I write these over at boxedinfinity.com, but I thought you guys would be interested seeing as though nobody knows my blog even exists.
GOOD COVER ART: DARK SOULS II
Grey is one of the more complex visuals tools. A seeming paradox, as it is complex in its perceived simplicity. Grey is not simple. When we think of grey we think of a mixture of black and white. The truth is that, in practical use, grey retains color. Thus, we can think of grey as an extremely desaturated color. Blue with 95% of the blue sucked out or red missing 98% of its redness. The essence of the hue remains, although barely perceivable. The soul of the color barely clings on waiting to be lopped off by the twitchy hands of the artist.
From Software’s Dark Souls II has fantastically bold cover art that is comprised, mostly, of grey. The back of a character, presumably the hero, faces the viewer as they trudge off, alone, into a foggy passage to a ruin. A bit of asymmetry in the sword-wielding hero and perhaps the hint of a forward hunch in the step suggests that this champion is worn, weathered, and might not have much time left. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of the Dark/Demon’s Souls franchise knows that the action RPG is characterized by brutal difficulty and an esoteric style of direction. The cover art alone beautifully depicts this and even to the eye ignorant of From Software’s monster, Dark Souls II seems daunting, strange, and cold.
For some historical reference let’s briefly study a painting more famous than its creator. Here we’ll see that same coldness personified in a setting as non-heroic as it gets. James McNeill Whistler’sArrangement in Grey and Black No.1 (colloquially known as Whistler’s Mother) uses many shades of grey and a single subject much like the cover of Dark Souls II. An old woman sitting solemnly against a grey wall dressed in black with a little white. In front of her is a hanging picture that looks perhaps like an industrial scene, and hanging across the left third of the painting is drapery that look floral in nature, but are also a darker grey. Is the grey sucking the life from this poor old woman? Is it a mirror of her current drab, menial life? Perhaps it’s metaphoric of an old woman having nothing to look forward to other than the darkness and flowers of a coffin. Was grey paint cheaper so that’s the color they happened to paint that wall? All of these are possibilities, but so much can be said for a painting simply of a woman in a chair. The lack of hue contrast gives a unified feeling to the piece. It’s not exciting but lonely and subdued. Think about how this would differ if just one item were red.
Take a look at Rembrandt’s An Old Woman at Prayer for another elderly woman. While this woman looks less dignified than Whistler’s Mother (frankly, she looks like an enemy from Dark Souls) the red shroud around her and the contrast in lighting give her a look that’s almost holy. We have dynamic messaging here. This hideous old woman is a champion of light in her own way, bathed in light from above. The red around her could be symbolic of blood. As in, the blood of Christ. Holy light and the blood of her Lord make this old woman something we could conceivably want to be like. Whistler’s Mother, conversely, doesn’t paint the idea of something we want to achieve. Physical ugliness juxtaposed with holy reverence is something that’s not so ambiguous here. Instead of greyness sucking the soul from the piece we have light illuminating it. Light makes color possible (another religious message in Rembrandt’s portrait, should you chose to see it that way) and taking away that light threatens the color.
Return to our hero in grey and look closely. There is some color on and back, on the boot, and on the scabbard but the majority is in grey. It’s as if the color itself is being sucked away by the scene before us. If you’re over 25 you may remember "Rainbow Brite." Both an animated and a (super creepy) live action version of the show existed and the main villain’s plot was always to suck the color from the world. He wanted everything to be grey. This would, ostensibly, suck all of the happiness from the world. In the cover art for Dark Souls II we’re seeing a similar theme. Here, grey is being used as a threatening mechanic. The hero is having the life sucked from the world around and, by association, the soul itself. It’s important to remember that grey is not black or white. There is still hope. Our broken hero can still limp through the fog and save the day. Perhaps at the cost of a life or even a soul.