Why you should care about ray tracing

Posted on December 22, 2020

With the new generation of consoles in our hands and the NVIDIA RTX 3080 and RTX 3090 GPUs in high demand, the future of realism in video games that push the visual envelope is closer than it’s ever been before. As with every new generation, there are plenty of buzzwords being thrown around (I’m still not 100% sure what a teraflop is). One that comes up more often than not is ray tracing, and I don’t know about you, but I’ve spent a lot of time trying to explain to friends, gamers and non-gamers alike, why this is such a game-changing component of how we play.

Ray tracing is essentially an advanced way of rendering light and shadows into a scene, particularly when it comes to reflective surfaces. It works by simulating and tracking every ray of light produced by a source of lighting, which means you’d need an extra beefy PC or the Xbox Series X and PS5 to even have a machine that’s capable of producing the kind of power that is required. Granted, there are still plenty of video games from the last couple of years that do incredible things with lighting and their visuals, and you’re probably thinking “who cares if a puddle has perfect reflections?”. But this next-level immersion is more important than you think.

Only a handful of games have been able to implement ray tracing properly at this stage, but it’s only a matter of time before it becomes the norm. Spider-man: Miles Morales impressively shows off the technology as it reflects of its many buildings in the cityscape of New York. Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War proves to be one of the most visually impressive shooters available today. Control has looked stunning with ray tracing for a while now, with its strange, red and grey Oldest House a perfect showcase.

I’m not the biggest PC guy around, so Marc Jones, Alienware Brand Manager, Dell Technologies ANZ explains it better than I ever could: “Ray tracing is increasingly being used in games to enhance the experience of the gamer, as it mimics light in a much more natural way. Since lighting in games can be made more realistic, it becomes easier for the gamer to become fully immersed in the world they’re playing in, allowing a greater sense of flow if you like – a feeling where you’re in the zone and have a sense of energised focus and enjoyment. This is primarily because a game that looks more realistic, feels more realistic, like the player is a part of the game’s universe.”

“…true reflections, ambient lighting and material reaction, even when these elements are not part of the screen space render…”

These updates to visuals are set to make us feel more involved in our most loved gaming worlds than ever before. Visuals aren’t everything, sure, but I can’t help but be wowed by seeing ray tracing in its full effect. When it comes to new video game releases, gameplay is paramount, but it never hurts for a title to be a graphical powerhouse as well. In fact, some of my favourite video games benefited heavily from being “the best looking game” at the time they released, including the original Gears of War (and noting that Gears 5 today is one of the best looking games you can get your hands on, whether it’s on a high-powered PC or an Xbox Series X). It’s even impressive that it can run on my Alienware M17 R3 Laptop, which, to have such technology in a portable platform is some sort of wizardry I’ll never understand.

But again. Games looked pretty good before, right? The Last of Us Part II, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla and others don’t use ray tracing but still look excellent. “Games have traditionally had their graphics rendered through a technique known as rasterisation.” Marc continues to explain.

“This process directs the PC’s GPU to draw a scene in a game with polygons or triangles, with 2D shapes and the pixels they’re translated into, making up most of the scenes you see when playing a game. Essentially, this process has been sufficient for a long time, but it isn’t the most effective way of approximating a 3D shape onto a 2D screen. Ray tracing works by taking artistic interpretation out of the equation and making graphics delineate how physics works in the real world. With Ray tracing, images are formed with the physical simulation of light – that is, where light bounces all over objects, diffracts and hits other places. It mimics the way a retina works and, because of this, the lighting in games and, by default, the objects in games, look incredibly life-like, enhancing game play and the feeling of being immersed.”

“The key downfall of rasterisation is that, by and large, it can only reflect what is on the screen.” adds Marc. “Ray Tracing technology instead responds more realistically, taking reflections from objects or scenes that are not currently within view. Allowing for true reflections, ambient lighting and material reaction, even when these elements are not part of the screen space render, shows just how evolved this technology is compared to its predecessor.”

At the end of the day, it might not be the first thing you notice, but direct comparisons show how ray tracing can make a true difference to your experience. With the games I mentioned earlier including the ability to turn it on or off, you notice the change quite quickly, whether it’s while web-slinging through the city or looking down a sniper at your enemy in the distance. Like any visual upgrade, you’ll eventually be so used to the technology that you’ll look back at the previous generation and wonder how you could live without it.

With the new generation of gaming in our possession across PC and consoles – and more gamers in the mix thanks to COVID – the future in video game graphics is looking brighter, and more reflective, than ever.