Rock star informatics grad earns dream gig at Rockstar Games

woman wears a blue hat with a yellow Rockstar Games logoView print quality image
Silvia Lawson-Vilches, a December 2020 graduate of the School of Informatics and Computing, earned a job with Rockstar Games while still in school. Photo courtesy of Silvia Lawson-Vilches

Whether it's jumping over and on shells as a mustachioed plumber to save a princess, zipping around as a blue hedgehog with blazing speed collecting golden rings or taking control of an outlaw in the Wild West searching for a better life, video games immerse the player into characters and worlds that stretch the imagination.

For Silvia Lawson-Vilches, these iconic digital worlds are no longer solely reachable through a controller and screen -- she's creating them.

The December 2020 graduate of the School of Informatics and Computing is an associate lighting artist for Rockstar Games, a prestigious award-winning studio in the video game industry that's responsible for highly acclaimed series such as Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption.

"It's right up there statistically with a football player getting drafted into the NFL," said Zeb Wood, co-director of the Media Arts and Science undergraduate program. "It's pretty rare and special. She totally deserves this -- it wasn't a fluke. She put everything into what she did."

In his 15 years at IUPUI, Wood said, he can count on one hand the number of students who have asked to meet with him before their first semester. Lawson-Vilches revealed in their initial meeting that she was focused on becoming a lighting artist in 3D media after finding inspiration from Pixar lighting artists' TED Talk. Wood had never met a student who wanted to pursue a career in lighting.

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Set in the American Old West, the visual aesthetics and rich storytelling of Rockstar Games' Red Dead Redemption 2 captured the attention of Silvia Lawson-Vilches. Photo courtesy of Rockstar Games

A lighting artist is responsible for the look, feel and presentation on the screen while also helping direct the audience's eyes to the intended location. In video games, this can mean helping the player escape a building or hinting a recommended path to navigate through an overgrown jungle. More specifically, lighting artists are manipulating light and color to create an environment's drama and mood. Darker tones are used in more tense and scary atmospheres, while warmer colors are more frequent in happier, gentler settings.

"My responsibility as a lighting artist is to send signals to the player so they have an understanding of where to go," Lawson-Vilches said. "Light is really important, as it helps give the world shape."

A casual gamer growing up, Lawson-Vilches played Dragon Age: Inquisition between her freshman and sophomore years of college and found herself becoming more interested in video games. During her first two years at IUPUI, she was focused on working in the film industry, but it wasn't connecting.

"It wasn't really hitting the right notes for me," she said. "I really liked it, but I didn't know if I wanted to fully devote myself to it."

Lawson-Vilches saw a trailer for Rockstar's Red Dead Redemption 2 and was captivated by its visuals and portrayal of the frontier West. She picked up a PlayStation 4 controller, popped in the disc -- and her life would never be the same.

"The experience was so gradual and organic. I didn't know you could have this kind of an experience with games because I feel like I had missed out in a certain way," said Lawson-Vilches, of her response to Red Dead Redemption 2's lasting, emotional impact. "The game affected me on such a deep, visceral level. It's a part of me now."

Screen captures from Rockstar Games' Red Dead Redemption 2 showcase the detail and beauty of the game's environment. Images courtesy of Rockstar Games

Set in the American West at the turn of the 19th century, Red Dead Redemption 2 is about outlaw Arthur Morgan and his moral dilemmas and tribulations as a member of the notorious Van der Linde gang. The game has deep interactivity and a beautiful visual presentation that strengthened Lawson-Vilches' love for the rich story and layered characters. It was a transformative experience for the West Lafayette native, who now works for the company that's responsible for her career path.

"The themes and overall tragic -- yet hopeful -- tone truly made me fall in love not only with the game, but with storytelling in games," Lawson-Vilches said. "My goal moving forward became to be part of a process that will connect with someone around the world and evoke that same feeling. And now, I'm deeply grateful to have the opportunity to work within the studio that ignited that passion for me in the first place."

Video games are no longer just a fun way to pass the time; they're a large and lucrative business. The video game industry was responsible for $150.2 billion in global sales in 2019, out-earning both the global film industry ($101 billion) and North American sports organizations ($73 billion). The COVID-19 pandemic only increased the industry's profits as American consumers regularly broke spending records on video games during 2020.

With narratives comparable to top cinema and literary storytelling that combine with cutting-edge technology and visuals, video games provide an unmatchable immersive experience for the player. In video games, the audience is empowered to be an active part of the story and influence what happens.

"There is so much freedom in being able to decide what you want to do as a player, and I think that's a beautiful thing for everyone to experience," she said.

Lawson-Vilches was hired by Rockstar Games just after the start of the pandemic and has worked remotely since. She moved to San Diego in August and will be based out of Rockstar's studio there.

When she was hired, Lawson-Vilches still needed a couple of classes to complete her degree in media arts and science. The hybrid format of classes, and understanding from Wood, allowed her to complete her education while working full-time.

Wood's confidence in Lawson-Vilches was based on his experience watching her. She had established herself as a relentless student who went above and beyond to expand her skill set and build an impressive portfolio during her formative years. She pushed the technical limits and artistic vision of all of her assignments to continuously be improving. All students have assignments, but she had those along with an equal or greater amount of portfolio work.

"She knew what she wanted to do and, unlike many other students, she knew what that meant," Wood said. "She was doubling up on everything to make sure she got what she wanted as soon as possible. It's a special mindset that I'd love to see in more students."

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Lawson-Vilches spent over 100 hours working on this portfolio piece, inspired by the video game The Last of Us: Part II, amidst her regular course load. Image courtesy of Silvia Lawson-Vilches

One of her more impressive portfolio pieces is inspired by The Last of Us: Part II, a post-apocalyptic game in which the world has been overrun by "the infected" (zombies). She spent around 100 hours creating a hauntingly beautiful and detailed dilapidated cityscape from scratch.

Lawson-Vilches served as president of IUPUI's chapter of SIGGRAPH, a global organization for computer graphics professionals, and was also a frequent colleague of Jordan Barriger, a fellow December 2020 graduate from the School of Informatics and Computing. The duo had a passion project titled Halcyon, for which they explored using the Unreal Engine to develop a short film -- a first at IUPUI. The Unreal Engine is an industry-leading game-design tool that uses real-time technology for special effects; it's also been used in Disney+'s series "The Mandalorian."

For their work, Lawson-Vilches is responsible more for the visuals, and Barriger is the mastermind on the technical side. It's a balance that made the two natural collaborators.

"Our different areas of expertise have brought us the ability to learn from one another and be able to bridge what we want from a project," Barriger said.

Now that Lawson-Vilches has officially graduated, it's just a matter of time before her first project is released.

When a player finishes a game, credits for those who produced it appear onscreen, similar to television shows and movies. Someday soon, Lawson-Vilches' name will be one of those digitally etched in video game lore.

After she completed Red Dead Redemption 2, Lawson-Vilches watched the 30-minute credits scene and read the 3,000 names of those who worked on it.

Now, those names are peers.

She says her co-workers have been welcoming and kind as she embarks on a career and works to help create more blockbuster content from Rockstar Games.

The incalculable time, effort and creativity by Lawson-Vilches and the support of her friends and family led her to a dream job where she has to regularly pinch herself and express gratitude.

"Knowing that I'm part of this cog of a machine that breathes so much life into these characters and worlds that people find so much comfort in is so rewarding to me," she said. "It's been heightened because of COVID-19, but people are really looking for that comfort and space to lose themselves in. It's what drives me every day."