Bioshock-Style Lighting Exercise in UE4

Quentin Papleux talked about his recent attempt to recreate the atmosphere of Rapture City from the Bioshock franchise using lighting and a contrasting color palette.

In case you missed it

Read our previous interview with Quentin


Hello, my name is Quentin Papleux and I am working as a Senior Lighting Artist at Sumo Digital. Since the last interview, we finally got Sackboy released on PS5 and PS4 in some countries and it should become available next week to the rest of the world. It is always an exciting moment to see the release of a game we've worked on and watch people having fun in your game. In the coming weeks, it's time for well-deserved holidays!

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Bioshock-Style Relighting: Inspiration, Idea, and Goals

I always wanted to work on a Bioshock-style scene, I am a huge fan of the Bioshock franchise and System Shock. I love games that use visual narration to communicate the story and intention to the player. Creating a sort of a huge theatrical world where every aspect of a scene is telling the player a story about what happened is a huge artistic challenge; it involves level building, lighting, mood, animation/NPC acting, scenery – everything needs to be perfect to convey the message. The best example is one of the intro scenes of Bioshock 1 in Rapture City: There is a Mom pushing a stroller with some weird sounds, you can only see the shadow and “guess” what is currently happening. It’s simply scary, and I am thinking at this moment: “What is this crazy place? Where am I? This place is making me feel so insecure, like being inside an asylum with all the dangerous patients free inside…”

I decided to work on this Bioshock project one Sunday when I started to think about what I was going to do with a Cyberpunk Interior kitbash scene. When I visited the scene, I felt it had good potential for creating a Bioshock/Rapture mood. I started to work Monday morning until Tuesday night, around 2 working days. My goal was to transform the level with lighting and make it look close to a new BioShock game, back in Rapture, and to see what I was able to create in a short period of time, 2-3 days maximum, with lighting, decals and some extra VFX without changing the geometry.

I can probably talk for hours about the Bioshock series. When the game was released, I was in my last year of school, moving to high school. It was a weird first gaming experience; I played for a few hours and I didn’t touch the game for mostly a year. Then, I tried the game again and simply finished it in one very long day. I couldn't believe how I could set aside such an awesome game.

Bioshock 1 (and the other games) are like theatre stages, each part of the level is built with the “main actor/main stage” or events in mind that are playing the role of landmarks. In the case of my scene, I didn’t have any main actors so I treated the scene as if I could put an actor on the chair in front of the computer or in the bath. But in the current scenario, the only elements "alive" are the caustics. The starting idea was to draw the player's attention to the windows, then expose them to Rapture City (represented by an image, a cheap way). I used some concepts from the game and works by other talented artists as guidelines. I wanted to stay in a blue-greenish mood with yellow as the main colour to draw attention. It is about playing with complementary colours, but the simplest solution works the best most of the time.

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Working with a Kitbash Scene

I decided to buy this kitbash scene because the models and albedo looked good enough to be able to get something nice quality-wise. We can always get some "surprises" when buying a scene because without samples, it is hard to know if the scene was created with professional quality in mind. Most of the time, the quality is below expectation and the presentation simply shows the best angle. I bought so many bad scenes that now I take time to investigate other buyers' reviews to understand if it’s a good deal or not. Kitbash sets are good – not perfect but can work as a nice base (for real-time) after tweaking to get great results.

Scene and Lighting Setup

I worked in different phases. At first, I studied the scene and materials to know what base I was working with. I decided to rework and balance all the materials to fit my target render, tweaking normal maps, roughness, translucent shaders, etc.

Then, with the base that was good to go, I created a basic setup with iterations:

  • Set the directional light and its angle.
  • Set the skylight to get minimal brightness in the scene and expose normal map detail with a cubemap.
  • Set the primary light sources that include spot lights, rect lights and point lights. They are based on real-life light sources, coming from objects or windows.
  • Set secondary light sources, mainly coming from fake light bounces to enhance the geometry and avoid fully black areas; all the assets should stay visible.
  • Set emissive materials to add to the lighting of the scene; in my case, it was neon lights.
  • Set volumetric fog from the directional light and skylight.
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  • Add some fog lights around the scene.

Caustic Effect

I created the caustic effect by putting some dynamic spot lights with a light function material. There is shadow occlusion on the light so the render is not perfect. I wanted the lights to create the caustics on the walls/bed/bath, with some consistency sacrifice: the caustics are leaking in some areas that are supposed to be shadowed.

Colour Palette

The warm tones (Yellow/Orange/Red) are drawing the player's attention to the main elements. The cold tones (Blue/Green) create a contrast with the warm colours. The cold tones and the blue colour in particular are creating the feeling of an underwater building. The idea was to have the player starting in a dark-warm corridor and use the strange blue light coming from windows to lead them to the stairs. After the stairs, the player has two choices, either to go to the end of the corridor where the neon light is flickering or to take the left door that gives access to the main room.

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I did not have to do any post-processing in this scene compared to my usual works. I used the vignetting and some slight contrast boost and that’s it!


The main challenge in this project was to create the feeling that this scene could be from a Bioshock game by mainly using mainly the lighting, the underwater effect with caustics, and the warm/cold contrast. Setting up a moody scene but trying to keep it as realistic as possible isn’t an easy task, you are always on the borderline and can slip into something unrealistic – it’s a global balance of everything. I don’t think there is a special trick for mimicking the Bioshock atmosphere, it’s a full package. Bioshock Infinite is a perfect example that shows Bioshock isn’t only Rapture and underwater locations. I personally think that the creation of Bioshock is approached more theatrically rather than traditionally, it’s not based on workflows for movies or gameplay-based titles, but on how to tell a story through different graphic media (and audio!).

Thanks for reading.

Quentin Papleux, Senior Lighting Artist, Level & Tech Artist

Interview conducted by Arti Sergeev

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