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

Early adopters of lens flare were so keen, they didn't even stop at in-game scenes. It even made it onto the cover of Tomb Raider. Would Lara Croft have become such a household name if it wasn't for a lens flare on the cover of her finest hour? I think not.

Above: Even though the Saturn couldn't really do lens flares, it still featured on the case

Ah, but Saturn could do lens flares, if you were clever enough to program it properly. Lens flare with true transparencies. This sort of thing used to get Saturn owners all excited. A bit like the glimpse of a lady's ankle in the olden days, or a caveman's awe when the first alien visitors started a fire using a couple of sticks.

Above: CG art (left) and the real thing (right). Making Sega fans exclaim things like "Freakin' translucent lens flare effects on a Saturn? OHMYGOD!" before exploding

The 128-bit era

After the 32-bit era, lens flare effects got better and better. How can you not love Dreamcast when it gives you lens flare like this:

Above: And to think Tails thought the sun shone out of Sonic's ass

And who could forget Gran Turismo 3 in 2001 with its 'sunlight through the trees' effect? It was beautifully understated... unlike the Cote D'azure track you can unlock later on.

Above: (Left) Oh, how pretty! (Right) Three billion human lives ended on August 29th...

Think that's bad? You ain't seen nothing yet! Let's move on to:

The modern era

Just when you thought it was safe to come out and that lens flare effects had been exposed as the ludicrous fallacies they so clearly are, along comes Battlefield 3 with two incredible examples. Firstly, there's this:

Turns out the sun is nothing but a lens flare effect, to the extent that looking through a night vision scope makes the sun disappear altogether. Sure, I know there's no sun at night, but JUST STOP AND THINK ABOUT IT FOR A MOMENT. 

But the sun isn't the only source of light. Why not have other light sources create lens flare as well? No, better than that, why not have hand-held tactical flashlights that can completely blind the player even at distance and in daylight? They'll be so dazzled by lens flare's awesomeness, they won't even realise they can't see for toffee.

Above: Overkill? Apparently so - a patch reduces the effect outdoors at range. Good!

One game that does have some rather beautiful lens flare is The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D on 3DS. Perhaps it's the extra depth afforded by the 3D screen that makes it feel more like there's a lens there (THERE ISN'T), or the fact that it's one of the best games of all time. But we quite like this.

Above: That's right, in Master Quest, you don't even need the sun on-screen! /sarcasm

Now what?

But just when it's getting good, it looks like the effect's days may be numbered. Why? because there's a new sunlight trick that's even better than lens flare. Why? Because it doesn't imply there's a camera lens at all. It implies you're actually there, looking at rays of light. HDR (High Dynamic Range) lighting is the new lens flare...

Above: Uncharted 2, Soulcalibur V, Lego Harry Potter: Years 5-7 and Infinity Blade II

...which makes us a bit sad, really. After all, everybody loves lens flare. Right?




  • 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

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