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Making the perfect video game sand

The sand in PS3 game Journey is some of the most realistic ever seen in a video game. It wasn't easy to create.

The sand in Journey.
The sand in Journey. Thatgamecompany

SAN FRANCISCO--Who was the star character of video game mega hit Journey? Make that a what.

While you spend the entirety of the award-winning PS3 title playing as a nameless, mostly faceless humanoid with a very snazzy scarf, most of the oohs and ahhs come for what you're trekking across: sand.

It trickles down virtual dunes as it's stepped on. As the sun sets, it glows red and sets off a glassy sheen. And in the dark, blue light spills out over it, providing a (misplaced) sense of calm.

Like real sand, it's changing and flowing as you make your way through the game. Even so, it exhibits visual features that you won't find in any sand in nature, says John Edwards, the lead engineer at Thatgamecompany, which made Journey.

In a talk at the Game Developers Conference here this afternoon, Edwards provided a brief, behind-the-scenes view of creating the sand, a virtual material that was designed to take a player's breath away, but also seem entirely believable enough to blend in while players make their way through.

To make that happen, the company took a field trip to Pismo Beach near Southern California to wander the dunes and re-create the same look and feel. That included "running and jumping and diving through sand," Edwards said.

The team then took those photos and videos and went to work creating various visual filters and a physics model that would look like the real deal. That includes maxing out the number of rendering filters Sony's PlayStation 3 allowed in order to get things like the size of the grain just right, and not look like "radioactive" oatmeal.

Dunes in Journey.
Dunes in Journey. Thatgamecompany

These initial photos and videos from the dune trip provided much of the reference points and inspiration during development. It wasn't until near the end of creating the game that the company pulled up photos from other locations and giant dunes, Edwards said.

Other little touches were things you might not ever see in real sand. That included using a graphics filter that video game developers typically use for large bodies of water. "The beam you see is the same you'd find in the ocean, but never in real life on sand," Edwards said. "But it looked correct, and made it feel more authentic."

That authenticity helped make it the fastest selling game on Sony's PlayStation store in North America and Europe. Edwards noted that all of it began not by trying to make the best looking sand, but from trying to re-create "the human physical experience" and "that feeling you get when you're out hiking, after not seeing anyone for a while."

Here's a GameSpot clip from the game, with sand -- lots of sand: