The Particle Effect

All of the PS4’s launch titles have one thing in common: an absolutely mental number of particles floating around as you drive, run, shoot, fight, or engage in any other way through the levels. It’s as if every developer got together and shared a bit of code that turned their games from boring, flat, empty worlds into places filled with wonderful floating debris.

And I love it. I didn’t realise it before, but great particle systems can greatly increase how I feel towards the art style of the game, and I’m not sure I know why.

They are beautiful little specs of dust, foliage and sparks – or even voxels in Resogun – that can completely change the experience, making the world within the game seem more like an environment, as they surround your character left, right, centre. Some games use them to stunning affect, even those not on PS4: I remember being stunned by the Forbidden Woods in The Wind Waker HD earlier this year, because of these little glowing orbs floating around the space in which Link inhabits. But, really, why do they exist?

It’s certainly not something that’s been inspired entirely by real life. Think about it, right now – when do you see particles like you do within games? That’s right, when it’s an extremely sunny day in the middle of summer and – sigh – the curtain that you’ve closed just to get away from it all flaps open, exposing a beam of light in the darkened room, straight in the centre of your TV, removing you from your gaming experience and distracting you with bits of floaty dust.

So I hate it. I didn’t realise it before, but great particle systems can greatly decrease how immersed I am within the game. And I think I might know why.

Their functionality completely goes against what games should be trying to achieve. These systems of foliage, star dust and voxels no longer serve to immerse me in the game – they’re so noticeable that they’ll often pull me right out of it, as I see how bizarre the fact is that my character is surrounded by bits of white dust, and then how they float off the side of the screen but nowhere around me. They make the world seem a bit more fake, even if it is very pretty and the physics are sound.

Particle systems are effectively the Wilhelm Scream (you know, that one used in all the movies) of gaming right now. There’s that knowing nod from the developers that what they’re doing has been done before in a very similar manner, alongside the way it’s just plonked down into a section, not depending on whether it’s completely relevant but whether they can do it.

I think, as with that well-known scream, that one day the novelty of these screen-sailing specks will wear off. Perhaps they’ll still remain and we’ll just get used to them, or maybe developers will learn to tone them down and focus on advanced AI systems or more expansive worlds instead. But right now, they’re very prominent.


Yet I endure it, and even discuss it. I didn’t realise it before, but great particle make a talking point – look at what I’m doing now. And here’s a crazy theory why:

Bear with me on this one, but perhaps particles are just another marketing tool. After all, isn’t everything these days? You see, some of the times that they’ve destroyed my immersion, I’ve gone to Twitter. And then I’ve tweeted about the game. I even uploaded a picture a few days ago of Call of Duty: Ghosts’ numerous floaty white bits.

I am of course not being completely serious, and the fact might be that I’ve just not yet settled in to the new generation. I’m sure it was the same seven years ago, and the amazing HD visuals were more of a discussion point than the game itself, taking me out of proceedings. So, as I mentioned before, maybe it’s just the case of getting used to them, although it’s not as though they’re a new thing – they permeated late games of last generation, though perhaps not in such an in-your-face manner.

Perhaps 3D is the answer. It’s been written off time and time again, but it’s really a way to put those specks of graphics in between you and the screen, rather than between the game and the game. Just look at Super Stardust HD – a six and a half year old game, patched with 3D, which uses these effects to draw you in rather than push you out. It truly seems as though the developers Housemarque are the masters of multi-object rendering, and Resogun 3D would be an incredible feat.

Then again, maybe I’m just odd, clinging onto something that no one else really notices. Or maybe it is just like the Wilhelm Scream, and you’ll start noticing their overuse too now it has been pointed out.

If that’s the case, I’m very sorry.


  1. Walking through some dusty old warehouse would definitely have something obvious hanging in there air (which I’d want a game to replicate). Same goes for a summer’s walk through the woods. However, I don’t doubt much of it is to make up for the lack of other senses being stimulated. Smell? Nope. Doesn’t get a look in. Touch? (to the likes of our face… hands, etc) Nope.

    It’s the very reason we’ll see them exaggerate things to make up for other shortcomings. To make us feel like we’re almost there as everything else is done to perfection with a few dials turned up to Max just to help the senses that miss out.

    If used tastefully, it can absolutely nail a scene. If overused in hilarious amounts, it makes things appear almost comedic and nothing gets taken seriously.

    • Yep, I pretty much agree with this. I had noticed this effect myself, though it doesn’t in any way annoy me. I’m pretty sure bmike is correct in his reasoning here.

      • The TonyCawley seal of approval. *dies happy* :-)

    • I’m afraid i can’t add anything worthwhile beyond what bunimomike said, so i’ll just leave this here..

      Particle man, particle man
      Doing the things a particle can
      What’s he like? It’s not important
      Particle man.

      Is he a dot, or is he a speck?
      When he’s underwater does he get wet?
      Or does the water get him instead?
      Nobody knows, Particle man.

      (They Might Be Giants)

  2. I find in 3D work that if you go for reality, and miss, it looks poor. If you go for a great image, and leave reality out of it, the end result has a greater chance of being appreciated simply for what it is.

    Particles are new for a lot of people, and until we’re used to them they’re likely to be distracting if used willy nilly. The same thing happened when real-time physics started cropping up everywhere and everyone stopped to walk into the swings and shoot anything that looked even remotely non-static.

  3. The Last of Us handled it nicely, but some of the dust in Shadow Fall look weird.

    Infamous Second Son will be king of particles though.

    It needs to be part of the ambience, not thrown in your face just for the sake of saying “look what we can do”. Second Son seems to walk a fine line, using it in SUPER POWERS!

  4. I quite like the particles in the new games. Batllefield especially. What I notice more is lens flare. Who turned that up to the max? Can barely see anymore when I look at a spotlight which I suppose is realistic but hardly helpful when trying to shoot stuff.

    Also thank you for the willhelm scream. I noticed it in films and when I explain it to people no one knew what I was on about. It’s been bugging me for years!! I can sleep easy tonight for the first time in a while haha

  5. I like most of the particle effects I’ve seen in PS4 games but I’ve only played three.
    Super Stardust is the best game I’ve played in 3D and I hope Housemarque bring out a 3D patch for Resogun.

  6. Very interesting, it follows with the argument that good graphics in itself can kill immersion as you admire how good it is – inevitable at the start of a new generation, as we get used to this level of fidelity then it should go back to normal and not stick out.

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