WHY I LOVE… TORCH GAMES
Guns and weaponry in games are all well and good, but sometimes a trusty light source is the best tool
Immersion. That fabled concept that game developers everywhere strive for. It’s why we have increasingly lifelike graphics, equally as impressive audio technologies, and why we’re so eager to strap pieces of VR kit to our faces and punch about a room like we’ve just been jumped by a Facehugger.
But if there’s one thing that really grabs me by the mind lapels and has me believing the world I’m seeing on-screen is real, it’s a good oldfashioned videogame torch. Yes, a torch. The thought struck me while I was navigating through the dusty corridors of the Racoon City Police Department building of the excellent Resident Evil 2 remake.
The early stages of the game take place in near complete darkness, and even once you have restored the power in certain areas, you’ll have a tough time seeing anything outside of the cone of your flashlight. So your eyes are constantly transfixed on the small portion of the screen you can actually make out, not distracted by the passing scenery. Of course, you’re free to move the light beam around, but this just gets you investigating much more actively. You might be searching a room for the item you need to solve a puzzle, but instead of scanning the scene and catching something out of the corner of your eye; you must search, paying attention to hidey-holes and investigating dark corners nervously.
Modern gaming torches have the technology needed to be totally realistic objects, and often you’ll actually need to shine your torch away from the object you want to focus on, to cut down on glare – if you’re trying to read something in the game world for instance. But even when things are simpler, when HD shadows aren’t bouncing off geometry in a realistic manner, a good torch can still anchor you in the virtual world.
They’re an excellent 3D reticle. While your standard crosshair can tell you in which direction you’re pointing on a 2D plane (up, down, left, right), it can’t communicate just how much distance might be between you and your target. A torch’s beam of light, on the other hand, can swell or shrink depending on how far away the surface is, giving the player more tactile information about the size and the scope of the world around them.
2010’s Alan Wake took things further, turning your trusty flashlight into an actual weapon. Aiming your torch beam towards one of the game’s ‘Taken’ enemies will slowly drain their shadowy shield, but you can boost the beam’s power with a press of a button. This burns away their protective shroud faster, but it also depletes your torch’s ‘ammo’ – lithium batteries so central to the gameplay that Microsoft couldn’t resist wangling a product-placing tie-in with power cell brand Energizer. When you’re not dazzling ghostly bad guys, Alan’s torch reverts back to being a trusty 3D reticle, and the way the game’s camera swings around lackadaisically roots you in the world. That movement is also important; as Alan’s handheld light flits about a few frames behind the camera, it accurately replicates the relationship between your eyes and moving a torch in real life. When you spot something shifting in the darkness, you shine a light at it.
Halo: Combat Evolved is the first game in which I remember being obsessed with such a light source. Not only did having it on make the game look a touch nicer – your beam bouncing pleasingly off textures – there were gameplay advantages, and you could stun a swarm of Flood heading your way by dazzling them. But as the torch was fixed to Master Chief’s helmet, it was static. It went where you looked, with no delay between the two – it served its function of allowing you to see in dark corridors, but didn’t really add to the game’s immersion.
Combat Evolved ’s space opera gameplay didn’t need any extras get you hooked in, but the opposite is true of last year’s Shadow Of The Tomb Raider. That game is dark in places, and while Lara does have a torch, the game decides for you when it needs to be turned on, and it doesn’t always get it right, and fumbling through the options menu for a non-existent torch toggle isn’t the most immersive of moves. So while games benefit from the cleverly crafted use of portable illumination, if done poorly, it can really take you out of the world.
Now where did I put that pack of spare batteries?
“Your eyes are constantly transfixed on the small portion of the screen you can actually make out”
ABOVE Alan Wake‘s flashlight is arguably more powerful than his gun.
Above With only a torch for a light source, the darker areas of the RPD headquarters can be terrifying.