Solus: Lighting Up the Desert

Anastasia Jacobsen’s concept for Solus is an attempt at a semi-hard-sci-fi take on Alex McDowell’s “Planet JUNK” collaboration. The Earth has somehow stopped rotating, creating a 6 month summer/winter cycle and migrating the oceans away from the equator.

Logo art by Anastasia Jacobsen

In the demo, the player journeys down into the sand-buried remains of a skyscraper looking for water. For visual interest (and irony) I suggested the Futurist city of Brasilia which went over well with the team: Niek Meffert, Anastasia Jacobsen, Rosa Friholm, Ida Lilja, and myself. I was Technical Artist and Lighting Designer. (Solus was the first of two Planet JUNK collaborations. Many lessons learned were later applied to Shrooms.)

Solus uses Unity’s High Definition Rendering Pipeline (HDRI), allowing a wide variety of realistic volumetric effects—the simulation of light’s interaction with microscopic particles suspended in air, like smoke, water droplets and dust.

Desert scenes may never escape from Journey’s long shadow…

Topside, the lighting is very simple. There’s a Directional Light (sun) and not much else. Fill lighting is created by Global Illumination from the skybox. Blowing sand is created with the Unity VFX Graph. A number of post-processing effects are added, including Bloom, Tonemapping, Color Curve adjustments (for a more cinematic “desert” look) and a custom sparkle shader in the brightest areas. A faint volumetric Fog pervades the scene, to create a dusty atmosphere. Slightly behind the main plane of action, a second “thicker” Fog Volume is added, faded from bottom to top, to make the background distances appear greater and create a Bryce-like height fog effect.

Thank you, anonymous graffito

The underground lighting is primarily driven by a Point Light attached to the character’s lantern. The Volumetric Fog is thicker, increasing with depth into the buried skyscraper. An extremely bright Spot Light shines in through the entrance, volumetric and colored bright blue to contrast with the warmer lantern light. A similar, very narrow bright blue Spot Light shines down from the top of the first elevator shaft, as if a tiny stab of sunlight were blazing in through a chink in the roof. Farther down, mushrooms glow with an eerie green Emissive Material, casting light onto their surroundings via covert green Area Lights.

The theatrical darkness demanded that a final Light be added, to only be activated while editing the scene—literally named “Work Light.”

The Solus demo is available on to download and play on Itch.io (Mac & Windows).

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