June Omnitopic: Color

Join us at Nightmare Mode for this month’s Omnitopic, Color! For those of you unfamiliar with the concept of the Omnitopic (and you shouldn’t be: we’ve done one before!), what it is is a chance for all of us to explore a specific concept or idea and try to suss out what it means for gaming.

And this month? Color.

The first time I noticed color in a video game was Okami. The beautiful shades, the contrast between the shades of gray in the world and then the vibrant colors you restored struck me and convinced me of the effect that visuals could have on the senses. The sheer beauty of the world. Then I played games like Madworld, with its stark lack of color, and Gears of War, with its tired palette of space marine gray, and I began to see the effect that color could have on a game world, in giving it character and life beyond just the story being told.

No. Let me start again.

The first time I noticed color was when I played Final Fantasy VII, and realized that there was only one person of color in the entire world: Mr. T clone Barrett Wallace. He had an adoptive daughter, Marlene, who was white, a major clash that really brought out the lack of racial understanding in the world. Where were his parents? How did this individual exist with such a foreign culture to the two expressed cultures of Wutai and Shinra? Where did he learn to talk like Mr. T? Was there a huge, racially charged underground movement beneath the surface of Final Fantasy VII, ready to burst out and try to integrate the world? Or was Barrett just a cultural artifact, a black man existing in a world where there were only whites?

No. Let’s start again.

The first time I noticed color was when I played the first console video game I ever played, Sonic 2. The vibrant, flashing colors, so much unlike the adventure games I’d played on the computer before then. It made me realize that video games could be beautiful, and that they could be something I’d want to make my hobby, obsess about, write about when I got older. Now, when older me revisits Sonic 2, I wonder different things: do people experience the game the same way I do? Do they see the same colors, in the same shades, as I do, or do they have a completely different experience? How different is my experience from theirs?

That is color to me.

Color is obviously a very varied topic, with a lot of different, exciting angles for us to explore. So come on back, and we’ll have more to offer you in the future about the various issues of color in video gaming.

As a final note, you might notice that big “Write for Us!” in the top right hand corner of the screen. If you do want to write for us, then write up a response to this topic and send it on in! It’s like an application process, where you do a lot of work and we get to read a lot of your work. Shiny!


  1. lucy Ashfield

    Colour has always been an interest for me in games, from the brightly colourful gems and butterflies of the original Sypro the Dragon on the PS 1 (the first game I ever brought) to the gun metal grey that is so common in games these days, first person shooters in particular. I understand that game developers wish to give us gritty atmosphere in a first person shooter such as Gears of War but I don’t think that it means that the colour palette has to only contain shades of grey and brown with the splashes of bright red for blood and suss shades of green for disgusting goo or acid. One expale I would like to bring forward to support this, although possibly not the best but the first that comes to my mind is Halo Reach. Yes there was still a lot of grey but it was offset by the colours in the background. Quite often in moments of peace I would just take a look at the sky or the surrounding to soak up the beauty of the world. The planet of Reach really is quite beautiful, even in war which makes its eventual glassing (sorry forgot to mention the spoiler alert) just that little more devastating as you know that the beautiful flowers and trees and even the sky will be tainted by the plasma that rained down upon the planet.

  2. Josh Brown

    Human beings are curious creatures, especially when it comes to the media. We tend to like movies and magazines and games that are bursting with color and excitement. I am not an exception to this rule (which would explain why I love Scott Pilgrim vs. The World so much) and I tend to value color in games more so than many of my peers. Color is what makes games attractive! A game that explodes vibrant yellows and blues gives the game a tone of excitement and joy, while a game with deep purples and blues a mellow and serious tone.

    The color also makes the environment stand out to the player, and the player will slowly become attached to the rich and colorful landscape before them. This makes the player care even more for the land around them, and the player can become even more attached to the world around them in the game.

    In a way, color is another way to tell a story. The color can give a sense of despair in hopeless situations, or happiness in joyful situations. The color can help to express the emotions of the character you play. An example of which would be Saboteur. At the beginning of the game Paris is completely occupied by the Nazi’s, and therefore the scenery is grey and oppressing. As you liberate the city, color flows in and helps to express hope and freedom coming to the region.

    To me, color is what helps keep me attached to the game I am playing. Color creates beautiful landscapes, and helps to tell stories. Color helps mediocre games become great.

  3. Ryan Peiffer

    In a more “ironic” approach to this topic: the time a color of a video game talked to me the most was when I was playing Limbo. Even though- no BECAUSE it was in black and white, the mood of the game was able to take form and dangle in front of you in the form of a twisted dream. Making the game in black and white, beyond the obvious reason: because it is an XBL/PSN game and the studio had a much easier time making it b&w than fully polychromatic *inhale* black and white took away the identity of the characters in the game as if they were shadows.

    If you played a game like Mass Effect or Fallout where all the characters are black blobs living in a gray world you would lose that “touch”: that little connection you had with your companions and even yourself, the protagonist. Being black and white in Limbo made me feel, disjointed. But that disjointed feeling was the engine propelling the game train along.

    When colors are missing its easy to notice that you always took them for granted. Limbo made an environment without any of the colors of the rainbow that sucked you into a darker place. (no pun intended)

  4. Sam Posner

    One of my challenges as a game designer is a lack of fluency in traditional art. I often scroll in awe through graphics threads on game development forums, understanding the technicalities of artists’ palette discussions only vaguely but realizing that the “feel” of games (as contributed to by their graphics) is largely the result of the colors they employ. My programmer art is inevitably incoherent; to establish a game world with a consistent style and theme an understanding of color is essential. A well-chosen color scheme can not only give games a unique and recognizable feel, but also contributes to their overall theme and context. While I may not be able to comment on the techniques of effective color choice, then, I can observe the effect that color has on games.

    Consider the Panzer Dragoon series, one which has been lauded for its art direction since its conception on Sega’s doomed Saturn to its most modern incarnation on the first Xbox. The setting is post-apocalyptic, yet the world’s color is not reduced to lifeless and murky grays and browns – rather, the vibrant hues of sentient biological weapons (read: monsters) and airships’ bone-white ornaments give it depth and unique texture.

    It may seem ironic that a ruined world would have such an idiosyncratic color scheme; we are practically conditioned to expect post-apocalyptic settings to be as dull and arid in their palette as their narrative context. By avoiding such a stereotype, games can both establish a unique and identifiable look and feel while contributing to a more absorbing and immersive experience.

    Take Sega’s Sonic series: it would be difficult to confuse a Sonic sprite for another game’s, largely because of the series’ unique and easily recognizable color scheme. Similarly, no game has airships quite like Panzer Dragoon’s bone-plated and flag-adorned variations, and I have yet to play a first person shooter whose weapons evoke as powerful a game-recognition as those in the Halo series – from the purplish alien offerings to the functionally metallic human weapons, I associate no other weapon set so strongly with a specific game. In all three examples, the color choices contribute to the fully-realized nature of the game world. Sonic’s playfully vibrant colors add to the game’s energy and fluid, arcady play. Panzer Dragoon’s wasteland is violently interrupted by splashes of color that mirror the game’s focus on life persisting amidst destruction (compare this with Fallout 3 – its muted palette detracts from a similar theme). Halo’s contrast between bland and functional human technology and colorfully ornamental alien machinery strikes a opposition that furthers the game’s central conflict.

    Color in a game (as in any graphical art form, really) must be used effectively for an interesting world to be created. Color is a powerful component of a player’s perception of a game’s theme, and is an integral component of constructing a consistent (and therefore recognizable) world. Look at screenshots of game series like Call of Duty, Gears of War and Doom next to images of the Panzer Dragoon, Sonic, and Halo series, and the effect that color has upon a game’s individual flavor should be obvious.

  5. Phil Jiang

    So you’re making a game. Take this formula into account:

    The big bad is decked in crimson (power) armor, accented with a black cloak(ing device). The air around him crackles with violet energy.

    Opposing him is our steadfast hero, clad in white and gold, his aura exuding a fey blue glow.

    But what if my game stars an unlikely hero? Someone who’s selfish and a bit of a jerk?
    Why just reverse the colors for the amount of “anti” you want in your hero!

    A shoot/slash first, ask questions later kind of protagonist? Add red.
    A brooding lead? Slap some black on him (or her).

    Of course it may not always be that simple, but
    When you distill the color motiffs of antagonist/protagonist characters, you’ll find 2 quite clear scales of personality.

    On one scale we have hue; from warm(red/yellow/orange) to cool(blue/purple/more blue).
    Red denotes impulsiveness, action, an animal drive. Humans associate the color with blood and fire, sources of vitality and energy.
    Naturally when we apply this to games we get a character who’s either the stubborn, gung-ho hero, or the vicious, destructive villian.
    Think of Duke Nukem’s signature red undershirt, Dante’s crimson cloak, Diablo’s flame-red hide, Giygas’s blood-red…swirl.

    On the other end of this hue scale lies blue. It belies calmness, intellect, an elemental drive. We associte this coolness with the ocean and the sky,
    serne entities backed by primodial enrgy.
    Cool color pallete heroes will be peaceful yet powerful, intellegent and spiritual. On the flip side, villians will be otherworldly, filled with primal power.
    Remember all the incarnations of Shiva?The Lich King’s throne? The original color of Solid Snake’s stealth suit?

    But wait! You say. What about colors that defy “warm” and “cool” like green?
    You wait. I say. I’m getting to that.
    In a way, these colors embody qualities from both ends of the spectrum.
    Green can represent both vitality and spirituality in the positive fashion. Recall almost every kind of elf or fairy, ever.
    In the negative fashion it can also denote the natural-yet-unnatural bile from zombies, demons, insects.
    Brown would be a true neutral in this little manegre.
    Neither very energetic, nor very spiritual, we see brown as a cop-out for the more vibrant colors.
    This is why gamers view “realistic” games as “brownwashed”. The truth is, the world we live in quite neutral, and brown is actually quite a dominate color.

    The second scale is that of brightness; from light(white) to dark(black).
    Mysterious black is juxtaposed with pure white.
    As you have undoubtedly noticed, light does not neccesarily translate into “good”, nor does dark translate to “bad”.
    However, do note the double standard we apply here. When a hero is clad in white, he’s fighting for innocence or peace or to free the world from corruption.
    But when a Villian dress the same way, we say he’s distant towards humanity (or replace with applicable fantasy race),
    that he believes in “purity” (the kind that leads to genocide), and/or he’s fixated on sterility and lifelessness.

    As the caveat to this intepretation, we fail to apply the same double standard to black.
    A darkly clothed hero is always a bit more “bad” than a differently colored counterpart.
    and most of the time we can tell that if the villian is evil and wearing black, he’s EXTRA evil.
    This comes from the association that the color black has with mystery.
    We think to ourselves: If the Villian looks bad and acts bad, what could he be hiding that makes him “less” bad? Do we care? Bad is bad.
    but, hey look, the hero looks good and acts good, could he be hiding something that makes him “less” good? Perhaps. Now I’m interested.

    Because of this way of thinking that we’ve come to adapt to, writers are able to create some great twists.
    It’s easy to predict that our dark trench coat wearing hero might do some unscrupulous things, but it’s not so easy to predict that
    the “Prince of Darkness” villian was actually doing good.

    The next time you play a game (or even read/watch anything with a story), notice the personalities of characters and the general theme of the world those characters inhabit.
    Looking to colors as an indicator of personality and attitude can change the way you view any piece of fiction in the future.

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