Horizon Zero Dawn is a beautiful game. Sometimes, it seems too beautiful. Here's how the developers achieved such an uncannily gorgeous look.
Studio art director Jan-Bart van Beek recently explained to Kotaku that the studio spent many hours watching BBC nature documentaries, which allowed Guerrilla Games to lay out a conceptual framework for Horizon's visuals.
"It's a quality that isn't actually completely photorealistic," Beek said. "It's a form of hyper-realism that we started calling 'BBC-realism.' It's all shot in perfect condition, at the perfect time of day, with exactly the right dramatic light angle, cloudscapes and weather."
"There is a lot of cinematic grading to add contrast, atmosphere and saturation to the screen. It's a film process that takes weeks to find those conditions and film a 10 second snippet."
Fortunately, Horizon is a game, so the developers didn't have to wait for hours just for the right conditions to appear. Instead, they deliberately programmed the game to always capture that picturesque quality.
"In Horizon we wanted to give them the sense of being in a 24/7 version of BBC's nature, where it is always at its most epic, most impressive," Beek said. "Anything less than the best look, we would simply remove. So to some degree we indeed make it unnatural.
"But it was not a matter of turning the beauty to 11. It was a matter of removing anything less than a 9.5 on the epic nature scale. It's not a 'reality' simulation, it's all very controlled. If we like a certain amount of fog at a particular time-of-day because of the nice lighting effect it gave, we simply set it up so that amount of fog was the ONLY amount of fog ever allowed at that time of day. If we only liked a certain amount of snowfall, then that would be the only amount of snowfall ever allowed."
Beek noted that, in order to nail the aesthetic, they tweaked weather transitions to be faster so that the player never sees anything below a certain level of quality. You only ever see whatever looks best. Some of these visuals, such as the human settlements, are tailor-made, but Beek estimates that about 80% of Horizon's natural landscape is procedurally generated.
"Procedural nature simply means that the artist does not have to place every single rock, tree or blade of grass by hand," Beek said. "Instead the artists define rules and draw maps on where they want to certain assets to appear. So with a simple paint stroke on the terrain they can have a collection of flowers to appear. It gives them a lot of control, but also a lot of speed when working on a world as big as Horizon's."
"But [the] artist can still place individual trees and such, which is often what they do to dress up vista point, or important roads, or cut-scenes, because we know a large amount of players will see that content and it is worth the effort to hand-craft it."
In short: everything you see in Horizon has been fine-tuned to look awesome.