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Video game explosions are a lie

We learned how particle effects make games pop

Patrick Gill (he/him) has been making serious and unserious videos for Polygon since 2016. He also co-hosts & produces Polygon’s weekly livestreams on Twitch.

If you played Control, you know the satisfaction of picking up a desk and telekinetically blasting it across the room into the face of a helpless baddie. Mechanically, it feels good, but the sublime joy is all in the details. The bits of paper whipping up your projectile’s trail, the sparks showering from a computer that got clipped, the dust kicked up by the impact, and the otherworldly mist that blasts out of your enemy. That sweet stuff is all the work of Remedy’s VFX department, and to Game Director Mixu Kasurinen, it’s a lot more than just the icing on the cake:

“To Remedy, visual effects are extremely important. The visual effects allow us to build experiences where the player gets feedback, where they have a very clear understanding of the consequences of their actions ... that creates this satisfying, gratifying feel that the game recognizes what I’m doing and responds to the player”

VFX, specifically particle effects, is a secret sauce that makes games pop — and it’s all an Illusion. Ephemeral, amorphous elements like smoke, fire, and dust are all critical to a game’s presentation, and they’re all nearly impossible to real-time render in 3D. Instead, developers use artful deception and innovative tricks to sell the idea of real, volumetric stuff.

We visited explosion innovators Remedy Entertainment and Avalanche Studios to learn about the artistry and engineering that goes into a game’s satisfying impacts. Check out the video up top to learn the three-part recipe to Avalanche’s beefy explosions, and the weird secrets behind Control’s otherworldly blood.

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