Critical Examination: Color in Gaming

This is probably going to be my most pretentious Critical Examination post yet.  The bulk of you probably don’t like these things, or maybe you haven’t even heard of them, given that I don’t do them especially often.  But this is something that I have been inspired to look at due to what I have been thinking about with some of the games that I have been playing recently.  So let’s get this intellectual circle-jerk going with some thoughts about color.

Part One: Color in Stories

I am a story-seeker with games.  A good story is the best thing.  Yet, color is still a very big part of a story.  The right usage of color can set the tone.  The wrong usage of color can break it.  Let’s look at it in film before we get into gaming.  Hopefully some of you in my audience have seen the film Lost in Translation.  It is a poignant and beautiful film about two lost people and the love that forms between them.  In that film, they are able to take color and use it to make the world feel alien, both to our protagonists and to the audience.  It makes the world of Japan and its people feel like something that is unknown and unknowable.  That quality made for a richer setting, and helped us understand what it was to be lost in a world that we don’t understand.

Whenever you have a visual medium, the use of color is able to set a stage.  Our minds are programmed to find certain colors threatening and certain colors soothing.  People find black and darkness typically threatening, while bright colors are warm and peaceful.  While live action films have experimented with color and its usage, I think the best areas where color has been given a chance to shine is in animation.  By its very definition, color is a central part of the story.  I think to my favorite animated films.  Films like Fantasia.  In the Nutcracker Suite, color was used to make the elements of the world pop.  Each time that it was used, it was always flashy, and always popped.  In A Night on Bald Mountain’s segment, everything was in black, and the use of color meant to symbolize the various forms of devilry that the creature that lived at the top of the mountain could conjure.  Even at the end, when the light of Heaven overtakes the creature, color is still exceedingly down-played, right until the sun rises.  Even then, it isn’t as powerful as you’d think.  The richest and most outstanding color still was associated with that devil.  Symbolic?  Who knows.

The point is that when you have a medium where the trick is to get people to think about what they see, setting the stage will inexplicably involve the use of color.  But there are no set rules about it.  Red doesn’t have to mean hate.  It can mean love and passion as well.  Black doesn’t have to mean danger.  It can also mean secrecy or introversion.  Color on characters tells a story about who they are.  Color in a setting can tell us how to feel, or put us off of how we should feel, if used correctly.  Color can wow and dazzle, or put off and contemplate.  No method is the right way, and none is wrong, either.  It’s all how you choose to see it.

So what about an interactive medium?  How can color affect that world?  Wouldn’t it be much the same?  Doesn’t color have all the same rules?  I don’t think so.  Because in an interactive medium, it allows you to experience the world differently.  Let me give you some examples.

Part Two: Limbo

LimboArguably the darkest 2D puzzle-platformer, this game took a simple color scheme and used it to make an unfathomably dark and dismal game.  Just three simple colors – black, white, and gray.  With the use of what is typically called grayscale, the game was able to take a story about a boy looking for his sister and make it almost terrifyingly depressing.  The thing that helps is how grayscale is used.  The game always has this fuzzy and grainy texture, save for the elements that it wants you to notice.  Those elements are the main character, the puzzles, and the threats.  When the giant spider unfurls its legs from the tree that it is in, that is a clear-as-day image, and it scares the piss out of me to this day.  Can you imagine being that poor kid?  You see this massive bug unfurl from a tree and then you are in danger from it.  What would that to you when you had to deal with such a monster?

The grainy effect with the backgrounds helps tell the story that the world of the game is a desolate one.  It tells of a great society that once existed.  One that could control the weather and even control gravity.  One that made truly amazing things, but somehow ended up obliterating itself and then become the post-apocalyptic nightmare that you are having to travel through.  Since there is no dialogue and the narrative is vague, a lot of the game’s elements have to be exclusively-visual.  Not every game has to be a masterpiece of dialogue to tell the plot, like pretty much everything that Naughty Dog has made in the law few years.

Another game that used color to set the tone was Flower.  In there, color reflected the mind of the protagonist, from whose eyes we were seeing through as the game went on.  The difference between the two is that Flower used bright and vibrant colors.  Limbo used dark and subdued ones.  In both cases, the stage was set and the for how we perceive the game.  Arkham City is able to combine those elements.  The world the game takes place in is very dark gray, black, with dirty white for the snow.  So whenever color appears, it pops out instantly, and is almost-always either something to notice, or threatening.  Like how the world of the Steel Mill has tons of colorful elements, which tells us that the Joker is there, and you know that he is a threat.  The sheer range of color becomes threatening, while the gray is safe.  That’s kind of brilliant, actually.  In fact, pretty much every element that the game wants you to notice as threatening has a lot of color around it.  The green question marks of the Riddler, the blue tint of Mr. Freeze’s lab.  Whenever a lot of color is in an area, we know that that is not somewhere to feel safe in.

But that isn’t the only way that gaming uses color.  Other games use color as an element to help the player know which actions to take.

Part Three: Mirror’s Edge

This game was unique in more ways than one.  A game which is based entirely on parkour and first-person platforming, the color scheme in Mirror’s Edge is very limited.  White is the primary color of the world.  Every color that isn’t white immediately pops.  Anything that the game wants you to notice is going to be in another color.  But one color is very specific in being noticed – red.  Red is an action color.  Anything that is red can be interacted with in some way.

Whether it be the red objects that Faith can use as a launching point, or the red pipes that she can climb.  When she comes to a door she can open, it turns red as she approaches.  When a soldier takes a swing at her and has a weapon, it turns red to show that she can take the weapon, using the right button combo.  Red is the central color of so many actions of that game, and it conditions the player to look for it.  If you see a surface suddenly change red, that gets your attention.  This element was designed that way for a reason.  You needed something that would grab players’ attention in an instant, because the core component of the game is that you are running, very very fast.  So having white as the typical backdrop becomes second-nature.  Each change in color is noticed and can be noticed quickly.  Simple elements like that can help a game come together without the need for some grand system to operate it.  Simple, but effective.

Another game that have used color to help use display its mechanics is Life is Strange.  In that game, any object that can be interacted with has a white border form around it, with an action prompt.  It also fits well with the game’s aesthetic, like something out of a cartoon.  In Until Dawn, every object that can be interacted with has a shimmer, that can easily be missed if the player isn’t paying attention.  Given that that game is trying to make a story that is a mystery, having a clever way to both show and hide clues is important.  In older N64 games, whenever they would be describing how something works, typically they would just have the picture of the button.  There, the color of each button has significance to the game.  Like how you could assign various weapons and items to use in Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.

Gaming and the use of color is an extension of how it is used in film, that’s true.  However, since this is an interactive medium, when color is used, it is more significant.  It both plays with our minds and guides our action.  This is another area that shows that gaming is the medium where the elements of film can go so much further,  It shows that elements of fiction can be given more weight.  And color can also be used to tell what kind of a story a game is telling.  Let me explain.

Part Four: Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch

Ni no KuniThis game really could be a stand-in for any cell-shaded game.  Take your pick of which one you think goes best with this, but the idea still stands.  This is not a game that has a dark and thematic approach to story-telling.  This is JRPG fanfare of having an innocent protagonist, a cute and happy adventure, with colors that leap off the page to give each villain their identity.  For the titular villain, that works incredibly well.  Her color is her mood, and the color of her existence helps us learn about her and the fact that she is powerful and obscure.  But this game has a color palate that tells us that this isn’t a dark and gritty game that will mess with our heads.

Let’s look at a much different game – The Last of Us.  A dismal color palate that shows us that destruction of mankind and how dead the world is.  Everything is faded and grimy.  The level of detail in this world shows us that it is a place that we are meant to take very seriously.  That’s not to say that bright and very flashy colors can’t be used to tell serious stories.  The Borderlands games have very vibrant colors, along with violent mechanics.  But when you typically see a game that is cell-shaded or has colors that are meant to put your mind at ease, it does just that.

These are just some of the ways in which color is integrated into gaming.  What have you seen that helps you see what I’m talking about?  Or am I totally full of shit and just being a hipster?  Let me know down in the comments section.

Until next time, a quote,

“The purest and most thoughtful minds are those which love color the most.”  – John Ruskin

Peace out,



One thought on “Critical Examination: Color in Gaming

  1. Good use of color can certainly enhance a game. As an example I can’t get into over brown/grey shooters. Limbo’s visual look made it feel like a deeper experience than had it been colorful like Super Mario.

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