The Long Dark Art Analysis

Slowly getting back into the habit of writing everyday, as I got lost chasing Monsters with MHW: Ice Borne and training a new class of students with Fire Emblem. [ By the time you see this post, hopefully those will still be relevant!] Recently I’ve been wanting to get more into game development while staying current on emerging pipelines and techniques. So I aim to start writing more analytical breakdowns of video games to train my artistic eye, as well as expose myself to new techniques and styles. I’m going to attempt to breakdown games that I enjoy playing because I want to develop equally fun and beautiful games!

So, to kick off the series I want to focus my first attempt of breakdowns at The Long Dark, developed by Hinterland Studio. This was my first exposure to the indie scene when I grabbed the game in very early Alpha. [When all it offered was Sandbox mode, floating torches since hands were not yet incorporated, and the rare spawn of a winter-camo skinned rifle at the Hunter’s Cabin. Although as of today all I can find is a single image of the old model.] It’s also the only game that I own two copies of for PC and Console. It is a beautiful and simple game that has managed to entertain me for countless hours from the start.

In order to break things down, we should look at the technical side and analyze the composition of how a game looks, feels, and operates. This would entail examining special effects, materials, and individual assets. These areas would influence the overall visual design and how the game looks and feels.

For every game there are generally a few design goals that influence decisions on how mechanics will function and how those decisions will impact the style and mood of the world. Following the GDC talk given by Raphael, we can ascertain a few of those design goals. [Which is provided below.]

The most obvious design goals are catered to the blend of player and authored story. [If the title didn’t give it away.] These design goals are then supported by the following game mechanics.

  • Simple names and Iconic labels which leave as much possible to the players imagination.
  • No readable text in the world. Keeping the world story vague and impressionistic.
  • A world environment that implys…

“A quite Apocalypse that is thoughtful and beautiful”

Raphael van Lierop Ralph

So how do they go about determining design choices to support these goals? In order to get a best guess we should take a look at the sources that influenced the first early renditions of the game.

The Ultimate Warrior directed by Robert Clouse was one of a handful of influences that lead to the first iteration of The Long Dark. Other literary inspirations came from The World Without Us, The Long Descent, and The Road. These sources lead to an isometric turn based strategy game titled The Last Seed. However this rendition never made it to development. [Which you can read about here, Link.] From this design came the first renditions of Survival Story which had its first prototype built for tablet devices in 2013. From the very beginning you can see the conflict of “Man against Nature” being developed. Which has now become a cornerstone for the game’s survival mechanics.

Art Style

The game is not cel-shaded. There is no “name” for this art style, at least not that we know of. Some have called it “painterly”. We wanted the game to feel like playing a water-colour painting.

Hinterland Studio – Developer, Steam

As seen already the art style is very lax with it’s color palette, through the distinguishable painterly strokes left on the environments and props. The color is very loose and not all that defining while utilizing very broad and painterly brush strokes of color.

This painterly attention is even scene in the clouds, water, and wind particle effects that are scattered throughout the world.

Most games utilize some sort of Physical Based Render (PBR) with their materials and textures. This involves the use of a metal, specular, roughness and glossiness textures. What these maps do in engine is recreate the micro-surface details found on everyday objects, which accurately recreates how light bounces off those surfaces. Which in turn creates some sort of smoothness or shine to those objects. It is what makes wet ground, look wet virtually.

Image provided by Marmoset

While exploring and interacting with objects, nothing gave off a noticeable reflection. Some objects were very distinguishable from their environment, but that was more so due to the silhouette and palette. So it’s a good chance that the artists of The Long Dark are not utilizing common PBR techniques. Instead some metal objects appeared to have their reflections painted into the diffuse texture. Which, if given the case, mean uniquely unwrapped UVs per object.

The absence of these additional maps would make things easier, as well as keeping the art pipeline relatively simple. A single color map and possibly a normal map. There is also a lack of Ambient Occlusion in the game. Which is a calculated fake shadow, super-imposed onto game objects. The pipeline for the game assets seems to just utilize two texture maps at a medium size, which keeps things visually simple.

There is one case, however, in which it appears a glossiness map is used to fake a shine. It is possible that the cave assets and textures are treated differently in order help add to the feel of a wet and damp cave.

As previously discussed, most of the items don’t appear to have any roughness or metal maps when looking at and picking up items. But what about normal maps?

Normal maps are used to fake high definition details onto lower poly models. Which is generally used on characters and detailed props. Although not seen on the props, normal maps could be utilized on the more lively models like the wolf and deer. Possibly to fake various types of fur, cuts, and other elements. However that doesn’t appear to be the case. Even the animals of The Long Dark are pretty simple in design.

When looking at two props in particular, a storage box and crate, the color palette is very similar. Through either identical textures, with shifts to the hue and saturation of the material in engine, or utilizing trim sheets. The difference between them, is the very obvious plank definition. So what if they are utilizing additional normal maps to create more variations with a small amount of textures? Essentially using one diffuse map on two objects, and adding one normal map to create a different look on the second object. [But at that point, why not just make two diffuse maps?]

It may not be the case as I assume most of the textures are 512 pixels to 1024 pixels due to some noticeable Texel density (explained later on) and the simplicity of the textures could allow them more unique sets. But, why not try it out? So I did a quick block out of my own to see if something like that could work. Which just confirmed there are no normal maps used on the props.

Another noticeable technique on the game meshes, is the lack of beveled edges. There are a lot of hard edges on objects which in turn makes for very readable topology in the silhouettes. Allowing for a decent educated guess on how they were modeled in a 3D program.

The game assets stick true to the earlier design goals by keeping the topology low and textures to one roughly one diffuse map.

One aspect that I really enjoy about this game is the open wilderness. Natural elements line the horizon and the man made objects are easily and quickly engulfed by trees, snow, and brush. The natural elements and environmental scenery have a very cool color palette associated with them. While most manufactured objects keep to a much brighter palette in comparison. A remnant of impressionist painting, as pointed out by many others.

When approaching rock formations its possible to tell that the size of the textures are capped. Allowing for an educated guess that all textures are at a 1024 x 1024. The majority of large rock formations consist of a handful of smaller rocks stretched and increased in scale, then mashed together. Because of the various scaling, there are some cases which you can notice the texel density on these objects. Which can be either due to an object being scaled in a way that is much larger than was originally modeled, texture compression, or mipmapping by the engine. [In this case, Unity.]

Another fun feature is that the grass follows the viewpoint of the player, giving the illusion of density. Most grass cards are singles planes that intersect each other to create a look of bushiness. But in this case they are utilizing a single plane that matches the players view, keeping it very clean and simple. Mostly thanks to Unity’s foliage brush. Which is a built in streamlined feature.

There is also the utilization of assets that mark interactive components in the environment. With the classic highlighted cliff sides to denote climbable structures, or fallen trees to move up in elevation.

As for lighting the environment, the games appears to be utilizing real time lighting. With the ability to interact with objects, baked light maps aren’t being utilized along with ambient occlusion. As baked-light maps wouldn’t be practical due to the random generation of objects with in the environments. With the design choice of having a mass “power-outage” in game, the use of real time lighting for fires, torches, and the daytime cycle wouldn’t affect performance. As light sources would be turned on and off and would mainly consist of two active sources at a time.

The in-game “Aurora” effect does appear to enable an emissive map on manufactured objects like computers, tvs, and cars. But it isn’t constant and is utilized mostly in small enclosed interiors. So not much of an impact to performance.

With this singular real-time light, the mood and atmosphere can change easily. When threatening weather conditions approach the color seems to desaturate, creating a sense of impending doom. It appears they are utilizing a brighter setting to influence the tone during calmer times of game play then quickly suck that color away when the weather turns ill by dimming the light source.

Additional light tricks include using a translucent box mesh with a gradient to fake the god rays within closed environments. As well as adding additional point lights to interior environments to either add more bounce light or help set the atmosphere of the room.

The Analysis

The natural environments stick to a cool and neutral color palette. Which is contrasted by the use of brighter man made objects that are scattered throughout. The environments are generated using Unity’s terrain and foliage brushes with hand placed assets scattered around to break things up. The surrounding mountain range, which is evident in all locations, help block the edge of the level and mask their custom Skybox. Which uses a single brush stroke effect, to build the painterly look and feel of the game.

All models are uniquely designed to be simple and low poly. Materials appear to only be utilizing two texture maps for Diffuse and Emissive at roughly 1024 pixels. The design choices utilize small repetitive environmental components to create large scale environments. The artists utilization of light adds more depth to the environment and is used to set tone easily and quickly. The harshness of these environments inadvertently, turns light into a valued resource and a beacon of warmth and safety.

The overall design choice of making a game simple and impressionistic is supported by the simple process and design of the interactive objects and scenery. Allowing for many players to successfully continue to author their own stories within the game.

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