I’m taking a lighting design course at Parsons right now, and it’s been really useful for analyzing how light actually works in spaces. I won’t get into the technical differences (the various real-time approximations and hacks collaged into current game engine tech) but I do want to discuss light in a more general way.
And generally — lighting design is obsessed with fixtures, the structure that holds the bulb and mounts it to a surface. Where does the fixture direct the light — is it too glare-y? Is the fixture easy to maintain? Does it stand-out too much or not enough?
Video game lighting currently has none of those concerns that occupy real world lighting designers.
Virtual lights don’t require maintenance, artists always make a point to expose light sources, and there is no concept of glare in computer graphics: you can stare directly at the sun, in any video game, with no consequences. Yes, HDR lighting approximates the sensation of glare to a degree, but your eyes will never cry in pain. Flashbangs in military FPS games are probably the best simulation of glare today — they’re effectively a form of weaponized glare, after all.
One of the larger fallacies in today’s popular level design theory involves lights: it’s the idea that players gravitate toward light like moths, and lighting something prominently will ensure that players notice it. Real-life lighting design makes no such claims: in fact, a “vomit of light” has been known to make people ignore well-lit spaces or dismiss them.
Instead, I would explain the phenomenon, of players following lights as in Left 4 Dead, as a more subtle act of reading the environment. Players are trying to race to the end, and they want to know Where to Go Next. They know (and trust) the level lighting as prompting from the implied designer to show them Where to Go Next. It is not because light is inherently safe (although it certainly helps in the game) or that it triggers some silly stone age hunting impulses: it is because following light is the best way to win the game. That’s it.
I’m fascinated in the ways that light can intersect with gameplay systems in some other way than “illuminate men to shoot” — and perhaps the Thief series of games is the canonical text in this respect. But that’s another post.