The Brightness Slider Is The Dimmest Idea In Video Games

The Brightness Slider Is The Dimmest Idea In Video Games
Screenshot: Bethesda / Kotaku

“Retinas are fried after cranking up brightness to see enemies.” That is the headline of a Reddit post submitted one month ago to the Call of Duty: Cold War subreddit. His plight is achingly familiar. “It’s literally so difficult to see enemies in this game,” they write. So they delved under the hood and obliterated the darkness, so purging all those cowardly snipers who’d been shooting them in the back. Now, claims the poster, they’ve given themselves optical damage; a worthy trade off for an improved K/D/A.

Personally, I have never destroyed my eyeballs with reckless graphics-settings malpractice, but I still absolutely sympathise with that poor Cold War gamer. Every month, I boot up a brand new video game and stare at a black screen embossed with the franchise insignia and a slider waiting for my input. You know the deal. “Slide the bar until the logo above is barely visible.” OK, sure. The Assassin’s Creed seal is now blended deep into the inky darkness, ostensibly so I can experience Odyssey the way it was envisioned. The foamy churns of the Aegean sea shall be shrouded under the foreboding skies. The rolling knolls of the Greek countryside will taper off into the fading torchlight. The blood on the sand will resemble drops of oil under a full moon. Thank god for that brightness slider. I wouldn’t want to short-change myself.

And yet, inevitably, 20 minutes into the campaign I conclude that I can’t see shit, and that the slider is a junk mechanic conspiring against me. Back to the settings menu I go. The bar is now set firmly to the extreme right, and the logo in the void burns like a supernova. I’ve broken all the implied aesthetic rules set out by the game developer, and I couldn’t be happier. Never again do I bumble around in the murkiness of the underground catacombs, and those quest NPCs hiding out in the shadowy corners of the room are graciously revealed. I’ve experienced this so many times in my gaming career: Wolfenstein, The Elder Scrolls, The Witcher III, whatever. The brightness slider constantly lets me down. The presumed moody ambiance never manifests. Instead, at the beginning of most games, it feels like I’m simply being asked if I’m interested in seeing the levels or not.

Assassin's Creed Valhalla is thankfully mostly brightly lit. (Screenshot: Ubisoft / Kotaku) Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is thankfully mostly brightly lit. (Screenshot: Ubisoft / Kotaku)

I wanted to get to the bottom of this. The brightness slider has vexed me so many times, and I refuse to believe that I’m the only one with the problem. Surely, this is a feature that developers agonize over, right? They must understand how unreliable their built-in contrast dial is for millions of gamers. So, I ventured to the source of the discourse. Tim Willits is the former studio director at Id Software, and he’s responsible for one of the most oppressively dimly-lit games of all time: Doom 3. I brought my concerns to him, and he confirmed my worst fears: Yes, game-makers understand that “ideal brightness” is mostly bullshit.

“It is really difficult to make a game that looks the way you want it to look for everyone. The biggest problem we have is that we love to work in the dark. In the old Id days, we’d never turn the lights on. We’d have these really nice monitors. We’re trying to build a world that has atmosphere and a certain style to it, and [that] tends to make our levels really low-lit,” he says. “But few people play a game in the physical environment that you want them to play it in. They’ve got the lights on, they’ve got the window open. It doesn’t translate.”

Naturally, more than 15 years after its release, Willits happily admits that Doom 3 was lit in all the wrong ways, and the many players who complained about the constant alternation between the shotgun and the extremely radiant flashlight were right on the money. This was a miscalculation on many levels. As Willits explains, the Id team spent months, even years, mastering every wrinkle of the Doom 3 experience. They swore by the dark ennui, because by the nature of their jobs, they knew these maps like the back of their hands. Willits could probably make it through Doom 3 blindfolded if he wanted. But once the game is handed off to a hapless gamer, all of that dreariness is a lot more frustrating than it is mood-building. It is moments like that, after the fifth or sixth time you are obliterated by an imperceptible Cacodemon, that people tend to reach for the brightness settings to take matters back into their own hands.

There’s a technology issue at play here as well. All monitors are not created equally, which is an issue that becomes more apparent as our settings menus continue to swell with additional fidelity doodads. (Ray tracing! VSync! 4K! 8K!) It goes without saying that an Assassin’s Creed render is going to look different on a 15-year old Plasma than it will on, say, an iPhone 11 streaming gameplay off a Series X. That is a constant complication for developers. Alongside the cavernous vibes of most game studios, and the innate, speedrunner’s instinct they accrue as they flesh out the game world, a lot of those brightness sliders tend to hinge on whatever machinery the team is working with, which is rarely representative of the average consumer. “They should probably tell you that the game was developed on an ASUS ROG monitor or whatever,” laughs Timothy Ford, Assistant Technical Director on Overwatch.

Willits concurs: “Some people leave their TVs defaulted to what they’re supposed to look like at Best Buy. I just bought a new TV that adjusts automatically to the light, which I immediately turned off,” he says. “Every monitor is so different. As soon as your product hits the market, it’s the wild west.”

Retinal damage, Dishonored 2 style (Screenshot: Bethesda / Kotaku) Retinal damage, Dishonored 2 style (Screenshot: Bethesda / Kotaku)

Of course, all the developers I spoke to for this story told me that, in the end, video game brightness is subjective. It may not seem that way when you’re forced to make a personal ascertainment of whatever “barely visible” means, but according to Willits, the people behind the engine don’t have a precise definition of that term either. “It’s abstract. I have people come up to me and say, ‘No, Doom 3 wasn’t too dark,’ which, they’re wrong about that,” he says. “To me, it just means, ‘How dark do you want your game to be?’ Personally, I crank up the slider a little bit. I want to see more of the game.”

Nina Freeman, veteran developer of games like Tacoma and a Twitch-partnered streamer, echoes that sentiment. She streams a lot of horror games on her Twitch channel, and tends to ignore the slider until she’s in the game and can sufficiently darken the surrounding geometry to her liking. That can be a point of contention with her fans. “It’s a difficult balance between my preference and my audience who’s like, ‘I can’t see!’”

So is there a more elegant solution on the horizon? Will society ever progress past the need for user-inputed brightness preferences? Willits doesn’t think so. There are too many variables and too many nonrepresentative truths in the way. For the foreseeable future, the slider, for all its faults, is what we’ve got.

“I wish I had something clever to say, but I think we’re stuck with it,” he finishes. “It’s a necessary evil that we just have to deal with. Because when technology tries to get too clever, it ends up being frustrating. I promise you, since 1995 when Id first started, we talked about this issue. Not much has changed.”

Luke Winkie is a writer and former pizza maker from San Diego, currently living in Brooklyn. In addition to Kotaku, he contributes to Vice, PC Gamer, Playboy, Rolling Stone, and Polygon.

Comments

  • Heh. “It looks great on our monitors, why would we make it look awful on them just because some people have shit monitors? There’s so many monitors! It’d be a nightmare!”

    Just reminds me of the first response I always used to get from our developers as a BA, on conveying that a certain feature is only working in Chrome. “Ugh… can’t they just use Chrome?” And of course in the govt/enterprise space with IT infrastructure that is years – sometimes a decade – behind due to incredibly sluggish, risk-averse change management processes, no. No, not everyone CAN use ‘just use Chrome.’ Not to mention we just spent the last couple years reinforcing a culture of using Firefox because a bunch of other features work better with it. Our end-users aren’t like the devs in that they shouldn’t be expected to swap to a different browser any time they want to engage with the solution in a different way.

    …And so the hard, frustrating, boring work of compatibility beings.

    This is probably the reality of it… developing to improve compatibility is boring and frustrating. And god, it’s so fucking boring. And it comes with uncomfortable trade-offs, because doing what’s optimal for one configuration will break others and vice-versa, but doing what works for both may result in a far less optimal experience for both. And sometimes a vendor finds itself promising to support something like Internet fucking Explorer compatibility even though they’d rather drown themselves in a public toilet, because it’s a condition of picking up that sweet, sweet multi-million-dollar client.

    • Going to use various browser apps, we inevitably have to tell our users to access via Chrome, and not IE/Edge, as they don’t work. Except for that one site that only works in IE/Edge and doesn’t work in Chrome. Our work machines have Chrome on them simply because of the ‘Does Not Work’ issue.

  • The only game I can think of that required me to change the brightness after the initial setup was Knights of the Republic.
    Once you got to Hoth you had to turn down the brightness because the snowy landscape seared your retinas in moments.

  • The problem with video and audio settings… is there are too many things between you and what your viewing/hearing.

    For brightness…
    Hardware build quality (x2) – Hardwares settings (×2) – Device driver settings (×2) – Device software (×2) – operating system settings – game settings (software) – games design (the designers settings).

    So that’s at least 10 to 11 things that effect the brightness. And every PC system is unique and every person has their own preferences… so we can never win the war against setting sliders.

  • I think a better way to do it would be – ‘Here is a typical scene from the game, adjust the brightness until you like how it looks.’

    • Something I played recently does exactly that… Shows you parts of three different scenes and how they look as you adjust the setting.

      It was either God of War PS4, or Demon’s Souls PS5.

    • Gears/tactics kinda does this. But it’s not really a typical moment. It’s just a picture.

      Rocket league has your car and a background and what I like about the RL one is that you can split the image in half to see the change from default settings

  • “Brightness Slider”
    “built-in contrast dial”

    Something else annoying is that if you use design terminology to deobfuscate the setting you’ll just confuse people who don’t work in a related field!

    To me the brightness and contrast sliders should be different, or use gamma to cover both more like an exposure setting… though an ideal would be to offer a curve that lets you pick your upper and lower ranges as well.

  • On a related note… While playing WoW Shadowlands I feel like I need to put sunglasses on at my computer whenever I go to Bastion.

  • I’ve never had this issue because I don’t play games seemingly in direct goddamn sunlight. Here’s a tip, maybe you’re not meant to see every enemy as if you have a night vision superpower FFS and shadows exist for a reason.

  • The other problem with the “barely visible” test is that it doesn’t necessarily match how your television or eyes work. Trying to distinguish an almost black image from a black background is that usually isn’t representative of the game.

    The dynamic contrast feature on the TV might kick in making the test image more visible than it would otherwise. The lack of anything bright you’re expected to pay attention to simultaneously may cause your eyes to accommodate in a ways they won’t during the actual game.

  • I always just choose a few levels brighter than what it asks for.
    Some games just have trouble adapting their shadows and lighting. I’m looking at you Shadow of the Tomb Raider

  • It has a heap more to do with your choice of T.V/Monitor than alot of people give credit for.

    Especially if you’re switching from a cheap end to some of the more expensive ones. It’s like day and night.

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