Some In-Game “Photography” in ‘Rage’
I love the look of Rage. It’s an art museum. As such, I did a little ingame “photography”, to practice angles and composition, while admiring how far along games have come.
The location is the town Wellsprings. I wish I could take full credit, but the game’s art is such that it’s actually pretty hard to NOT get a usable shot.
The Panoramas toward the end of the gallery (like this below) are multiple screenshots stitched together, with Photoshop’s ‘Photomerge’ tool. And a few of the shots – like the one below, again – are treated with tone-mapping; a photography trick often used in HDR photography. (HDR = High Dynamic Range, a technique for messing with lighting.) I tried photography-style HDR in-game, but didn’t do anything with it… just tone-mapping.
Rage doesn’t have gaming’s version of HDR, but HDR in games has a funny story to it. The term originated in photography/film, where it’s a technique used to help balance lighting. See, some scenes contain both light that’s too bright, and shadows that are too dark. Cameras can’t keep them both in balance at the same time… either the bright areas will be pure white, or the shadows will be pitch black. Like this:
This is because cameras have low dynamic range. They can only balance a limited range of light. Camera people spend lots of money to fight this, and try to get their scenes looking more like the human eye sees them… like this:
So, in photography/film, HDR helps you get the above. In games, HDR is completely different. Here, it’s used to change the brightness of everything when you suddenly walk into a brighter or darker area… and also add bloom (glow). A game doesn’t necessarily need HDR in order to have bloom, but the two can work together. In a lot of games (most?), bloom looks better when it’s built into the HDR.
What’s funny is that when games do the brightness transitions, they often do it somewhat heavily, looking like cameras… in other words, simulating LOW dynamic range.
There IS a reason that it still makes sense to call it HDR: before games had it, lighting was usually calculated on a fixed scale, like 0-255… where 0 meant black, and 255 meant white. But HDR extended the light further than that, allowing it to cover a higher range. And that range was dynamic, because the entire screen could slide from darker to brighter as you stepped in and out of, say, sunlight. So, it just happened to make sense to call it “High Dynamic Range”, by pure coincidence.
So, what to do? On one hand, games would never want to call it “Low Dynamic Range”, because that sounds like a step backward. If the average gamer ever saw a checkbox for “Low Dynamic Range”, they’d think it was to lower the detail.
Another part of HDR is ”bloom”, which is an optional glow effect. Depending on which game we’re talking about, it doesn’t necessarily need HDR lighting in order to work, but it can be tied to it. In other words, you can set up a game so that any light that’s brighter than 255 (or any number) glows. In real-life, you only ever see bloom via lenses that are either junk quality, dirty, or equipped with special glow filters (like for weddings).
(By the way, Rage doesn’t have noticeable bloom, except around lights.)
Here’s bloom in the Unigine tech demo:
Today, less and less games are using heavy bloom (like Rage), and a lot more are making things look the way the human eye sees them. As far as regular brightness transitions, the human eye does that to SOME degree, but nothing extreme, like cameras.
(Note: when I took the Rage screenshots, I also tried camera/film HDR, by taking 3 identical screenshots of the same thing, at different brightness levels… but I soon realized I was wasting my time. Blending the 3 shots is supposed to let you balance the lighting, but I realized: wait a minute… it’s not like there’s anything blown out in this scene to begin with, and I can certainly see into all the shadows. So, can skip the HDR step completely. For those wondering about tone-mapping – that optional surreal effect you always see in HDR photography – you can do that to a flat, already-balanced JPEG, and get the same result. The *HDR* part is just for recovering blown-out light, and dark shadows.)
Now that you’ve seen what Rage looks like, here are some pre-rendered spectacles that used to blow my mind, to illustrate how far we’ve come:
Oddworld’s ingame cinematics
When I was about 12 (I’m 25 now), I used to wonder if games would reach this point in my lifetime.
To compare, here’s Rage again:
Last, here’s a timeline of a few 3D games, so you can see how they’ve progressed:
Mario 64 (1996)
Deus Ex (2000)
Quake 4 (2005)