Finding light in the postapocalyptic New York of The Division

This article is part of a collaboration with iQ by Intel.

Empedocles thought that light originated within us. Aphrodite lit a fire in our eyes which shot out in beams and communed with the sun. Scientifically this makes no sense but it does convey something of the talismanic properties of light, how it affects our moods, makes us look either handsome or hideous, stretches our bodies into elongated shadow shapes.

For Tom Clancy’s The Division, the lighting artists at Massive Entertainment want to capture all the nuance and shiftiness of light. They want the game’s light to be so realistic that it implies things, the way it can in real life. The game is an open-ended shooter set in a New York City that looks almost better than the real thing: It has a sun which rises in the morning and sets at night, beaming through a complex weather system of fog, snow, slush, rain, and clear skies. There are characters with their own agendas holed up in demolished hotels and apartments. Their activities are based on the time of day and weather conditions, so the brightness you see on the broadside of buildings is always changing, whether it’s fire, candlelight, electricity, or just a light bulb shining through the windows.

This is no small achievement. Games to date have struggled to accurately represent natural lighting. Old games like Sonic the Hedgehog could skate by, painting the sky blue and stippling some gleaming ripples on the water, but today’s modern 3D games use light sources to project bright colors on geometric shapes, the same way the shadows fall from, say, a houseplant onto the moving shape of a pet. The Snowdrop Engine, which is the new programming tool used to develop The Division, does lighting maybe better than it has ever been done inside a game. One impressive clip shows a fluorescent fixture drop from the ceiling and dangle by one end, throwing a flickering light around the room.

This is no small achievement. 

Damien Tournaire, the Senior Lighting Artist at Massive, headed up the massive amount of research that went into getting the light just right, including a trip to New York at Christmastime. “I spent night and day observing the lighting there; the scattering of the sky, types of clouds, how the light affects the whole environment, its consequence on the world, the people. We’ve taken thousands of pictures,” he writes, detailing his team’s extensive effort to recreate the position of the sun in the sky in early winter, “the long shadows, the low angle of the sun.” The way he describes it you can almost see it.

Two words that kept coming up in our correspondence were immersion and realism—buzzwords that you hear so often aboard the videogame hype train that they’ve lost most meaning. After all, what big, expensive, next-gen game doesn’t pride itself on making it feel like you’re inside a photograph? But judging from the context he used them in, the point is really to capture the austerity of nature on-screen, and then to heighten the sheen at the right moments so it seems that you’re suffering a war-ravaged (but picturesque) dream.

“We want to have this golden sun color in the sky, while keeping a cold and freezing atmosphere of early winter. It will go from warm to cold colors, creating a contrast between the society we had and what the world is like now, in crisis,” he tells me.  

Even at nighttime, the scant light is directed to make you hopeful for the hard road ahead. Look at the vista of New York City and see a light far away in a window, he says. It will give you a feeling that there is still something for you there, somewhere to go, someone to help. The lighting in The Division proves again that all the cutting-edge technology in the world doesn’t mean much if it’s not married to a greater vision.