Bethesda’s Creation Engine has Very Good Lighting

Fallout 4 and Skyrim SE look much better to me than they get credit for

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Every shot in this article is taken from the vanilla games running on an Xbox One X. This is Skyrim SE.

“You play Bethesda games without mods? But why? Don’t play those games without mods.”

“Ugh, Bethesda games are always so janky and old-looking.”

“Are these seriously the real graphics for Fallout 4? This looks like a last-gen game, lol.”

These are all real comments from the internet about Bethesda Games Studios’ Fallout 4 and Skyrim Special Edition. I didn’t actually source them from anywhere in particular, but all you need to do is begin to type other game’s title into Google and before you’re know it you’re tripping over comments like this.

I have a weird history with mods. I like to play things vanilla.

And yes, Fallout 4 and Skyrim SE have weird visual quirks. They have NPCs that look strange. They have animations that don’t blend properly. Characters sometimes fall through the world or go flying up into the air.

But honestly…both games have some of my favorite lighting. Ever.

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Light Shafts around trees in Skyrim SE

In the development of Fallout 4, the Creation Engine (really just a fancy name for the ancient scripting/engine tech that powered Morrowind combined with new rendering systems) was upgraded with full support for Nvidia’s custom volumetric lighting code. That same upgrade was then retrofitted into Skyrim Special Edition for its release on modern platforms.

The result is large game worlds that are bathed in pleasing, aesthetically gorgeous, accurate and truly 3D lighting that you can feel.

It’s easiest to notice in the god rays that stream through trees, and around mountains and buildings, and which update in real-time based on the position of the lighting and the player’s perspective.

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Light Shafts and shadows around trees in Fallout 4

Even outside of that obvious effect, both games have a filmic, hyper-aesthetic quality to them that I think has gone largely under-recognized in spite of how cool it looks.

It’s not even that taxing of an effect on performance, to the point where its fully implemented (at a slightly reduced resolution) even on the base Xbox One and PS4.

I was immediately impressed with this effect on first playing Fallout 4 back in 2015, and I thought that other developers would rush to incorporate Nvidia’s lighting system into their games. But so far that hasn’t quite happened to the degree I was hoping for.

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Dynamic interior lighting in Fallout 4 with real shadows and haze

I’ve been a critic of the choice to just bump up rendering resolution in games with no other improvements for PS4 Pro and Xbox One X users. But in the particular case of Fallout 4 and Skyrim SE…the resolution bump also dramatically enhances the quality of the lighting effects. Nvidia’s code scales the lighting quality as a factor of your base resolution, so the higher the base resolution, the better the lighting is going to look…although it does incur a performance penalty.

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Fallout 4

I get that Bethesda often makes visual sacrifices in the favor of open-world scope and performance, and that some folks feel they’re hamstrung by sticking with a technology core they’ve used for over 15 years. But in the lighting department, their technology and art teams have created something that I think looks and feels truly special, and I never get tired of it.

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