Game news It is one of the most beautiful games of the year and we didn’t even expect it to be at this level… But how did they do it?
We didn’t necessarily expect it and yet, this game put a graphic slap in the face of millions of players. But how ?
If you have played Alan Wake II, even if only for a few hours, you must have noticed how the game has superb aesthetics and particularly well-mastered facial animations. I think in particular of this sequence at the start of the game, during which the saga heroine goes to the local restaurant to question the Bookers, a witness couple in the case we are in charge of. Beyond the excellent vocal performance, the facial expressions and each movement of the facial features grant a crazy authenticity to these simple NPCs. Un attention to detail which makes the experience incredibly immersive in just a handful of minutes, if you also like its particularly dark and Stephen King-esque atmosphere. “Alan Wake 2 will be, by far, the most beautiful Remedy game ever made.”, director Sam Lake already predicted before the release of his new baby in 2021. A successful bet. The team has been seriously working on the animation of its games for a while now; Already in 2011, the media claimed that the studio was developing facial animation technology aiming to surpass LA Noire – the benchmark of the time – and mapping the sixty-four facial expressions that serve as editable models for the entire spectrum of emotions human. Since then, progress must have been felt.
And beyond the characters, it’s a whole environment that we want to capture in photos every ten steps. How can Alan Wake 2 be one (or even “the”) of the most beautiful games of this year 2023? This feat can probably be summed up in a short word: Northlight, name given to the in-house technology used by Remedy to develop its jewel, which has already made a strong impression on Quantum Break and Control, but has been entitled to great advances to satisfy all the ambitions of Alan Wake 2. Note that for its previous productions Max Payne and Alan Wake, the studio used a completely different engine.
Dense and stunning environments
In a blog post, the studio has very kindly detailed the many features it has deployed with the Northlight engine. “Northlight adopted an entirely new data-driven game object model during the development of Alan Wake 2. The new model based on the Entity Component System (ECS) enables efficient memory storage and makes execution efficient and safe parallel”, first explains the team, simply meaning that thanks to the ECS, which is defined as an architectural model specifically created for the development of games and the formation of a dynamic virtual world, their engine has the capacity to take a large number of variables, and therefore to create bigger worlds, “more dynamic and more complete” while maintaining overall stability. Enough to offer completely stunning environments, such as the extremely rich forests explored in the game. It is also thanks to the ECS that the developers have developed the famous visual storyboard of the heroine Saga, which serves to connect the various evidence of the investigation at any time during the adventure.
The ECS framework also made it onto our gameplay programmers’ “favorite technologies” list, as it made it possible to implement the Case Board – Saga’s visual storyboard for evidence collection. ECS enabled rapid iteration because adding new systems or modifying existing systems or game objects was easy, and the performance gains were evident when saving and loading the Case Board.
Remedy also welcomes its new rendering pipeline (operations carried out by a graphics card necessary to render a batch of data) driven by the GPU which offers more geometry in the world while trying to maintain performance. Supporting images, between what the player sees and what is actually introduced into the rendering engine:
Also the team explains having profoundly reimagined the control of the characters by developing a new command on the voxels, which allows more fluid and natural navigation: “Our marketers would say that the characters are more responsive and realistic than ever; our internal dev notes describe it as “characters don’t bump into or get stuck on objects in tight spaces””. Aside from that, NPCs also benefit from distance-based movement matching.
A point of honor about the weather
Outdoor environments also benefit from a new variable-density wind system that realistically affects physics, particles and tissue. A new diffusion tool allows the mass creation of vegetation and environments on a large scale, so as to create very rich zones. Each plant is articulated by strands, called in the jargon “bones”, along which the teams apply their own shader code (roughly speaking, programs which apply effects to geometry and pixels and are managed by the GPU). “Ttechnically, artists can use it to animate anything they want: foliage, objects floating on water, electrical cables oscillating in the wind, etc.”, it is explained. Remedy claims that “nearly 300,000 Cauldron Lake bones are processed in each frame.”
Alan Wake 2 is entitled to special technology to bring realistic fog to life, which uses a system soberly called MBOIT (Moment-Based Order-Independent Transparency) which ensures that the large cloud harmonizes perfectly with the rest of the decor and benefits from the good transparency effects: “We now draw transparency in three resolutions with MBOIT, allowing fog, transparent geometry and effects to be blended seamlessly.”
Finally with this game, many players sincerely had the feeling that they had a real next-gen experience in their hands and that a level had just been reached. A point that we address in this article. The shading and the play of light are also stunning thanks to ray tracing, a technology which allows the behavior of light to be reproduced in an ultra-realistic way. Remedy also specifies that it is more precise and more robust than in Control. And adding that it also allows animated foliage to have an “incredible” appearance, “now that all geometric (foliage) animations are created and simulated using the skinning technique.”