Tunnel Vision: Crafting a Lush Gaming World with Vegetation, Lighting, and Narrative

Tunnel Vision: Crafting a Lush Gaming World with Vegetation, Lighting, and Narrative

Vertex School graduate, Aaron Hawks, shares how he created a textured, well-lit gaming world with a compelling narrative.

Aaron Hawks, a recent Vertex School graduate, embarked on his creative journey with a foundation in photography, set construction, and prop design. It was this diverse background that piqued his interest in the interplay of light within intricate environments.

Inspired by the time-honoured artistry of classic films and photography, Aaron began his exploration of translating his existing skills into the world of 3D.

In this article, he combines his passion and expertise to share his process for creating a gaming world filled with texture, lighting, and a compelling narrative.


In this article, I will delve into the technical aspects of crafting the "Tunnel Vision" environment scene. Throughout this journey, I utilised various tools like Maya, Unreal Engine 5, Substance 3D Painter, Photoshop, DaVinci Resolve, Megascans, and Daz Studio, to tell a story through this environment.

The heart of this scene revolves around an overgrown railroad track leading towards a graffiti-covered tunnel, surrounded by discarded remnants. My primary focus here is to break down the step-by-step process behind each element's creation. This includes techniques for creating vegetation with the aid of references and textures, as well as constructing intricate structures like train tracks and graffiti elements.

I will also explore the techniques I used to light the scene effectively. I will share insights into the thought process behind composition and layout, shedding light on how these choices contribute to the overall narrative.

Lastly, I will touch on the vital role that rendering, post-processing, and music play in adding depth and emotion into the scene to create an immersive experience.

Concept and Inspiration  

Concept Behind the Environment Scene

The heart of the "Tunnel Vision'' environment scene lies in its concept, which weaves together nostalgia, juxtaposition, and social commentary. As viewers traverse the scene, they are immersed in a world that mirrors the stages of life's journey. The abandoned trestle bridge, teetering on the edge of collapse at the tunnel's far end, becomes a powerful symbol of fragility and the uncertainty of what lies ahead. This looming danger evokes a visceral fear of falling into the void, the unknown. It encapsulates the vulnerability we often feel when facing life's challenges, emphasising the importance of resilience in navigating the twists and turns of our paths.

Inspirations Shaping Design Choices

The design choices in "Tunnel Vision" are rooted in meaningful sources of inspiration. Drawing from the thrill of childhood exploration, the scene blends curiosity and vulnerability, bridging personal memories with the virtual environment. This mirrors the theme of nature's strength versus human frailty, evident in the overgrown tracks and graffiti-covered tunnel. The scene also addresses contemporary issues by highlighting homelessness through discarded debris and a sheltering tunnel. The 3D experience is enriched by lighting that smoothly shifts from brightness to darkness, mirroring a journey from familiarity to the unknown.

Planning and Pre-production

The pre-production phase of "Tunnel Vision" involved a process of image gathering to construct a comprehensive mood board. Curating visuals of overgrown train tracks, graffiti-covered tunnels, and scenes depicting homelessness, this mood board served as a visual blueprint, encapsulating the ambiance and emotion the scene aimed to convey.

Additionally, dimensions of tracks, trestle bridge, and tunnels were carefully collected, offering a foundation for accurate asset creation. This strategic assembly of references paved the way for a focused and informed creative journey, guiding the subsequent stages of development with precision and intentionality.

Asset Creation Process

The asset creation process for "Tunnel Vision" involved producing a range of elements, all developed using Maya to populate the scene in Unreal Engine. The main focus was on crafting various vegetation and other scene elements.

Vegetation (Grass and Trees)

For leaves and grass, I sourced images from the Megascans library, creating low-poly cards and using the images as references to hand-trace the shape. I then assembled multiple strands of grass, each bent and arranged individually for a natural appearance. The textures from Megascans were applied in Unreal Engine to bring realism to the grass. The trees were constructed using simple distorted cubes, with textures from Megascans initially applied. I later explored using the SpeedTree application for more sophisticated tree creation.

Ivy and Comparison

I incorporated pre-made ivy from the Megascans library as a comparison point against my handcrafted vegetation. This allowed me to evaluate different visual styles and approaches.

Railroad Tracks, Spray Can and Graffitti

For the train tracks, I modeled six distinct railroad ties, alternating their placement to avoid uniformity. I also created individual railroad spikes, each with three different textures to add variation. The spray can textures were generated using Substance 3D Designer, achieving a worn and weathered look. The graffiti was a simple curved card, although I now realise I could have integrated it more effectively through direct texture editing in Photoshop.

Additional Elements

I experimented with different techniques for certain assets. The shopping cart was created as a two-sided card, serving as a test of a more simplified approach. To simulate the blue tarps, I utilised Maya's nCloth feature, adding a touch of realism to their movement.

This asset creation process illustrates a combination of careful planning, reference utilisation, and exploration of various tools and methods to collectively breathe life into the "Tunnel Vision" environment scene.

Composition and Layout

The composition and layout of "Tunnel Vision" was designed to evoke a cinematic atmosphere within a gaming environment. Over 13 strategically placed cameras were utilised to capture detailed aspects of the narrative, with each shot crafted to enhance the storytelling. Assets were purposefully positioned to leverage light and showcase textures, ensuring a visually compelling experience.

The scene was guided by the interplay of natural sunlight and the overgrown tracks, creating a visual journey through discarded objects such as a chair playfully exhibited with graffiti humorously stating "who chairs" and a bed with the tongue-in-cheek message "nothing really mattress." As one proceeds towards the tunnel entrance, the stark contrast of a graffiti message reading "REVENGE" amidst dancing devils establishes a dark, ironic tone.

This dark humour persists as players venture into the tunnel, testing their balance and navigating the precarious terrain, ultimately contributing to the scene's immersive and thought-provoking narrative.

Lighting and Atmosphere

The lighting and atmosphere in "Tunnel Vision" were designed to cater to both static photography and dynamic motion picture needs.

A cool HDRI (High Dynamic Range Image) was employed as the foundational lighting source, ensuring versatility for both mediums. The integration of fog and spotlights added a layer of depth and immersion to the scene. Lighting choices were deliberate in highlighting textures and guiding the viewer's gaze.

As the sun began its descent, a warm glow was introduced, accentuating the crafted vegetation. The application of spotlights, simulating the sun's angle, strategically illuminated assets and contributed to a dappled light effect, ensuring a balance between cool shadows and warm highlights, effectively directing the viewer's focus.

The transition from the inviting, serene natural surroundings into the ominous tunnel was created to evoke a sense of beauty and calm transforming into trepidation. Exiting the tunnel, the lighting dynamics shifted to envelop the viewer in a cavernous darkness, inducing a palpable feeling of smallness within a cold mysterious atmosphere.

Textures and Materials

Strong textures and materials are paramount for enhancing realism, which drove my focus in this area. By adjusting normal, alpha, and albedo maps, I achieved texture depth and surface variety. Substance 3D Painter played a key role in producing distinctive textures, ensuring each element had a distinct appearance.

Additionally, Photoshop was used to emphasise finer details and enrich the overall realism. The Megascans library was a valuable resource as well as other online libraries, increasing the scene with high-quality textures, ultimately resulting in a detailed and compelling environment.

Rendering and Post-processing

For rendering and refining the scene, I used Unreal Engine 5 to bring the elements to life visually. To enhance the scene's impact and emotion, I edited the footage using DaVinci Resolve, crafting a cohesive and dynamic movie clip. The motion picture format allowed for a more immersive experience, granting a deeper connection to the scene through movement. Additionally, the inclusion of music emerged as a pivotal component, amplifying the scene's atmosphere and emotion. To curate a fitting soundtrack, I sourced multiple musical themes and seamlessly blended them, producing a unique soundtrack that resonated with the scene's visuals, completing the immersive experience.

Challenges and Learning Opportunities

Developing "Tunnel Vision" posed several significant technical challenges and valuable learning opportunities. Managing a large-scale scene within a set deadline demanded meticulous organisation and effective time management to ensure completion. Crafting three distinct environments that seamlessly transitioned between each other required careful attention to detail and artistic finesse. Handling lighting transitions added an extra layer of complexity. Embracing new processes and learning from failures were integral to growth and innovation, pushing the boundaries and striving for the last 10% of perfection that truly elevates a project.

This project served as a valuable learning experience in project management, technical skill development, and the importance of perseverance in the face of creative challenges.

Final Thoughts and Takeaways

In conclusion, "Tunnel Vision" has been a rewarding project that emphasised the significance of meticulous planning, time management, and technical innovation in large-scale scene creation. It demonstrated the value of embracing challenges as opportunities for growth, with lighting transitions and environmental transitions serving as prime examples. The journey highlighted the importance of trying new processes and learning from failures as key drivers for skill enhancement. Above all, the project underscored the significance of pushing for that last 10% of refinement, elevating the final result to its full potential. These takeaways reinforce the vital role of persistence, organisation, and creativity when aiming to create immersive and compelling digital environments.

With a fusion of his past experiences and a passion for pushing artistic boundaries, Aaron Hawks continues to breathe life into digital environments that captivate the imagination and evoke emotion. You can reach out to Aaron at the links below.

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