By Mento 8 Comments
I should preface this blog, all about how video games effectively use colour, by stating that I have absolutely no background in anything art-related (I thought Mario Paint was pretty sweet though). So instead of discussing colours as they pertain to graphical wizardry or aesthetic appeal - evidence that supports my lack of expertise with either will of course be appearing at the end of this blog as usual - I'll discuss how they can directly influence and be instrumental in the gameplay, which is really more in my wheelhouse.
Colour as Symbolism for Polarity
This is a fairly common use of colour in games, where it is used as a visual shorthand for a binary "on/off" gameplay facet. A good example of which would be Outland for PSN: The colour-switching between "light" and "dark" polarity ties in the story and is instrumental for most of the game's action, which involves switching on the fly to avoid damage from traps and attack creatures of the opposing element. Like Ikaruga, its inspiration in several ways, these two polarities are the colour-contrasts orange and blue - ostensibly to create a much more striking effect against the largely black and white backdrop.
A far more frequent example of this, using color-contrasts as a visual metaphor, are the reds and blues of Mass Effect and other Bioware games, where they represent a moral polarity of red for Evil (or Renegade) and blue for Good (or Paragon). It's an effective - if slightly over-simplifying - way of encapsulating a usually far more abstract split of ideologies. Outside of video games, it's a concept that's been with us since Star Wars and GI Joe, so it's fairly ingrained at this point.
Talking of ingrained, at some point in our collective gaming history we've had it drilled into us that specific colours mean specific things in our games. Like how we instinctively associate the colour red with the forces of evil, we could just as readily associate it with health potions and health meters thanks to the many games for which that colour choice is the case. Likewise, we could associate a red health bar with one that is in critical condition, rather than a healthy green or caution-advising yellow. Then again, green can also symbolise the poison status or our stamina meter. Blues are mana or magic related, purples can again suggest a toxic affliction and orange probably still sends tingles up the spine of any Valve fanboy. Okay, fine, I couldn't think of a good example for orange.
Colours are commonly, but not always, assigned to specific icons and concepts in games as, again, another visual shorthand that gamers can recognize and integrate into their understanding of a game as they learn its ropes. Having a head-start with recognized and established colour-coding alleviates much of what the game needs to explain to you - though it'll almost certainly do so anyway to avoid alienating newcomers. Often individual games and franchises will use a convenient standard of colour-coding as well: Final Fantasy fans are familiar with magical schools as dictated by their colours - white for curative, black for destruction, red for versatility and blue for special abilities learned from enemies.
Similarly, when gamepads were being designed during or after the 16-bit era (depending on region; American SNESes lacked the colour variation of their overseas cousins in lieu of a subdued set of purples), colours were assigned to different buttons to form yet another cognitive pathway for players - alongside letters, shapes and symbols - to visually associate an icon on-screen with a button on their controller.
Colour as Symbolism for Life
Vibrancy in games is often attributed to bright colours and backgrounds, the more colourful of which the better. A gritty realistic game will often mute these colours to convey to the player the seriousness of the explosion-and-sideburns-a-thon they're about to embark on, while games intended to be
more fun, less depressing, more abstract and family-friendly enrich the colour palette to almost eye-searing levels to appeal to its wider audience.
More interesting though, is when games take this vitality metaphor and apply it directly to circumstances within the game. Okami, Twilight Princess, de Blob, The Saboteur and Mento favourite Wizball are all examples of games where the landscape begins monochrome and inert and fills with life and colour by way of the actions of your protagonist. As you return life to the world and expel whatever dark forces are in the process of ravaging it, the game brightens up as an instantly gratifying impact of your accomplishments.
A subtle but effective use of this monochrome/full colour contrast can be seen in The Wind Waker, which creates in the black & white Hyrule Castle a really striking metaphor of how frozen in time the once great bastion now is, especially when compared to the profusely-coloured world above.
This is the point where I open the floor to you guys: Do you recall any other effective uses of colour in not just the visual appeal of the game but also as it relates to its gameplay and/or narrative elements? Any art design major types want to talk about great examples of purely visual examples of colour? Anyone want to deride me for using the British English spelling? Because I'll warn you now that half the mods are British. Just sayin'. And don't worry, I'll be throwing in with everyone else on the GOTY blogs next week. Because I know that was a concern. And now...