Article Opinion

Dreading the Future of Shining Lights on Things in Games

That new demo sure is pretty, but what are the implications for game design?

You’d have to be made out of wood to not be impressed, possibly even moved (note to self: see someone about emotional reactions to tech demos), by Epic Games’ latest demo of Unreal Engine 5 running on the PlayStation 5 shown in the 5th month of the year (Half-Life 5 confirmed!); while so much of it was genuinely impressive and there are sure to be some gorgeous visual spectacles on the horizon, I’m left wondering how these new features will be implemented in games and whether or not we’re going to see a good chunk of, well if not full-on shovelware, then at least features that are shoveled in to show this stuff off–shovelfeatures?

The most obvious example of this happening in gaming has been the forced implementation of hardware features into games–whether it was at its most obnoxious with entire experiences built around stuff like Kinect on the 360, or third-person games on the PlayStation 3 that just had to put in some kind of balancing micro-game with the Sixaxis controller.

These, of course, are the most obvious because they require the most direct to from the player–literally the physical body of the player changes in response to this. But when it comes to software, this isn’t always so apparent.

This is likely due to the fact that software-based trends in gaming have been, while not completely unobtrusive, mostly decorative. Lens flares everywhere (thanks, JJ) or the oversaturation of bloom lighting and certain color styles that plagued the 7th generation of consoles (poked fun at by Uncharted’s “Next-Gen” filter), are some of the clearer examples. These don’t intrude on the experience as much as a forced hardware feature, though certain software-based advancements have been known to be a burden on performance, such as tessellation. Even when there’s some impact, however, the trade-off usually seems worth it for more cutting edge visual splendor. What Unreal Engine 5 demonstrates, however, is that this may move down this path a lot more than previous software enhancements and that game design itself is going to be continuously influenced in rather empty, meaningless ways.

As I wrote about in my piece on The Order: 1886, I felt that the aimless wandering and picking of things up seemed to be an extension of a need to justify prettier graphics; it can be seen as the end result of a process and a culture that endlessly obsesses over this–that there was, potentially, such an overwhelming demand for better and better and better graphics that we have effectively constructed a hype-based culture where that’s all we care about and as a result, it becomes front and center in the minds of a development team–especially one that must provide a product early on in a new console’s life; it ostensibly exists to prove the power of new hardware. For The Order, it seemed to be an experience where the visual flair led to a game of constantly finding nothing of interest–just repetitive moseying about in experience-empty environments.

We find ourselves in a similar situation yet again; new consoles are on the horizon and given the nature of this new hardware in comparison to what is soon-to-be-last-gen’s hardware (or, perhaps, that we may be reaching a ceiling on Moore’s Law), the jump in visual fidelity isn’t as much as it was when we shifted to new machines at the beginning of the last decade.

There are a few dimensions to this, more than could reasonably be addressed here. One of which is the removal of limitations UE5 is promising. With its unbelievable triangle count and the capability of simply dropping in complex art assets from Zbrush or photogrammetry models, The Order’s aimless sense of existence might be expanded beyond just picking up random models literally for the sake of picking up random models. It may expand to the entire world a player explores, where we will continue to wander about and climb around in pretty environments just for the sake of showing off how pretty they are. And with the capacity to easily produce visual splendor, there may be less effort spent on trying to craft an artistic experience out of limited capacity.

Limitations breed creative thinking and the advancements of UE5 may actively work against this. Silent Hill’s fog wouldn’t be a thing were it not for the limited draw distance capable on the PlayStation 1, and Metal Gear would probably not have been a stealth genre if there wasn’t a limit on how many sprites the MSX 2 could display. Now with greater ability to exponentially ramp up the scale and potential of what could be created in a virtual world, we may be running ahead of what modern game design could actually do with these spaces and instead, the new resources may beg developers to use them just for the sake of them being there.

We may be subject to seeing worlds crafted (or imported, in the case of photogrammetry) without much concern for how they could or should work in a game–they’ll just be there to look good. We will likely see games that are not too different from the UE5 tech demo itself–hollow experiences where the point is just to climb geometrically complex environments with pretty lighting.

This struck me most in the portion of the demo where Epic shows off their lighting, both the real-time lighting effects and the segments where the character is navigating dark environments. How many times will the PS5 and Xbox Series X exist to just give us games that amount to nothing more than constantly entering a dark room or cave to shine lights on objects and watch things scurry away? Shinning a light only to see certain kinds of vermin run might be a standard feature the way “bandit camps” are a standard feature of any open-world game–and we’ll be cursed with, at least in the first couple of years, every damn trailer for a game starting off in this exact same way.

Will these tools inspire game developers to find innovative ways to challenge or expand upon how we think of a game, or will they simply rely on the software to do the work of making it just look photorealistic? Or are we doomed to go through five to eight years of climbing pretty rocks to reach a cave where we shine a light on shit to show off how the engine uses light?

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