A brief history of the most over-used special effect in video games: Lens flare

Welcome to our ode to one of gaming's most over-used special effects - lens flare. I'm sure the first person to think of it got a big pat on the back from his peers. Those same peers then left the room and went to work on shoe-horning it into every game ever. This is the story of how that went down...

What is it?

It's a method of recreating the effect that a light source has when its beams pass through a camera lens. Watch the first 15 seconds of this video for the perfect example:

Video game developers LOVE lens flare and, mistakenly, assume everyone else does too.

Above: Seong Mina loves lens flare so much, she's wearing one on her head

Why? because when polygon graphics hit the mainstream in the mid-nineties, everyone got really excited about the idea of there being a physical camera inside the game world. Super Mario 64 has the Lakitu brothers on a cloud, flying around behind Mario, filming the action. And I used to swear that Virtua Racing's Expert track featured a camera on a cliff that was used for the replays. It turned out to be a sheep.

Above: Why the blurry screen? It's better that way. We played Virtua Racing through an S-Video connection once and nearly lost an eye

So what better way to give the impression of a camera lens than to simulate the bane of a photographer's life? Just look at Die Hard Trilogy here on PSone. Would the game look half as good without those coloured circles all over the screen? Could you ever truly believe there was a camera lens following that car around the blocky streets without it?

Above: Remember, if a sprite's worth using, it's worth using at 7000% of its original size

And so, it started appearing everywhere. And not in a subtle way, either. When the hardware you're programming for can suddenly handle millions of colours instead of 32, it must be very tempting to go overboard. The best example of this lens-flared over-exuberance is Cyber Speedway on Saturn. Lens flare has literally taken over. Not just the futuristic pit lane trailer...

Above: Just to prove you can never have too much of a bad thing

...but the entire universe!

Above: He awoke, blissfully unaware that the lens flare apocalypse had begun

Which is, of course, totally artificial. The real universe has much less green in it.

Above: Today. Good to know Photoshop hasn't changed its stock effect in 17 years...

Then there was the lens-flare that outshone even the chest of Lara Croft. Don't believe us? Look at this...



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  • winner2 - February 5, 2012 12:11 p.m.

    Amazing, the first time I ever noticed was in Super Mario Sunshine, when you had to look at the sun to activate a portal.
  • sharkweek - February 4, 2012 5:25 p.m.

    Excellent article. I think the first time I noticed lens flare in a video game was when you had to shoot the sun in Ocarina of Time to get the fire arrows.
  • Dmancapri - February 5, 2012 10:51 a.m.

  • talleyXIV - February 4, 2012 9:07 a.m.

    "And to think Tails thought the sun shone out of Sonic's ass." Great article.
  • Hobogonigal - February 3, 2012 11:17 p.m.

    I remember Grand Turismo 3's horrible lens flare effect. I hated it on the rally track as it made me crash a way too many times when racing my dad :( I just ended up memorising the entire track until I could pretty much race with my eyes closed. Oh, I also despise the stupid torches and lasers on Battlefield 3 as well, they are way too overpowered.
  • IceBlueKirby - February 3, 2012 7:19 p.m.

    I always thought it was strange that devs liked the idea of having a physical camera in the game world because of the potential for it to get stuck on things. Which they did. Often. Lens flare was a neat trick at first, but it did get pretty ridiculous after a while. And where lens flare was a neat trick that COULD blind you, I'm pretty sure HDR exists solely for the purpose of blinding the player.
  • FauxFurry - February 3, 2012 3:34 p.m.

    Saint's Row the Third doesn't use Lens Flare. It's a good thing,too, or it might reflect off of the golden/chrome skin of the Boss, ruining the effect of that streak-free shine while s/he is going Streaking! To anyone still wondering why games like Saint's Row the Third and Bayonetta received a 10/10 score from Gamesradar while [insert random previously highly anticipated game here]didn't, there you go.
  • Snoochie - February 3, 2012 12:58 p.m.

    huh. a portal 2 debate in an article about lens flairs in games. yay community!!!! and good job with the article, Towell. this article is something i have wondered about but never bothered to look up. thanks for doing the work for me.
  • ATLAS - February 3, 2012 12:06 p.m.

    Battlefield 3 probably has the most ridiculous visual effects ever. I mean come on, are you actually wearing goggles or glasses to WHOLE time? Or were your eyes replaced with camera lenses?
  • roboteye - February 3, 2012 11:11 a.m.

    What about Mass Effect's lens flare??? That thing looks like straight from Michael Bay's movies.
  • mevildan - February 3, 2012 10:40 a.m.

    The last paragraph... what has HDR got to do with the crepuscular ray effect?
  • GR_JustinTowell - February 3, 2012 3:37 p.m.

    Ah, good spot! Those 'crepuscular rays' are exactly what got me thinking about this feature in the first place. Infinity Blade II has them in almost every screen and it's just too much. Although I confess I was unfamiliar with the term, so thank you for introducing me to my new favourite word :)
  • FriendlyFire - February 3, 2012 8:20 p.m.

    They're usually called "god rays", actually, for fairly obvious reasons.
  • lilspooky - February 3, 2012 10:30 a.m.

    I had an After Effects teacher in college that would fail you if you used a lens flare in your project. Lols
  • celticwhisper - February 3, 2012 9:59 a.m.

    Play Saga Frontier for PS1. That game made an art form and a way of life out of spamming lens flares. I remember there was a melee attack that had a character punching a monster and generating a giant fireball, followed by about 10 rapid-fire lens flares (with sound effects, no less!) that didn't even radiate from the point of impact of the punch or anywhere in the fireball. Just gratuitous lens flares all over the place. Still a fun game though. Play as Blue and enjoy becoming god-in-a-box.
  • ithurtstopoop - February 3, 2012 9:35 a.m.

    mmmmmmmmm lens flare
  • Z-man427 - February 3, 2012 9:16 a.m.

    HDR is worse
  • db1331 - February 3, 2012 8:50 a.m.

    Funny that you mentioned Ocarina 3D. The first time I saw the lens flare I instantly thought "OH GOD WHY WOULD THEY PUT THAT IN?!?" Then after a couple seconds I thought, you know what, this is actually quite lovely. I felt dirty.
  • Kheoth - February 3, 2012 8:41 a.m.

    When I think of lens flare, SNES Earthworm Jim's first stage always come to my mind. Probably the first lens flare effect I've seen.
  • GamingBear - February 3, 2012 8:41 a.m.

    Lens flare is the badgers nadgers, can't beat good bit of lens flare, my favourite possibly being when the sun rises over lake hylia in Ocarina of Time