Thinking about color

We've known for a long time that we wanted some kind of color grading to happen in the postprocessing for The Witness; recently we started thinking about what that should be. Shannon wanted to try having colored shadows, as painters often do. We considered different ways of doing this; the "right way" to do it would involve keeping more data in offscreen buffers than we currently do, which could be expensive, but is definitely at least a hassle if you're just playing around with ideas. So instead, we decided to play around with the ambient light color: in shadow, the color of the ambient light is going to be a large influence on the perceived color of the surface, whereas outside of shadow, the color of the sun or light source will dominate, so it can be functionally pretty close to having colored shadows.

But we also figured, hey, why not play around with the color of sunlight as well? The idea is that as you walk around in the game, the color of the sun and ambient light will interpolate as you move. We haven't hooked it up that way yet; what you see below is just done by tweaking global variables in the game. Well be doing more experiments in this direction...


  1. The effect in all these images is very subtle, but it does manage to communicate different feels for the areas. Do you think that any post process grading will be necessary on top of this world lighting adjustment, in order to complete a more dramatic look?

  2. Cool, this pretty much answered my question about ambient lighting. I really like blue shadows artistically by the way, and am glad you are experimenting with doing that in this game.

  3. Yeah, whatever we do ultimately will be more dramatic; this is an initial step.

  4. I suspect we will still do the standard color-strip color grading approach to adjust contrast/luminance/hue slightly, but that only allows you to work with the final colors after tone mapping, not with the intermediate components of the lighting independently.

  5. Jaime A. Arenasc C.

    Approximately, what requirements are needed in the pc to run the game?

  6. We have no idea! We’ll figure this kind of thing out later.

  7. Just curious, I realize that you’re still in the early stages of the game, but, around how close to “final” is the overall look and style?

    Would you consider the jump similar to before/after you brought on David Hellman for the visual style of Braid?

    • Seraph: Sexy.

      Did you get your name where i think you got it from?

      Color to shadow contrast is looking great in the right pictures.Do you plan on doing anything special with the clouds?

  8. j.j. Abrahams Lincoln

    Go straight-up (>^) Mirror’s Edge on that bitch!

  9. im no expert at this sort of thing, but i like the ones to the right better! bit of an orange tint, looks very homely to me.

  10. The visual style is not final; we have a lot of work to do there, yet!

  11. Most modern games use HDR lighting, as The Witness has for the entirety of its development. We’re just structuring the visuals to look better now, that’s the only difference.

    Photographers tend to use the term “HDR” in a highly confused way and those links do not seem to be an exception…

  12. oh man! i never imagined being independent would be so hard. thanks for sharing that Bastion making of video, it was very educational. i’m guessing that stupid to do list is not just for XBLA but for all digital distribution channels. that sucks. instead of focusing in the game they have to do all this stuff that doesn’t make the game higher quality like the owners of the channel think but makes the game lower quality since they are not working on the game but on random stuff. but maybe all that random dumb stuff is necessary….

    for those who don’t check TheWitness twitter:

    how do indi developers get such good voice actors though? how can they afford it? i wish the video would have covered even more.

    the colors look beautiful, defensibly the shoot at the right looks cooler! since this is your second time dealing with all this hopefully it will be easier for you this time, you know what absurd things to expect. but still, good luck!

    the game is looking phenomenal…. still no gameplay though!

  13. Actually, some digital distribution channels are much better than others. Steam and iOS do not make anywhere near the kinds of demands that XBLA does, making them more appealing in many ways…

    I don’t think all the “random dumb stuff” is necessary; I think it’s random and dumb at this point. It may have made sense in 2004-2005 when they were designing the console but a LOT has changed in the past 6-7 years.

    I don’t mind having a certification process but so much of the process involves killing yourself to work around poor design decisions and outright bugs introduced by the platform holder that they don’t want to fix. It is kind of insulting.

  14. On unrelated but fucking awesome news…. JONATHAN MAK’S NEW GAME!!!!1

  15. Respectfully, I’ve never seen a video game use HDR. Adding a bunch of bloom effects isn’t enough – Take those same images and show them on an HDR TV and they look like junk. IMHO The photographers do a better job of approaching it than the consoles because they try to compress the entire range of light into the range that the screen can present. Seeing all the detail in the darkest darks and the lightest lights just as your eye would if you went outside… that’s more realistic to me because my eyes can only focus on one point on the screen at once.

    In any case, I like the way the newer images reveal more detail and make the colors pop. Just please don’t fall into the teal & orange trap hollywood is in. :)

  16. Dan, I am telling you for a fact that most high-end video games do their rendering in HDR. The output is LDR because that is what TVs commonly display, so the games tone map prior to output (tone mapping is the same thing as “compressing the entire range of light into the range that the screen can represent”). If there were a widespread standard for rendering to higher-dynamic-range devices that was supported by the consoles, then games could use that pretty easily. But there isn’t, so games have to make an assumption that the output device is LDR.

    When you see an “HDR photograph” quite often the photographer has just done a really weird tone mapping function in order to make the picture look surreal / hyperreal, which, while needing the source data to be HDR in order to do this, is really a separate issue. Sober HDR images do not necessarily look like that.

    • Still delightedly reading every post. It’s nice to see that you (plural) have a real vision of what the game should be like, and that you’re confident you’ll get there in the end. I sometimes worry too much about making sure that all the details are actually implementable before I start working on the big picture.

  17. “Steam and iOS do not make anywhere near the kinds of demands that XBLA does, making them more appealing in many ways…”

    Can I ask, does XBLA have the level of censorship that iOS does? “If you want to criticize religion, write a book” kind of thing?

  18. I don’t know, as I never tried anything like that. My guess would be that XBLA is less restrictive in those areas, but that is only a guess.

  19. I don’t know much about the tech side, but from just looking at the pictures it seems this kind of lighting works better in some areas than in others. The after in the first set looks better I think because the color of the light blends well with the sand theme. For the second set I think the before-one looks better, the green looks washed out compared to the autumn colors when the colored-light is enabled. What makes that photo looks good I think is how distinct the green hedges and trees are from the orange and red ones.

  20. The thing to realize about HDR is that HDR in photography and HDR in videogames are effectively inverses of one another.

    In photography it’s a method to show detail not normally visible for a single exposure that get lost in shadow or get blown out in the light.

    In videogames it’s a method to simulate a *lack* of dynamic range, obscuring details outside that range and sliding the range up and down as lighting conditions change, this effectively introduces what the photographic method is trying to eliminate. It’s a desirable feature because it allows for less constrained lighting solutions (things can be brighter than a pure white pixel) and better approximates how real vision works potentially helping player immersion.

  21. justin: “how do indi developers get such good voice actors though?”

    if you check the company’s website, they mention the narrator voiceover is actually a friend of theirs.

  22. Bicameral Jaynes

    I’m reticent to bring up the topic of HDR again, for fear of contributing even more misinformation. I suspect Dan’s unfamiliarity with HDR in terms of gaming stems from his recognition of only images that resemble those he had provided as being ‘actual’ HDR.

    I really object to the notion that photographers “do a better job… than consoles”, as over-saturation and incorrect colours seems to be the popular way of doing HDR photography. I’m in complete agreement Dan on the “Teal & Orange” issue though! *waggles finger accusingly at Portal, Mass Effect, etc. ad infinitum*

    As Jon has previously stated, HDR is widespread in gaming – and I would assume that from a production perspective is more straightforward (or at least controllable) than the messing around with multiple exposures that goes on in creating HDR images with traditional photography. Of course implementing it effectively becomes a whole big issue, for e.g. how the Xbox360 (mis)handles the sRGB colour space/gamma curve. See:

    Ultimately what we all end up with though is *simulated* HDR on our displays, it is inaccurate to describe different implementations as being “inverses” of each other. Also, games and videos have the advantage of temporal resolution, comparing this HDR to those in static images is like comparing long-exposure photography to actual motion, the two are similar in concept but end up completely different.

    John Hable (formerly of Naughty Dog) undoubtedly explains things better than I do:
    And his blog:
    Since reading i’ve now become obsessed with gamma.

    On topic: i’d love to see a post on the sound/music development for The Witness. Perhaps it’s too early in the production to get into this? And I suppose if it’s licensed music à la Braid there might not be much to write about. Thanks anyway to everyone working on this game! More than anything else (gaming or otherwise), i’m looking forward to The Witness and Journey. *hint* please have support for PC or PS3!

  23. Jonathan, what do you think of WiiU? do you think you can get The Witness and Braid on Nintendo systems now?

    they have not released a lot of information like the specs and all that but it will get games like Assassin’s Greed, Arkham Asylum, Battlefield, Ninja Gaiden and Metro. supposedly they will not be special ports for the system but the real same game that will go to 360, PS3 and PC.

    if you could or had the chance would you put your games on other systems. what is your philosophy on this?

  24. Journey LIVE demo at E3:

    demo starts at 5:59 (five hours with 59 minutes) skip to the demo. it is cool

  25. I haven’t really noticed the whole orange and teal thing, other than in Valve’s games(which I thought were always Valve’s colors?). I guess I’m not playing enough games.

    Also, Blow mentioned that there will be no music in the game not that long ago.

  26. Hey man, thanks for releasing Braid on the Software Centre. Any chance that The Witness will be on Linux?(Hopefully sooner than 3 years after its release?)

  27. The device itself is not a gimmick (though you can definitely use it like a gimmick if you don’t have better ideas!)

  28. Sure, there is a good possibility The Witness will be on Linux at some point; we’ll see how it goes…

  29. Yes, you’re right.
    soooo what was the idea? will The Witness use Kinect or Move or touche and acceleroGyroscopic stuff?

    …also, I think that Physx is kind of cool. but yeah

  30. There are no plans for anything Kinect/Move related for The Witness. This game wants precise controls, and those aren’t about precision. So I think on most platforms it would be your typical classic kinds of controls.

  31. Any chance that The Witness will follow Braid’s example and head to Onlive? Also, any idea when the game will be released?

  32. Bad news. I contacted the guys who hosted the programming aesthetics lecture Jon did from a month or two ago. They’ve lost the recording.

    Jon, any chance you could post some notes as an article? I for one would be extremely interested.

  33. Fortunately I made my own audio recording of this, and I probably still have the slides.

    I’ll try putting these together sometime over the next few days…

  34. I almost wonder if it was “accidentally” deleted due to the content of the talk!

  35. OhhhHHHHhh. Cripes, as if I wasn’t already interested enough.

    Seriously though, the guy I talked to seemed pleasant. He actually said he was going to upload it after his exams, but then he just seemed to forget and the file fell through the cracs.

  36. *Cracks. The last word is always the least likely to be spell checked.

  37. ohh! great! that would be cool. i really need something to get me exited about programming i need to study more… but “deleted due to the content of the talk”? hhmmm what did you say that they wouldn’t want to post it online? what could be controversial about programming? idk

    well anyways. *you should do that every single time you give a talk* seriously just record all your things and post them online. these things are too important they have to be shared!

  38. Hey Jon, I know this is off the topic. I just wanted to say thank you for finally developing games with depth and meaning. Braid really draws on emotion and curiosity through the text, music, and visuals. You’re doing what I’ve always wanted to do with games. I share the same thoughts and feelings about games as you do and I’m glad you’re actually turning them into games. I look forward to The Witness! Keep up the amazing work! What you’re doing is changing the way people feel and think about our own personal reality (and in a good way)!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.