2D Lighting with Hard Shadows

WebGL example source code

Lighting in 2D Games Series

Easy 2D Lighting with Hard Shadows

Adding dynamic lighting to your 2D game is a relatively easy way to add a lot of depth and atmosphere. In my overview article I compared a number of lighting techniques for 2D games. By the end of this article, you'll have everything you need to implement fast and simple lighting with hard shadows in your game. In the next article, we'll be extending this technique to produce fairly accurate soft shadows while retaining nearly all of the benefits of this simpler hard shadow algorithm.

hard shadow examples

Hard shadows in popular games

Basic Screen Space Lightmaps

For 3D games, lightmaps are big texture atlases that record how much light there is on various surfaces. Generating and using them is a huge topic, but for 2D games we can do something vastly simpler. The simplest way I know of is to simply use an additive blending mode to draw some fuzzy blob sprites into an offscreen buffer using the same camera coordinates as your main scene. Then you can draw the lightmap over the top of the scene using a multiply blending mode to tint the scene by the light colors. The final trick is not to clear your lightmap to black each frame, but a dark color. This becomes your ambient light value in the scene, the amount of light things receive when they aren't directly lit by a light. In the following example, the background color of the lightmap is a dark blue. If it was black, then anything that wasn't directly lit would be completely black too. Though it's very simplistic, screen space lightmaps are an easy and reasonable start of a lighting system.

lightmap a lightmap b lightmap c

Simple screen space lightmaps

If you want more control over how the lighting is applied, you can either draw in layers or use a custom sprite shader. Using layers is easier, but not as flexible. For example, you can draw your lit background layers, multiply the lightmap over it, then draw the foreground layer over the top as unlit. Using a custom sprite shader you would use the sprite's screen coordinate to read from the lightmap and apply the tinting in the fragment shader. This lets you selectively choose which sprites are lit without relying on draw ordering or layers. It also lets you layer your lightmaps and blend between more than one of them.

This lightmap technique is very easy to implement, and even without shadows it's very satisfying. No reason why you can't just stop here and keep it simple if it fits your game well. :)

Dynamic Range

One problem with lightmaps is the limited dynamic range when not using an HDR render target for them. Using forward rendering, an object is effectively lit by calculating:

pixel = color*lights[0] + color*lights[1] + ... + color*lights[n]

Without HDR, the pixel color is limited to be in the range [0, 1]. Even a dim pixel lit by one or more bright lights can be brightened past it's original color value though. Now consider what happens with a non-HDR lightmap:

lightmap = lights[0] + lights[1] + ... + lights[n]
pixel = color*lightmap

Now the light value itself is limited to the range [0, 1] which means that scenes that are very dark cannot be brightened past their original color values. Not ideal! The easy fix if supported is to simply enable HDR for your lightmap render target. Another easy option is to simply scale the lightmap intensity. If you are using shaders to apply the lightmap, then you can multiply the light value by 2 for example. Now the lightmap will act twice as bright, and can contain the light values in the range [0, 2]. Keep the multiplier small as this can cause a lot of banding though. Lastly, if you are just multiplying the whole lightmap over your scene there is an double multiply blending mode you can use. Using OpenGL as an example, glBlend(GL_DST_COLOR, GL_SRC_COLOR) means to blend as src_color*dst_color + dst_color*src_color which is equivalent to 2*src_color*dst_color. You are stuck with a multiplier of 2.0, but no shaders are required.

Simple Hard Shadow Geometry

Now we get to the fun part, shadows! It might be just me, but I find shadows in 2D games to be very satisfying to watch. It's the neat effects you get as shadows spill across the floor of a room and none of the boring subtle parts that brains are good at ignoring. :) The easiest and most efficient way to add shadows that I know of is to outline all of your objects in line segments. Though it can be a tedious extra step, it's usually not too bad. If you are using a physics engine, you can probably just reuse your collision data for example. The benefit is that line segments are very efficient for casting shadows and keeps the code simple.

I've shipped a few games using this hard shadow technique. It's simple enough you don't even need shaders to make it work! (Though shaders do make it easier to explain) Here is an example running on the original iPhone:

Hard shadows on the original iPhone

Shadow Masks

The basic idea is that before rendering each light, you use the shadow geometry to draw a mask that blocks the light from drawing where it's not supposed to go. The easiest way to do this in most environments is to draw the shadow mask into the lightmap's alpha channel. First clear the alpha to 1.0, draw the mask into the alpha as 0.0, and then change the light's additive blend mode to also multiply the source color by the destination alpha.

masking example

Shadows via masking

Generally speaking, there isn't a “clear the alpha” function in graphics APIs. You'll have to draw a quad over the whole screen with a blend mode or write mask set so that it only affects the alpha. Alternatively, I describe a method to combine the accumulate and clear passes in the optimization section at the end.

Shadow Projection Made Easy

In order to draw the shadow mask, you have to take those line segments that surround all of your shadow casting surfaces, and project them away from the light's origin. This turns each segment into a quad that covers the area occupied by the shadow. Two of the vertexes of this quad are just the endpoints of the line segment. To figure out where the other two go, imagine lines going from the light's origin to each endpoint. The other vertexes need to be put somewhere on those lines. It doesn't really matter where as long as they are far enough away that the opposite edge of the shadow quad isn't visible onscreen.

Projecting the shadow for a line segment

That looks something like the following in code:

quad_vertex[0] = segment.a
quad_vertex[1] = segment.a + 100*(segment.a - light_position)
quad_vertex[2] = segment.b
quad_vertex[3] = segment.b + 100*(segment.b - light_position)

This will project the shadows a finite distance from the line segment endpoints, in this case 100x further away. While this is easy to understand, if the shadow moves very close to the light, then the other edge of the shadow can become visible onscreen. You could just multiply by a larger number… but wouldn't it be better if you could multiply by infinity here? Well it's possible, and it's actually simpler!

Infinite Homogeneous Coordinates

One of the fundamental concepts computer graphics is built on is homogeneous coordinates. Basically, they are your familiar cartesian coordinates, but they add an additional “w” coordinate. So if you have a homogeneous coordinate (x, y, z, w) you can convert it to “normal” coordinates by dividing the x, y, and z parts by w. This might seem weird and arbitrary, but it allows you to represent translation and perspective with matrix transforms. This subject goes surprisingly deep, but that's well out of the scope of this article. ;)

One neat property of homogeneous coordinates is what happens when w is zero. Say you have the coordinate (x, y, z, w). If you convert that to regular coordinates you get (x/w, y/w, z/w). Now normally when specifying regular coordinates, you'd use w = 1. If you made w smaller than 1, then the converted coordinate would get bigger, but would still point in the same direction compared to the origin. The smaller you make w, the further away the coordinate gets. It might seem weird that w could be zero since that's division by zero, but that's only when converting to regular coordinates. The math works out just fine as long as you stay in homogeneous coordinates, and it represents a point at infinity in the direction of the x, y, z part. This is exactly what we wanted above: a way to project the other side of the shadow off to infinity. Fortunately, since this comes up a lot in 3D graphics APIs support it, and hardware is guaranteed to understand what it means.

Rewriting the code above to use infinite projection would look something like the following.

quad_vertex[0] = float4(segment.a, 0, 1)
quad_vertex[1] = float4(segment.a - light_position, 0, 0)
quad_vertex[2] = float4(segment.b, 0, 1)
quad_vertex[3] = float4(segment.b - light_position, 0, 0)

3D graphics APIs support homogeneous coordinates natively, although 2D graphics APIs generally do not. You can always fall back to the finite projection code above if needed.

GPU Accelerated Shadows

The biggest CPU cost you'll run into when rendering shadows is setting up the geometry for all the shadow quads. If you have 1000 shadow segments and 10 lights, you'll need to calculate and submit 10,000 quads. While that's not a lot, you can see how quickly it can add up. Ideally what you want to do is to just copy the shadow data once to the GPU and reuse the same buffer for all the lights.

// On the CPU, pack the quad data similarly to before, but as float3.
// The z-value defines if a vertex is on the near or far side of the shadow.
quad_vertex[0] = float3(segment.a, 0)
quad_vertex[1] = float3(segment.a, 1)
quad_vertex[2] = float3(segment.b, 0)
quad_vertex[3] = float3(segment.b, 1)

// In the vertex shader, use the z-value to output a homogeneous coordinate.
output_position = float4(vertex.xy - vertex.z*light_position, 0, 1 - vertex.z)

Now to draw the shadow mask for a light, all you need to do is to pass the light_position to the shader and draw the shared shadow geometry!

As a final thought, although platforms that don't support shaders are vanishingly rare now, it's entirely possible to do the same infinite projection with just a special perspective matrix. This is actually how I first figured out how to do the hard shadowing effect, and how I made it run well before shaders were widespread.

Geometry Submission

Indexed triangles are a good and obvious choice for drawing the shadow mask. 3D engines tend to use this for meshes, in which case it might be your best or only option. The only minor downside is the extra code to generate the index buffer, and the extra data you need to move to the GPU.

If you are making your own draw calls, then triangle strips can be a little easier to work with. Given a polyline for your shadow geometry, all you have to do to turn it into a triangle strip is to iterate the vertexes and output (x, y, 0) and (x, y, 1) pairs. You can even join all of the shadows for your entire scene into a single strip using degenerate geometry. Basically, you repeat the first and last vertexes, but don't project them. This adds triangles that are collapsed so they only have 2 distinct points, and so no area on screen to cover any pixels. These degenerate triangles cost very little on the GPU, but can make your CPU side code simpler.

// Output a copy of the first vertex,
// but use 0 and 0 for the shadow coordinates.
{x0, y0, 0}, {x0, y0, 0},

// Now output the vertexes doubled up as normal
// with a 0 and 1 the shadow coordinates.
{x0, y0, 0}, {x0, y0, 1},
{x1, y1, 0}, {x1, y1, 1},
{x2, y2, 0}, {x2, y2, 1},
{x3, y3, 0}, {x3, y3, 1},

// Output a copy of the last vertex like the first.
{x3, y3, 0}, {x3, y3, 0},

Another option is to use instancing. Pass the segment endpoints as instance data, and use it to move the vertexes of a instanced quad around. Since you don't need an index buffer or degenerate geometry it makes for a mildly simpler implementation. On the other hand, instancing very tiny meshes like this is generally not optimal for a GPU, and for hard shadows it doesn't really reduce the data size much either. It's probably fine, but don't expect instancing to be faster here.

Optional Optimizations

At this point you have a very simple, but effective system to draw 2D shadows! The performance isn't ideal in this simplest form however. The more lights and shadow geometry you add, the more optimization you might need.

Usually, the largest performance cost of this algorithm is the number of pixels it has to draw. You can easily end up with many, many fullscreen passes to draw a single scene:

  1. Repeat for each light:
    1. Draw a fullscreen alpha clearing pass.
    2. Draw a shadow mask. (Often nearly fullscreen with a lot of overdraw)
    3. Draw a light. (large lights can easily cover the whole screen)
  2. Finally, draw a fullscreen pass to apply the lightmap.

Even though it's “just 2D”, drawing too many pixels like this can easily tank your performance, and especially true on integrated or mobile GPUs that don't have a lot of raw memory bandwidth available.

Not Every Light Needs Shadows

The easiest optimization is to simply skip the alpha clear and shadow mask steps for lights that don't need to cast shadows. This is particularly useful for small lights as those steps end up drawing a lot of unnecessary pixels if you aren't using the scissor test optimization.

Backface Culling

Backface culling in 3D graphics APIs allows you to skip drawing pixels for the back sides of objects. To detect which side is which, yo need to “wind” all the vertices in your triangles the same direction. (clockwise vs counterclockwise) If you wind all of your shadow geometry the same way, you can turn on backface culling and avoid drawing the shadow coming off the back of an object since it will be covered by the shadow from the front side anyway.

backface culling

Drawing shadows for back faces is redundant

This can also be useful to draw your shadows inside out and only cast from the back edge. I've used this trick in the past (before shaders were common) in conjunction with layering to control how objects cast shadows on themselves.


Another really simple optimization is to simply lower the resolution of your lightmap. In my experience, drawing shadows at half resolution is pretty subtle, but only requires drawing a quarter as many pixels. That's huge!

This is also a good use case for soft shadows that will be covered in the next article too. Although they have a slightly higher rendering cost, I often find I can get away with rendering soft shadows at a quarter resolution. That's over an order of magnitude reduction in pixels drawn!

sub-sampling example

Fewer pixels = More performance

Clear Alpha While Accumulating

As I mentioned earlier, it's possible to get rid of that pesky alpha clearing pass. If you have the option to use a blending mode that handles color and alpha separately, you can combine the additive pass for the light with the alpha clearing pass. The color blend mode should do the usual multiply and accumulate, while the the alpha blend mode should just overwrite the destination alpha. The trick is that you need to add padding around your light's sprite so that it will always cover the whole screen (or scissor rectangle). Texture clamping is your friend here, and make sure your light sprites are fully opaque.

Scissor Testing

Scissor testing allows you to limit drawing to a certain area of the screen. This is useful for small lights that only cover a small area of the screen. Set the scissor rectangle so that it only fits the light sprite. Then the alpha clearing and shadow mask passes won't draw pixels that are beyond the light's reach. This can have a huge effect on performance for scenes with many small lights.

scissor testing

Use scissoring to limit masks to lit pixels

A Simple Culling Strategy

For simple scenes, you can get away without having any sort of culling, but as your levels get larger you may need to consider it at some point. The obvious place to start is to make a list of which lights are visible onscreen. A bounds check is significantly cheaper than the multiple draw calls it takes to render a single light with shadows. Also, don't go crazy with spatial indexes here. For a list of hundreds of lights that will be updated and queried once per frame it can be hard to beat the raw, cache friendly performance of a boring packed array of bounds and a linear search.

If your shadow geometry is all static, you'll almost definitely want to load it onto the GPU once and leave it there. Otherwise I would try and stick to batching all of the shadow geometry together each frame for simplicity. If you really need to cull it, try to do it coarsely. Break your static geometry into large chunks that can be copied quickly and simply. To determine which shadow casting objects are visible, take the union of the screen rect and the origins of all the visible lights. This rectangle will be a reasonable lower bound for anything that can cast shadows onto the screen.

simple culling

Object C is outside of the lighting bounds and cannot cast shadows onscreen

In the diagram above, objects A and B are inside the expanded rect and could cast visible shadows while object C cannot. There is no way to draw a line from a light through it and end up onscreen for it to cast a shadow. This rect is obviously not a tight bound though. For instance, even though object A is onscreen it's not close enough to a light to actually cast a visible shadow. You don't need a perfect bound. A few false positives aren't that big of a problem.

What about not-quite-2D?

“2D games” is certainly a spectrum that include a lot of games that try to look like 3D games, while keeping the simplicity of 2D workflows.


The 2D lightmap effect can work with games with parallax scrolling. Although depending on how you want your layers to work, you might end up having to render a separate lightmap for each layer with different settings (ex: lights, but no shadows on the foreground) and matching offsets. Like any good approximation, it really requires you to stay within certain limitations.


It can also work really well with isometric games with some caveats. The main issue is that the lighting really only works on a single plane, and you probably want that to be the ground. Here's an example from Super Fast Soft Shadows (our old Unity Asset) There are several tricks here to hide the 2D nature of the lighting:

isometric lighting

A self shadowed isometric object

Apologies for the prototyping art. I'm almost done with the article and running out of steam to find nicer looking pictures. ;) Here's another example of objects casting nice shadows on one another.

isometric projection

Isometric objects can shadow each other

Supporting isometric games this way is a bit of a hack, but again it can certainly work well if you stay within the limitations.

Isometric #2

Isometric games are also a case where you might want to use a finite projection. The finite projection code from above is an obvious choice for this. However, it's possible to modify the GPU accelerated version easily too. I'll leave that last detail up to you, dear reader.

isometric finite shadows

Casting shadows based on height (source)


This method for drawing hard shadows has some clear limitations. For starters, most 2D games aren't built with polygons, but that's what is required for projecting shadows. Having a dual representation like this is kind of annoying, although modern physics engines basically require it too. Reusing outlines of your physics colliders can be very pragmatic.

The next problem is how poorly it handles lights that overlap shadow casting geometry. If you aren't using backface culling, then shadows will suddenly pop in and out of existence as the light moves inside an object or wall. If you are culling back faces, then the light will shine through the wall, and that might not be ideal either. The effect is especially bad with concave objects as only some parts of the object will cast shadows.

Self shadowing can be an issue too. If you want an object to cast shadows on itself, you are basically limited to using backface culling, and flipping the outline inside out so only the back faces cast shadows. If you don't want an object to self shadow itself, then you have to deal with layering.

Last but not least, normal maps are impossible to implement using a lightmap. All information about the directionality of light is missing, and all you get is how much light reaches a certain pixel. This is too bad since it can really add a lot of depth to a game's graphics.


Visibility Polygons

Visibility polygons are an alternative to drawing shadow masks. Basically instead of masking off pixels that the light can't reach, you make a polygon that only covers the pixels that a light can reach. This sort of flips the problem inside out. This makes sense if you are using software rendering because the cost to generate the visibility polygon probably outweighs the cost to draw the pixels needed to do shadow masking. However, if you are using any sort of hardware acceleration, even on the cheapest $5 single board computer the GPU centric solution using shadow masking is probably going to win both in terms of simplicity and performance.

Image Based Methods

If you want to avoid the dual sprite + polygon representation, you can render shadow maps similar to 3D engines. For each light, render the alpha of the sprites around it into a buffer and then use an algorithm that smears the pixels away from the light in order to mask them. The main downside to this method is that it will require a lot of memory bandwidth and much more careful optimization to make it run comparably.

Deferred Rendering

You can use the shadow masking algorithm presented here, but substitute deferred rendering for the lighting. Instead of rendering a lightmap, you render your scene into a gbuffer that has the color and normals. (You could technically skip the normals I guess) Then to render a light you start by drawing the shadow mask, and then read the colors/normals from the gbuffer to mix with the light and use a blend mode to multiply that by the mask. This avoids the dynamic range issues with a lightmap without requiring an HDR lightmap, and allows you to use normal mapped lighting for more detail. The downsides are the increased complexity, slightly higher performance requirements, and inability to use transparency.

Closing Thoughts

That is pretty much everything I know about implementing hard shadows for 2D games. Hopefully it gives you some ideas about how you want to implement them in your own game. In the next article I'll show how to take this idea and extend it to produce fairly accurate soft shadows. Happy illuminating. :)

Thanks for reading, and make sure to check out the next post in the series on implementing soft shadows.