I have been in to game programming for some time now, and recently ventured out in to trying to create my own pixel art. So I have learned the basics of lighting and shading etc. and noticed that several games will light their tiles from the top left. Such as Super Metroid and Axiom Verge highlighted in red here:

Super Metroid Screenshot

enter image description here

I assume because there is no distinct light source, one was chosen and consistently applied everywhere where possible?

Why does it tend to be the top left, is it to do with westerners reading left to right, top to bottom perhaps?

And bonus question, what is the reason behind the opposite side shading shown in the blue circle in Axiom Verge?

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ I think only the artists who made those specific tiles could tell you their actual decision-making process with any authority. For the rest of us, we'd be speculating. \$\endgroup\$
    – DMGregory
    Jun 8, 2020 at 15:10
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ I’m voting to close this question because only the devs can answer this. \$\endgroup\$
    – Almo
    Jun 8, 2020 at 15:35
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ I'm not even sure that this consensus on lighting direction is as strong as the question may imply. As I search for other examples, I'm finding cases where even in a single game, different levels use a mix of top-left, top-center, or top-right lighting. Even if we assume artists choose between these three options by rolling a fair die, we'd expect some common patterns to arise just by chance. So I'm not sure the examples cited above are evidence of a shared underlying rationale the artists were following, or just coincidences (or in the case of Axiom Verge, homage to its inspiration) \$\endgroup\$
    – DMGregory
    Jun 8, 2020 at 16:05
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ As the answers and related comments already show, nobody knows for sure and all we will get here are opinion-based answers. \$\endgroup\$
    – wychmaster
    Jun 9, 2020 at 6:44
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Tangential: shaded relief maps by the U.S. Park Service also use lighting from the upper left. They say using lighting from the lower right “is highly susceptible to relief inversion, an optical illusion in which mountains and valleys appear to be inverted” \$\endgroup\$
    – amitp
    Jun 10, 2020 at 3:03

1 Answer 1


I've been thinking about this for some time too.

It's a pure speculation, but I think it's because the same lighting is normally used for the real-life writing desks (and drawing desks). You don't want the shadow from your hand to obstruct the paper, so if you're right-handed, you want light to come from the top-left.

So, someone who writes or draws on paper a lot might subconsciously consider this to be the default lighting.


Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .