Lighting Mechanics in Video Games, Tabletop

After re-reading my last post, I started thinking a lot more heavily on the idea of lighting mechanics, and how they both are and can be implemented in games both video and tabletop.

Video Games

I find that lighting is most often used in video games for purely atmospheric and aesthetic purposes. That’s all fine and good, but let’s get down and talk about actual mechanical uses of lighting in games. In these cases, we’re looking for games in which the lighting has direct effects not just on the mood and sensory input of the player, but on the game’s tangible play. What I’m not talking about are games which use light to limit your intake of the game (Google the infamous “duct tape mod” for Doom III to see what players think about that kind of thing). What I am talking about are implementations of lighting which enhance the actual playing of the game.

While Dragon Warrior was already discussed as having a nicely-implemented lighting system, it doesn’t fit my criteria as defined above: DW’s lighting limits your perception, and doesn’t actually enhance the mechanics. I am hard-pressed to think of a single video RPG that I’ve ever seen to make use of lighting mechanically, in fact.

The games in the Silent Hill series have always been known for their use of lighting as a technique of instilling desperate fear into the player. Just recently I completed Silent Hill: Homecoming (a title I thoroughly enjoyed), in which remember some distinct moments involving my character trying to avoid those knife-wielding maniacal nurses. While all of the game’s enemies were in some way more drawn towards you when your flashlight was on, the nurses in particular had a special relationship with the light: as long as you left it off and trod carefully, you could actually walk right past them without them twitching a muscle. There were several moments in the game which saw my hands shaking and sweating as I tried to carefully guide Alex through near-pitch-dark rooms and hallways full of these creatures, trying not to make any noise or otherwise disturb them from their doll-like poses.

Tonight, I’ll be starting up an initial play-through of the brand-spankin’ new XBox 360 game, Alan Wake – a survival-thriller-esque game released to some pretty raving reviews. My understanding from a quick bit of teasing “pre-game” play last night is that you will make frequent (and frequently desperate) use of flashlights, lanterns, streetlights, and truck-mounted spotlights to assist you in your fight against whatever Dark Menace is out there, if not outright destroy it entirely in some cases. That tiny ten-minute play teaser I allowed myself showed me that this was well-implemented, and I look forward to seeing it subtly unfold as I dive deeper into this title.

My fear, however, is that it will end up being only half-heartedly realized in Alan Wake‘s end game, much like it was in another title I’ve enjoyed several times through, called The Suffering. At the beginning of that disturbingly gruesome horror-carnage romp, an NPC runs up to you in a panic and exclaims that he thinks he’s safe here in the light, as the monsters running around seem to be afraid of it. Of course, he is then immediately decapitated by one of said monsters descending from above, but that very line of unsettling dialog could have been more effectively used to then lead into the further mechanical continuation of the foreboding it seemed to be used to established. From that moment during my first play-through, I expected more emphasis on the strategic use of lighting to come.

Unfortunately, the only real use of light mechanics after that point were a flashlight which was mostly useless and an occasional spotlight used in a sort of “tower defense” strategy to get pass a couple of moments in the game. Otherwise lighting in the game was primarily used in an atmospheric manner, effectively giving it a creepy feeling but otherwise mechanically ineffectual.

Stepping out of the survival horror genre, I have to give praise to one of my favorite games of all time, Thief: Deadly Shadows. This gem of a game uses a “light gem” (see what I did there?) to give you an assessment at all times on how well-concealed your characters is, both visibly and audibly. As the name implies, your protagonist is a master sneak, and the game portrays this beautifully; I’ve yet found a more perfectly-designed stealth system in a video game since. Light sources can give you away, so you will naturally seek to eliminate them, which the game lets you do by pinching out candles and using “water arrows” to extinguish torches and braziers. Not all such situational lighting can be made dark, however, so frequently you will be tested on skill of personal stealth alone.

Another game with a stealth system of near-equal perfection is The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay. While I’m not all that fond of stealth in first-person-shooters, Butcher Bay really raises the bar on that genre, and its use of panoramic perspective-shifting while sneaking makes the presentation more enjoyable for me. In addition to a stealth system very similar in concept to that within Deadly Shadows, Butcher Bay adds in a nicely complementing vision mechanic: about a fifth of the way through the game, Riddick gets his famous “eyeshine” ability, after which you can then switch to an alternate-vision mode, allowing better vision while in the dark. This can then be utilized to assist with some wicked stealth kills, but watch out: get a flashlight in the eyes while your eyeshine is on, and you’re temporarily blinded.

Tabletop Games

I am sadly unable to think of many lighting-based mechanical concepts within tabletop games, aside from the typical “subtract X from your rolls while in varying degrees of darkness” modifiers. In my most recent Monday-night game session, I tried to implement such a mechanic during an encounter in a vast colonnaded underground chamber, similar to that from the Fellowship of the Rings movie. In this encounter I planned to throw waves of these fast-moving twisted darkling creatures at them, which were afraid of concentrated light. If exposed to it directly, it could stun, weaken, and even hurt them physically. The party had two flashlight-like tools which I was expecting them to wield as weapons, but instead of taking the bait and playing for the sake of adventure, I felt that they chose to meta-game the situation and second-guess my monster-stats. Their final decision: we’re just gonna sit here and let them throw themselves at us, because we bet you are just going to throw an infinite number of them our way. Exciting, right? Game flow fail.

So that didn’t work. Aside from that, nothing springs to mind.

5 thoughts on “Lighting Mechanics in Video Games, Tabletop

  1. Can you give examples of what you imagine would be a good use of lighting as part of game mechanics? You give a lot of examples where it falls short or isn’t part of it at all, and seem to have a notion of what can be done, so please, expound!

  2. Syhd,

    I don’t follow your assessment. I can’t think of examples more accurate than these. Homecoming used light as a player-activated tool for avoidance. The other Silent Hill games primarily used it as a risk vs reward system, wherein you use it to get your bearings and see your map while spawning and drawing more enemies to your location. Alan Wake uses it as an actual weapon and defense mechanism against the game’s core enemies. Thief uses it both as an object of avoidance, a tracking meter, and an environmental mechanic that can be actively disabled to increase your chances of success. Riddick again uses it both character empowerment and risk vs reward.

    I don’t know what YOU are looking for, but these examples suit me just fine. =)

  3. Archmage:

    Deadly Shadows was the only one of the series I’ve played, as it was the only one to offer third person perspective. FPS games are difficult for me to enjoy for extended play.

  4. Pingback: Hey Man, well this is Babylon » Why Does Video Game Stealth Always = Crouching?

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