Silent Road Team talked about their title under development Afterlight, a 2.5D sci-fi symbolic side scroller: environment design, shaders, lighting, and more.
The current Silent Road team has its origins in the fusion of three projects from a business incubator. On the one hand, there was Alberto Bodero (Production and business development) and Salvador Martín (Concept art and 2D artist). Another of the development teams was Mechanical Lamb integrated by Víctor Franco (Game design and writer), Alberto Prieto (Technical artist and 3D modeling) and Francisco Ruiz (Animation). Finally, Pyrestone studio composed of several programmers from which Francisco Sarabia’s development continued.
After six months of hard work separately and learning the difficulties of development, we realized that it was practically impossible to finish the projects we had designed. After the hard blow of failure and having identified the mistakes, we decided to join forces and work together on a new project. This led us to start the development of Afterlight.
Currently, we work with the six members mentioned above and there are four freelancers collaborating with us, Daniel Parejo (Musical composition), Alexis Escalona (Sound design), Jorge Pedraza (Programming) and Jesús Campos (Illustration).
Afterlight is more than a game, it’s a very personal project. It’s the embodiment of our concerns as developers in a very specific scenario, that is our country, in which the game industry is still growing but not mature enough. We want to talk about our personal insights and experiences as a team and entrepreneurs, but from a sci-fi approach. Although to sum it up quickly, it’s a 2.5D side scroller with a high narrative engagement focus on themes like manipulation, trust, and forced friendship. Everything is set up on an allegorical frame in order to talk about those themes.
In terms of story, Afterlight takes players to the XXII century when space agencies have united in order to conquer the cosmos. The first step for that is to establish a colony on Titan, for safety reasons. The atmosphere there can prevent radiation poisoning. So it will be a good place to start – nowadays NASA thinks that way. The Titan mission [codenamed “Argus mission”] went wrong while landing, and the Prometheus crew [the spaceship was called that way] almost died entirely. Only Xin and a few partners could make it. But, that traumatic event left her with some mental issues. So we start playing when everyone has perished as a result of the crash [Xin is not a medic, but a chemist], and Xin is so contrived by trauma, she thinks she is another person – here comes the Dissociative Identity Disorder. Her drone companion, C.O.G. [Cognitive Operational Guide] tries to help her heal and make her survive but, there is also a hidden objective due to the C.O.G. being hacked by the Prometheus ship’s AI. What is going on there? The C.O.G. is the only way to survive, but it comes with a price.
After some meetings in a startup incubator, we had some ideas about how to work together to make a game with our talent. Then, we had a preproduction phase with lots of meetings and brainstormings that set up the game as a half “hard sci-fi” and half “symbolic” game about emotional processes in mental disorders.
It begins with an old idea about an isolated astronaut who is longing to return home. We wanted to do a game as real as possible, and here comes all the astronautical, medical and psychological documentation. We felt we hit some good ideas, and we kept working with this focus on hard sci-fi. But then we realized that it would be very difficult to make an interesting approach with our budget limitations. So we started to migrate to a symbolic field in order to balance creativity and documentation. That way, we gave birth to the Afterlight we all know.
Afterlight is all about the dissociation and desynchronization of perception and reality, and from documentation, we take some mental disorders that work similarly, like Dissociative Identity Disorder. But, we want to talk about the emotional side of the mental disorders – how that kind of conditions contrive reality and twist the emotions. That is a very rare approach, more intimate and, in the end, real. To do that, we count on a psychologist from ESA and NASA whose career is focused on emotional and behavioral features in the astronautical industry. Also, some other experts in psychology and medicine have been consulted as well as senior game designers who have worked with such themes before.
We have taken lots of inspiration from film, architecture, and games.
From architecture, we got some ideas from Lebbeus Woods’ manifestos. Lebbeus’ works talk about the matter of struggle and the scars and marks the conflict leaves on things. To us, it’s about how humankind is obsessed to spread the species along the cosmos -and by doing that, how we pollute and transform everything at our reach. In Afterlight, we want to represent humans like the aliens on a planet. And Lebbeus’ philosophy talks about it almost directly. We are “earth forming” Titan in a way, we are “conquering”, and we are “leaving our mark” in there on the struggle with nature itself.
In film, we appreciated the work of Andrei Tarkovsky. We are taking his pictorial approach for the emotional dimension of characters. We love how he works with natural lighting, and how he composes the frame in order to get a precise representation of the emotional state of the characters. Also, he uses a lot the most superficial aspect of the textures to catch your eye on a particular element or to compose -the same kind of techniques is done in Inside.
In the matter of games, we refer a lot about Inside and Journey. Resemblances are very ostensible: genre, iconicity, environment… But also we’ve taken a lot of inspiration from Hyper Light Drifter for the companion and GRIS for the cinematic elements and the emotional aspects of mental conditions.
Nevertheless, there is a strong connection between Lebbeus Woods and games through the work of Viktor Antonov in Half-Life 2 – also Dishonored, but it does not apply in this case. We have taken a lot from Antonov’s interpretation of Woods like the parasite relationship between humanity and the aliens – the scars of the conflict are the “alien shapes” and “alien technology” over the human cities. In Afterlight, we reimagine this concept in order to put humanity on the parasite side as a conqueror of nature on Titan. That way, Lebbeus’ architecture turns humanity into a scar over nature in the conflict of colonization.
Also, our companion is highly influenced by Dog, Alyx Vance’s companion in Half-Life 2. We owe a lot to Valve and Antonov.
The main goal in Afterlight’s environment design is to reinforce the narrative aspect of the game. With that in mind, we generate parallel readings to develop the story and serve as a reflection of the psychological state of the main character.
We want to generate well-composed frames. That way, the elements of the scenario guide the player. This is a plastic-art approaching for a 2.5D game as if we were working on an illustration or a painting.
Keeping that in mind, the visual resources used are:
- the search for silhouette and contrast
- the importance of light over the rest of the visual elements
- clean forms and the selective use of texture.
The first step to elaborate an environment, following the design of levels, is thinking about the scene composition. We generate silhouettes in order to compose, and also to ease reading and directing the eye to the desired point. This depends on the design of the 3D models. We seek expressiveness and take advantage of the use of light with thick lines and flat surfaces – contrasted and well-defined – that draw the shape.
Another layer is the global illumination of the scene. What do we want to communicate with light and color? Regarding color, we try to keep ourselves in a reduced palette of two colors, plus a third color element that, in small doses, is used to focus the player on a certain element.
We also add some fog, seeking to simplify the scene in order to facilitate reading and generate several layers of depth.
Finally, we use texture as an expressive resource in a limited and selective way: textures are only used when we think it is necessary due to the design – and once again, to take the player’s view where we want.
The current smoke shader we are using was developed by modifying the standard alpha-blended particle shader from Unity. We love Playdead’s approach to their fog/smoke effect, it’s simple and very customizable.
Our shader is formed mainly by two layers: lighting and distortion.
UV’s distortion is made by blending the main UVs with others obtained from a biplanar-scrolled texture from the particle direction. By changing the distortion’s texture and playing around with its parameters, you get different styles of fog/smoke. That way, you obtain a better variety and movement.
The lighting is recreated in the fragment shader with a normal map and support for three lights: one directional and two-point lights. Those lights are given to the shader from Unity’s editor, be it a light object or any other kind of game object. This is done that way to make the lighting system independent from Unity’s own – and to get the kind of light desired for every moment, though limited to three game objects. This lighting’s main purpose is to give volume to the whole set of particles.
The idea is to keep the fog as optimal as possible, using post-processes like screen space fog from the post-processing stack – and to use the fog particles for special moments like smoke, blizzards, etc.
The problem shows up when we have scenes which need huge individual fog/smoke cumulus. We are currently using smoke particles, which brings serious performance problems. We are working to resolve it with post processing that simulates volumetric clouds of localized fog.
An example of that is the use of the Slightly Mad’s volumetric lights.
The iced-sand shader is based on a surface shader to easily keep it in deferred rendering. That way we can continue using some of its benefits in terms of lighting and post-processing like SSAO or SSR.
Specularity is masked with a rim, keeping that way the specularity as a glowing highlight in the upper places of the dunes. At first, we used the fresnel itself, but the effect was showing up really weird in the shadows.
The way we achieved the sparkling effect is simple. A white noise texture is projected using the view’s direction, plus a little amount of panning in every axis direction. That way, we have a sparkling animation as the camera is moving -and that continues when it’s still too.
Modeling & Texturing
Looking for efficient asset production, we opted for a low poly approach with mainly plain-colored textures. This kind of modeling fits the aesthetics and the art direction really well, in which we use the light from the ambiance to shape the scene as well as give it color. In such a way, most of the materials are grayscale sets without any texture. So, textures are used sparingly, in order to represent filth, roughness or decals.
Assets are modeled in both Blender and 3ds Max. The textures are made in Photoshop most of time but sometimes, for characters or particular details, specialized software is needed – like Substance Painter.
We start the modeling from the concept art and, in many cases, from the grey box volumes used in gameplay prototypes. The scene is composed in Blender in a traditional way.
To agilize the process, we use different techniques depending on the case. For example, to shape some specific elements like ground tiles, rocks, cables or cloth, we use physics simulation in Blender.
Another interesting example is the icy rocks, which are sculpted in high poly to then decimate and clean the mesh. These techniques give a fresher look to the set.
During the modeling and texturing processes, the asset is exported to Unity several times. This is done in order not to lose the overview appearance with the rest of the assets.
For more flexibility in the scene composition, we keep reusability in mind. Most of them are designed to be modular. Other elements, like rocks or other organic elements, are made subtly different to achieve diversity depending on the asset’s rotation and position in the scene.
The character’s animation is done by hand, using a video reference of real people being dragged by the wind.
The objects over the character’s body that are not part of the character’s mesh, like pockets, and lanterns, are given a Dynamic Bone component to make them move according to physics, as well as a script that adds a simulated wind force in a given direction and some noise to keep it random.
Generally, we work with two types of lighting: one type for exteriors and the other for interiors. With this lighting pipeline, we want to recall nature and make the player feel warm, seeking a mood far from the “neon” aesthetic and some other stereotypes of sci-fi.
On the other hand, we seek a dense atmosphere with suspended particles in order to create a cohesive image and provide as much realism as we can.
The lighting scheme that we can see here is the typical “Key, Fill and Rim” -three-point lighting but adapted to every single situation. It applies especially in the narrative sequences and the main puzzle scenes.
The scheme is set according to our needs. For example, in certain moments, to highlight the foreground silhouettes, we exaggerate the fill light to clean the shadows in the background while the rim light frames the silhouette.
Nowadays, as a result of the iteration process in the game design, we are using real-time lighting with Real-time Global Illumination which diminishes the light baking times and project size.
The lighting setup consists of reflection and light probes. The reflection probes have a very low resolution due to the fact that there are few crystal reflections in the game. For those objects that don’t bake their indirect light, we use light probes if they’re small and Light Probe Proxy Volumes for the big ones.
We use different kinds of lights depending on the need. We use directional lights when we want to create lighting effects that apply to the whole scene. It’s the case for daylight outside settings, but sometimes we use this technique for Fill Ambiental lighting or as Global rim. The spotlights work really well to fill localized spaces that frame narrative or gameplay elements. Point lights then are mainly used as fill lights.
Silent Road Team
Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev