Stay in the Light – Fantasy Horror with Ray-Tracing
Post by KostaAndreadis @ 05:08pm 11/07/19 | Comments
We sit down with Sunside Games, and Stay in the Light’s one-man studio Richard Cowgill to talk about his new fantasy dungeon horror game. And just how real-time ray-tracing, thanks to technology supported by NVIDIA’s new GeForce RTX graphics cards, can change gameplay.
Visual effects and graphics quality are never the hallmark or one thing that identifies a great game. Although they can and often do represent one part of a larger, broader picture. Immediate impressions are often born from visuals and their impact, and this is a sentiment that rings very true when it comes to the horror genre. A style of game where lighting, shadow, and mood often sets the scene.
Stuff that immediately put Stay in the Light, from one-man studio Sunside Games, on our radar. Designed specifically with NVIDIA GeForce RTX graphics cards in mind, and currently playable via Steam Early Access, it leverages cutting edge technology like ray-tracing to great effect.
Being chased through a labyrinthian dungeon holding a mirror and getting to see a large monster staring back at you, in real-time, is chilling in its immediacy. Knowing that if you turn around you might be presented with true horror.
“I've always wanted to do a horror game, so it just seemed like a perfect fit,” Richard Cowgill aka Sunside Games tells me. “Everything you can do with real-time ray-tracing, from deep shadows to lighting is extremely powerful. That has a big advantage just in the development process, it allows me to not be worried about different rendering techniques for different objects in the world. I've got a unified lighting model that works for everything and looks good for everything.”
Ray-tracing is something of a buzz word these days, and synonymous with next-gen real-time graphics. But it’s also a term and technology that has existed for as long as computer generated images have - where the pathway or rays of light are traced around a scene. And then a ray's interaction with objects used to calculate a realistic representation of lighting, reflection, and shadow. Until recently, doing all of this in real-time was considered almost impossible. Or, several years away from becoming a reality.
“I'm a big-time graphics nerd,” Richard admits. “I love per-pixel, accurate shadows that get softer as they get away from their light source. That sort of realism. In my previous development I was doing work with distance field shadows, which are fantastic, but they're inconsistent. It's an approximation as different objects are lit differently, and it causes a lot of development difficulty. Ray-tracing eliminates all of that.”
“Everything you can do with real-time ray-tracing, from deep shadows to lighting is extremely powerful. That has a big advantage just in the development process, it allows me to not be worried about different rendering techniques for different objects in the world."
Last year when NVIDIA introduced its new line of GeForce RTX graphics cards, it did so alongside the reveal of specific Ray Tracing (RT) cores and Tensor (AI) cores that could accelerate the taxing calculations required to switch stuff like reflections and shadows or overall lighting away from approximations and impressive trickery – to the real thing. Ahead of the curve stuff. Quite literally too, as the DirectX and Windows 10 update required for ray-tracing was delayed and not quite ready for release at the same time the first RTX cards made their debut.
This is slowly but surely changing as more titles like Remedy’s Control and Bethesda’s Wolfenstein: Youngblood adopt the technology, and both Sony and Microsoft touting that their respective next-generation home consoles will support ray-tracing. Perhaps the most fascinating proposition, as Stay in the Light demonstrates, is the technology’s eventual integration into smaller, indie projects.
“This is very early technology, and I'm just attempting to take advantage of it as it gets built and developed,” Richard explains. Stay in the Light draws inspiration from classic fist-person dungeon crawlers, fantasy, and mythology. Being hunted by a mysterious and dark presence, finding treasure, solving puzzles, and discovering an ancient world. And of course, living up to the title and staying in the light when danger is near. “There's a lot of classic fantasy concepts there, Greek mythology, more modern versions like Clash of the Titans, Medusa, that sort of thing. The hero in the dungeon against the Minotaur or against a Medusa-type creature, and you can only defeat them using a mirror.”
Elements that can all be felt in the current Stay in the Light build, a blend of classic mythology and horror where something like real-time ray-traced reflections lends itself to gameplay. It’s this aspect of the technology that excites Richard, who has two decades of industry experience working in the 3D graphics field on franchises and titles like Battlefield and Borderlands. Recalling early parts of his career Richard tells me that rendering a single frame using ray-tracing could take up to an entire day. So, it’s not hard to see why this technology presents an exciting future. And present.
“I just want to find ways to incorporate this technology into gameplay,” Richard continues. “Of course, it's going to look beautiful, but we can do even more on the gameplay side. I'm interested in those sorts of fantasy hero concepts, and very tricky puzzles that you can only do with a reflective surface. I want to expand that to beyond just the hand mirror that you're holding right. Other reflective surfaces in the environment that also become part of the puzzle.”
This statement, from a passionate developer, also cites the still relatively early state of Stay in the Light. Where outside of the monster, the mirror, procedural dungeons and exploration, there’s a sense that there’s still a lot more to come. The project, by focusing on RTX-powered rendering technology like ray-tracing has allowed it to progress relatively quick though – with updates dropping at a regular pace. In fact, the game’s progress is a testament to having things like lighting and shadows and reflections handled in this realistic manner being a godsend for smaller studios.
Elements that can all be felt in the current Stay in the Light build, a blend of classic mythology and horror where something like real-time ray-traced reflections lends itself to gameplay.
“It's difficult to figure out how to really take advantage of emerging technologies this rapidly,” Richard adds when talking about larger studios using ray-tracing mostly for visual enhancements. “By making the focus of the project really narrow I think that helped to make it happen even faster. The fact that I didn't have to look at different types of hardware or supporting low end systems, I could just go straight after RTX gamers and do ray-tracing. And that sort of focus definitely helped with getting it off the ground really rapidly.”
Although he uses the word narrow as a way to position the procedural dungeons of Stay in the Light as a far cry from a large open world, this hasn’t had an effect on the ambition and plans to find new ways to incorporate the technology into the stuff that keeps players coming back time and again – gameplay. “Currently light and shadow doesn’t affect the world as much reflections do,” Richard ponders. “One aspect that is currently here is that you can use the light of a torch to attempt to drive the monster away, but that could be done with any sort of dynamic light. What I want to try and do is make it so that if he's in the shadow of the light source, projecting accurately into the world - where he's behind an object or something like that, and light is physically touching him - then he's not affected by it.”
Richard then went on to explain that there’s room to explore the behaviour of light, shadows and reflections in possible co-op puzzles. When talked about in this way it presents a refreshing take on what many still see as a method to make digital worlds look better.
“Stay in the Light could stay very simple and very focused or it could expand out and do things that aren't part of the initial design like adding a co-op mode. Survive this dungeon together, one person trying to use a reflective mirror to hold the monster and keep him from attacking you guys, while the other person solves the puzzle, or collects the loot. That's a level of depth to this sort of game that hasn't been done before, as far as I know,” Richard concludes. “And that's where I would like to go with it.”
Stay in the Light is currently playable via Steam Early Access, with support for high-end NVIDIA GeForce GTX cards and all RTX graphics cards.