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Lighting, Mood & Composition in Environments

Viktoria Didenko shared what she’s learned about mood, composition, and lighting during the production of three post-apocalyptic scenes. Previously, she did a breakdown of one of the scenes, The Talking Tree – read it here!

I am an environment artist from Ukraine, currently studying at Gnomon. I love making realistic immersive environments. What I would like to contribute to in the industry is immersive stories, meaningful surrealistic environments and more connection between the viewer and 3D art. My workflow lies in concepting, blocking out, lighting and then building the whole environment. 

The games I like are Metro 2033, Half-Life, SOMA, Darkwood, Inside, Hellblade, and Bioshock. I get my artistic inspiration from Tarkovsky’s movies, Strugatsky brothers’ novels and anything that has enough depth, surrealism, and craziness. 

My most favorite genre of environmental storytelling is post-apocalyptic. I am sure it is not new that visuals of abandonment and decay interest many artists and viewers. You can find a lot of such artworks on the internet, see it in movies and games. And that is the reason why I decided to push my scenes further than just presenting destroyed places. 

I came to this decision after I read the novel Metro 2033 by Dmitry Glukhovskiy and played the games based on it. I was impressed by how the book depicted what was left of citizens of Moscow after the catastrophe. People behaved differently because of the conditions they ended up in. One of the stations had no defense against the outside world and people were at risk of getting attacked by the creatures. It was a dark, poor and almost empty place with the feeling as if everything there is preparing to surrender. Moreover, the station’s inhabitants were irradiated and crippled. This gave me a lot to digest. I decided to make environments that showed the connection between the inhabitants and their surroundings with no dynamic action, but just identifiable routine. Whatever we see, it is always there, as if it is stuck in a never-ending limbo.

The games based on the book are a great example of what I am going for. All the visual they have, starting from stations full of life and hope, and finishing with abandoned tunnels with ghosts and creatures gave me a lot of immersion and made me feel engaged.

I also can not but mention an observation some players made when playing one of the games. They found a doll with its head sticking out from the concrete inside of a barrel. It caused a lot of discussions on the internet. To my mind, it is great that people are spending time thinking and making up their own stories based on what they see. Such little touches, if they are applied right, make game art deeper and meaningful.

I decided to do the same and create environments that people could come back to and investigate. Here, I would like to talk about composition, lighting and what I have learned while making some of my scenes.

Metro: Last Hope

About the Scene

My first environment is Metro: Last Hope based on the novel Metro 2035.

To some extent, it tells us a story about Artyom (the character from a book) and his obsession with the idea to contact somebody beyond the Moscow metro. He would carry a heavy radio-station everywhere and get on the rooftops of the buildings to capture the signal.

I decided to take this topic and exaggerate it by making an environment which would reflect this obsession. 

“Radio is the hope”.

It was important for me to show the character without actually showing him but instead by using props and location. The main idea was to show how important the radio is to its owner. I had to figure out how to present it in a way in which it reads like something almost magical. I assumed that the stalker would want it to run all the time and attached all the cables with electricity to feed it.

The First Challenge

When I worked on the scene, I started having some troubles with composition. Since it was my first environment, I could not understand how to layout it to get the right silhouette and tell the story. 

When I look back at this piece, I can tell that I had the most simple environment possible. It was directional and clear (I mean, it is just a corridor with one source of light). My biggest problem was that I tried cutting this environment into small scenes, each of them with important props and their little stories. Then I understood that I needed to concentrate my attention only on the radio and what lies around it.

As you can see, it is hard to tell what is important here. Then, I figured out that the scene should come in layers. Particularly in this scene, I had to show each “layer” as if it was part of a one-sentenced story:

  • The main character kept looking for a signal for a very long time (the suitcase with books and papers):
  • He spent most of his time with this radio (the couch, collectibles, and food gathered in an abandoned bathtub, the writing “Radio is hope”, photos, boards):
  • He gave it everything he had in a hope to hear at least one single word (wires feeding the radio, the only source of light which the character decided to give to this hero-prop, and V-shaped composition of the subway-cars):

Importance of Lighting

For some reason, I thought that I should use a crazy amount of lights to make my scene lit and visible everywhere so that the player had no problem navigating it. However, this would go against the concept of realism, the scene would look very flat and not atmospheric at all. Therefore, I decided to look at more references, checked the photos of abandoned bunkers and factories and studies how the light gets inside the buildings.

For the lighting reference, I also looked at Metro 2033, Resident Evil 7, The Last Of Us, and SOMA. All the named games have something in common – claustrophobic lighting and atmosphere of fear and tension. To my mind, when I see such lighting in Metro 2033 while I am running through a tunnel, it feels unsafe. In RE7, such lighting either points at something or highlights an impression of craziness. In SOMA, most of the environments are dark and cold, and a single beam of light can define the focal point – it works best for the horror genre. 

A little suggestion: If you need more reference (and not only photos), I really recommend a Youtube channel “Other places”. where you can find some footage of the game environments and take a closer look at the details. 

I came to the conclusion that such contrasting lighting is the best option. It is perfect for highlighting things the viewer will see first. Also, it is great for hiding some parts that can be found only by the curious ones.

Darkwood: The Talking Tree

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In 2017, a 2D top-down survival horror game called Darkwood came out. It appeared to be a completely unique experience, and I still come back to this game from time to time. Even though I finished it about 10 times now, I still get this feeling as if I missed or misunderstood something.

The world, story, and immersion of Darkwood impressed me so much that I decided to make recreate one of its scenes. Mostly, I wanted to make it for myself, so I could open it, walk around and just embrace the atmosphere. Also, I thought that in such a way I could convince more people to play Darkwood, too. 

The scene that interested me the most was an abandoned village with the Talking Tree which became enormous because of the villagers it trapped inside the roots or in the swamps around it. The scenes that showed those people and a terrifying soundtrack made me want to recreate it in 3D. I wanted to step into this swamp and walk up to the Talking Tree, see the weird flora of this strange world and feel the abandonment. 

Idea Development

I started by asking myself a question: “What do I want to see?” and then gathered some screenshots of the scene that interested me the most. I decided to show a foggy swampy place, flies, dirty water, abnormal woods, and unpassable roots. Since it was an unusual place and it had to be modular, I needed to refine its pattern and shape.

Next, I questioned myself: “What does this game refer to?” I found out that Darkwood game developers mentioned Darksouls, Fallout, David Lynch, Strugatsky Brothers and Stanislav Lem. When I was reading Roadside Picnic novel written by Strugatsky, I got captivated. It was telling a story about Zona, a place each visitor has to respect and be careful about while traveling on its territory otherwise you would be in danger. The nature of that place felt unique and terrifying and this was exactly what I wanted.

As a visual reference, I would like to mention concept art for the project Zona by Alex Andreev and such movies as “Solaris”, “Zerkalo” and “Stalker” by Andrei Tarkovsky.

I noticed how the environments and the characters in Tarkovsky’s movies have their own color palettes. A new character or a prop which does not belong to the original composition contrasts with the surroundings.

Music also plays a huge role in creating the right mood. The movies I mentioned reminded me of Thomas Koner’s soundtracks. They mostly consist of sounds gathered in some locations and ambient noise. I feel like the soundtracks by Thomas Koner embody a feeling of the past and serenity and this was exactly what I needed. It is worth to mention Artur Kordas, one of the developers of Darkwood, who made music for the game. Such soundtracks like The Last Hideout, Road to Home and Piotrek helped me a lot to develop the idea of the scene.

Inspired by movies and music, I made a few reference boards for lighting and blockout:

What I wanted to see was the main character in front of the last obstacle that stands between him and the exit from the poisoned woods. He witnesses the ruins of the village and what people have turned into, a gigantic cancerous tumor. The Talking Tree is a wound shared by everybody in the village.

Ides Refinement

A peculiar coincidence happened to me at the end of March of 2019. I went to GDC in San Francisco and by luck, I met Jakub Kuc, one of the developers of Darkwood and just a very nice guy. I had a very productive talk with him about Darkwood and where it takes its inspiration from. Jakub also was very kind to give me an art-book of their game, which gave me a huge push in future progress in this work. I decided to develop my own ideas based off of what I saw in the book.


The book provided by Jacub Kuc opened my eyes and showed what exactly the developers were looking for. I drew a few variations of roots, trees, people inside of the Talking Tree, and mushrooms.

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Transition to 3D

Since I had two solid props, the truck and the Talking Tree, I had to somehow separate them in order not to blow up the whole scene and just expose everything at once. The decision was to use fog cards in order to divide the scene into three stages. Here’s the main Composition:

And three stages:

  • A strange fallen tree with mushrooms
  • The broken truck with one of the villagers
  • The Talking Tree

Before that, I had everything exposed and there were no resting places. The silhouettes of each layer of the composition were lost in one another and it was hard to decide what to look at first. 

Here’s an example of bad lighting and composition.

My final idea was to give information to the viewers piece by piece. First, they see the whole picture which introduces them to the location, decay, and the broken vehicle. The Talking Tree is only a silhouette. The first shot answers the question ”Where?” I wanted the viewers to get a sense of confusion and a lack of clear air as if there is no way back, but the place they got to is probably no better than what was left behind. After seeing the fallen tree with pulsating mushrooms in it, they might think that this place is infected. The shot with a deformed villager in the truck will probably trigger the question “What happened here?”. And only then the viewers get a chance to reach to the source of all this madness, the Talking Tree. Then comes the question “Why?” (to get the answer, go check out the game!)

Main Props 

  • The Talking Tree

This hero prop represents the disease of the environment. In the picture below you can see how I assembled it.

  • Mushrooms

Alongside with the Tree, the whole scene has red mushrooms which also have a big part in the game. They have specific sound and movements and are very memorable.

I made a heightmap in Substance Designer and used it as a displacement map on a sphere in ZBrush. Then, I baked it on the low-poly mesh in Painter.  

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  • Roots

The roots are mostly just one mesh blocked out in Maya and sculpted in ZBrush. I baked and textured it in Substance Painter. I will be speaking about the base mesh, sculpting process and UVs below, in the part about the background trees.

While refining the shape language of the villagers and the roots, I looked at Zdislav Beksinski’s artwork.

To make the roots longer I used the spline blueprint:

  • Trees and Vegetation

At first I was thinking of making the whole forest full of trees and other foliage but, in fact, I didn’t need that much, so the vegetation got cut to just a few assets. Since it was my first time doing any vegetation at all, I tried both ways: making things myself and using SpeedTree.

I made a rough tree in Maya using cylinders and then took it to ZBrush. After ZBrush, to save the polygroups, I could divide them into meshes in Maya. This helps to get good UVs fast. Here’s a little breakdown:

This is the result you get in about 15 minutes of such a workflow. Clean UVs and shapes.

This tree is also economical because I painted the masks for it in Substance Painter and then tiled textures I already had in the scene.

Here are the materials I made for the trees in the background:

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  • Truck

In Darkwood, you can find a lot of abandoned trucks which create an impression as if people were trying to evacuate as fast as they could but something either broke their vehicles or made them lose control.

As a reference for the truck, I chose ZIL 130. You can find those almost in any village in some of the Post Soviet Union countries, usually abandoned and covered with moss and dirt.

The truck in my scene was modeled from scratch and then ‘broken’ in ZBrush. I needed it to feel like somebody was driving it in a rush, then hit something and lost control. Here, I used the same workflow as for the trees.

A Zemlya Molchala

After making Darkwood: The Talking Tree and getting acquainted with Roadside Picnic, I caught myself asking a question: ”What else is there?” The universe of Roadside Picnic novel has so much depth and mystery, that I decided to tell another story inspired by it.

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The novel described a place where people who got stuck in a time loop. There were strange spider webs, spontaneous heat or cold waves that could strike any passer-by, a terrifying disease that could liquefy bones, and more. I decided to create a story about the creatures of this place. 

Idea Development

  • Mood

In May 2019, the HBO show Chernobyl came out and I was shocked by it. After watching the show, I felt like I wanted to talk about it more, however, words were not enough. I understood that I wanted this emotional bubble to expand and become an environment. The feelings I wanted to get were death, limbo, and serenity.

  • Story

I decided to make a scene about people who lived in Zona, then changed and obtained the ability to reborn. Each time they died, their bodies went through stages of decomposition and development up to the point when they got out from a so-called uterus again. 

These creatures are advanced, although completely wild, and have magnetic fields around them. Because of that they can control metal and assemble different constructions. They are stuck in a loop which is growing. These creatures are useless, and nobody understands why they are here. And still, they continue moving on. The only human thing left in them is the sense of direction and stubbornness which they endlessly follow. They fall down, die, and get reborn to stand up and start walking again. It kind of reminds of the mistakes real people make when experimenting.

  •  Music

I decided to stick to the music of Artur Kordas and Thomas Koner. The most inspiring for this artwork soundtrack was Artur Kordas’ Piotrek. It gave me a sense of hopelessness and void, and at the same time, it felt like I was listening to a mute story of a lost child.

  • Reference

As usual, I needed reference boards for mood, atmosphere, seashores, ships, and creatures. Even though originally Roadside Picnic does not take place in the Soviet Union, I decided to connect this scene with familiar to me places. For inspiration, I also looked at art by Zdzislaw Beksinski, Simon Stalenhag, and Paul Nesh.

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  • Composition

I wanted this scene to be rather empty for the viewer to see the focal point clearly. In terms of layers, I wanted the first one to set the direction. At the same moment, I wanted it to feel smaller in comparison with the layers beyond it. Its purpose is to direct the eye towards the ship without any obstacle.

The second layer is meant to show death and decomposition alongside rebirth. My goal was to create a connection between these rusty broken ships and the standing one. 

The creatures are almost unnoticeable in the scene. I wanted them to feel miserable, even though they could control such constructions as ships. 


This scene is using just one directional light and it is dynamic. With static lighting, I was getting a weird issue with shadows that were getting black and hiding a lot of details. 

For the god rays, I used meshes and posed them properly, plus exponential height fog. 

Props and Materials

In terms of materials, I needed:

  • Two metal material variations
  • A few landscape materials
  • Some organic materials
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I baked the masks on some parts of the ships to tile textures through them. The only baked and fully textured prop in this scene is the creature, everything else is tileable.


  • Time Management 

Darkwood: The Talking Tree scene took me about 5 months and Metro: Last Hope took around 9 months. I could have made them way sooner if I knew what I was doing. Compared to that, A Zemlya Molchala took only 5 weeks.

Since I was inexperienced, I continued generating ideas while assembling the scenes in Unreal. This led me to recreate everything again which was the biggest mistake. When there is no fixed idea, it doesn’t matter how fast you create materials and props as your overall workflow will still be slow and uncertain.

Start with an idea and a goal to make something particular, get references and start the scene only after that. Think about it as if you are telling your friend a story. What will happen if you tell him a story with some details missing? Your friend will get confused and you will feel awkward. Same here!

  • Meaning

A game environment should be more than just a stage for some actions unless it is meant to be so. A nicely done environment can warn, make the player uncomfortable, pass a message, show a way, be a place of rest or a threshold. It is also a character and it needs a story no matter what size it is. Think of how you feel about it and what you want to share with others entering this place.

“Man has gone out to explore other worlds and other civilizations without having explored his own labyrinth of dark passaged and secret chambers, and without finding what lies behind doorways that he himself has sealed.”

 Stanislav Lem, “Solaris”

Viktoriia Didenko, 3D Environment Artist

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev


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