the reception Until Dawn has had, it seems very few did.