I lost a year's work when Microsoft deleted my documents folder on their October update I wish this guy luck Adobe are more interested in forcing professionals to use their cloud than improving their products these days.
Balance changes please!
Another incredibly useful breakdown, thanks Simon!
Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is arguably one of the most visually stunning games. it brings amazing detailed environments to life. The game has amazing atmosphere with wonderful landscapes, incredible lighting and amazing visual effects. A couple of month ago we wanted to arrange an interview with The Chinese Room and talk about the beautiful effects the studio created in this game, however due to time restrictions we were not able to do it. Thankfully, VFX artist James Watt published a nice blogpost, detailing all the peculiarities of effects creation in this game. Here are some of the most interesting parts.
When I started working at The Chinese Room, the effects on Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture were always going to be a challenge. There was very little remit in how the light effects in the game would look but I was ready for an exploration into the design and development of the effects for the game.
The initial effects remit was to create a flying orb of light that would move around the world with AI, create objects that you can interact with to trigger the characters audio, to create all ambient effects in the world to add movement and life to the world, as well as setting up physics objects and all of the water in the game.
Basically anything that moved in the game was an effects task.
Throughout the course of development, the design of the effects evolved and the remit expanded to include animating all of the character scenes in the game. If I had known that I was going to need to animate 80 scenes at the start of development, I would have been even more apprehensive than I was.
Initially, I had to learn Cryengine. Previously, I worked at a few games companies that built their own engines, which is a completely different process than using off-the-shelf tools. I liked the idea of using an off-the-shelf engine since I would be able to focus straight away on the design of the effects rather than the design of the tools to make effects.
I initially realised that I would need to use a lot more of the engine than just the effects system itself. I started to explore the particle effect system; flow graphs (a node based programming system); track view (which allows in-engine animation to be setup); prefabs (which are packaged sets of objects with flowgraphs to control their behaviour); the lens flare system; water shaders and volumes; physics for certain objects as well as all of the general tools for laying out a level.
This gave me a good grounding in the tech that I would need to use to develop all of the effects for the game.
Light Effects Rules
I initially realised that I needed to create a few rules for what the effects could be but more importantly what I needed to avoid.
It would be very easy to create effects that feel like magic, like a willow-the-wisp from a Disney cartoon. It would also be easy to create some magic energy effects like Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings. Also, later in the project, it could have been easy to make the character visualisations seem like ghosts or poltergeists instead of something more ambigious. I needed to avoid all of these areas and find something newer.
I wanted to work within the constraints of the effects system allowing interesting effects to be made without having to get a programmer to add new features. The time needed to add new features would cut down on my development time, use up one of our few programmer’s valuable time and also cause a long period where I would need to debug and test the new additions. Also, if you add new areas to the effects system it becomes increasingly hard for programmers to update the engine to the latest version, without creating bugs. I would try and use the tools provided to create the best work I could.
Due to The Chinese Room being a small team, creating concept art to explore the visualisations for the effects is not really a viable option. Working from concept art could also have meant compromising the effects. Ideas are often created in concept art that would be very hard or impossible in an effects systems, since the tools we use to create effects are quite limited. So, either you develop and code your own particle system to try to mimic the concept art or you move away from concept art designs. I thought it would be better to push the particle system to see what it could do instead.
This may not be the best option for every project but in this case, I thought it was the best way forward.
Creation Of A Visual Style
It takes a long time to create a unique visual style. While learning the game engine and exploring reference material, I started to work on the look and feel of the effects.
I spent a lot of time speaking to Dan Pinchbeck, the Creative Director at The Chinese Room about how the effects should look and feel. There was a lot of discussion about the elements to be used and different phenomena that should be conveyed through the effects. This was a very creative time where I was free to explore the many directions we could take. We looked through reference material and figured out the direction we needed to take everything. This was very useful since I was getting a better idea about what Dan wanted so that we could be on the same page going forward and that we were moving in the right direction.
I wanted to have enough definition between the different types of effects but also give the impression that they are part of the same matter. The effects needed to have their own visual language that could be used in different circumstances and be adaptable. For instance, at some points in the game, the light effects are used for candles, fire, paint and the aurora, as well as many other types of substances. So, having an understanding of the pattern effects, the key elements that were used to create them, the colours, speed, types of shapes all had to be able to match but also represent a wide array of phenomena. This was important for the game to give the impression to the player that they are seeing elements of a single unified presence and to keep the relationship between all the elements they were seeing.
I realised initially that the effects needed to be slow and languid but also energised at some points. I also wanted to focus on creating nice slow arcing curves for the light effects. A lot of time was spent trying to keep the effects as slow as possible but still function as needed for the visualisations of the scenes. There was a balance needed between form and function.
In the end, as I created each set of effects, there was a point where the effect just started to work and make sense. There is an almost instinctual feeling that you have reached the right visualisation. The time taken to reach this point varied immensely depending on the effect but there was always a moment when everything fell into place.
This also happened with the more complex scenes that I animated. A couple of tweaks, a few new elements, reducing the time for an event or changing a texture suddenly allowed these effect to fall into place.
It’s a great read if you want to learn about the creation of visually stunning games with amazing VFX. There’s a lot to consider and a whole bunch of things to do before you reach the necessary results.