A rally against gaming's visually-dull future0 Comments
Just about anyone who thinks of the oldest film they can imagine will name a title that's presented in black and white. Applications of color in film reach back to right around the inception of motion pictures, but it took a few decades for color motion pictures to become the norm. Video games went through the same sort of transformation, though not for the same reasons – by the time games were complex enough to have more than just the barest visuals, some form of color was already available through specific displays.
In both cases, once color was adopted, it became commonplace. We see in color, so why would entertainment media not be in color? Like with photography, movies have a particularly acceptable license to be black and white, but the same isn't necessarily held true for games. However, even though some games deliberately employ a monochromatic style – the indie hit Limbo springs to mind – there's been a trend toward dulling the vibrancy that was once found in the games, even within high-profile titles. And it's not a trend I'm fond of.
Some of the worst offenders in this regard are modern games set in the future. Take Fallout 4, for example. Some hundreds of years after a nuclear holocaust, the Commonwealth is rebuilding itself, and despite areas practically pulsing with radiation, the world seems to be healing. There are trees and shrubs and interesting (if not terrifying) new wildlife; grass covers rolling hills between ruined cities and bomb-blasted impact craters, and the still-remaining signs of commercially-driven human civilization stand starkly against broken highways and battered buildings.
So why is the world so damn brown? Almost everything to be seen in the game seems covered with a dusting of filth, which might be understandable if no one in the future has the sense to clean anything ever, and the result is that anything under the game's bright blue sky seems monotonous, dull, and lifeless. Even where flora can be found, none of it is really green, which just makes the world feel so bleak. It makes sense for the setting, no argument there, but it doesn't make for a very visually compelling experience.
If the trend set amongst modern video games is to be believed, any post-disaster or disaster-filled world will be almost entirely devoid of visual vibrancy. Resident Evil 6 throws players into a realm dominated by browns and blacks, the ruined urban landscape of Tom Clancy's The Division is comprised nearly entirely of grays and cool blues, and Battlefield 4 is similarly plagued by washed-out hues. Even fantasy worlds don't seem to be able to get away from this trend: Dark Souls 3 is predominantly gray and black; Mortal Kombat X seems to turn down the contrast of its environments despite arenas of various and differing colors; and even Shadow of Mordor is largely dominated by reds and browns, though in its case the game fortunately offers up a second area that is considerably more lush.
As a stylistic choice, muted tones and limited color palettes make sense. It fits the mold. Even movies are doing that now. You might even think it would just be weird to see unexpected splashes of color when you're running in terror from horrendous creatures, or mowing down hordes of alien invaders in a last-ditch effort to save the planet. Surely that setting calls for a dark and grim world, right?
Not so much. Even M-rated survival horror games can be colorful without losing fear or tension. Take The Last of Us, for example. This game's ruined post-apocalyptic Earth is crawling with disgusting mutants singularly driven to put a grisly end to the player's life. It's a tense experience, filled with elements of stealth, shooting, and face-to-face melee brutality. It is, by all accounts, one of the finest survival horror games ever made. And the world? It's downright gorgeous. In the absence of a bustling human population, nature has reclaimed the land, and trees and vines that have cut through buildings and infrastructure burst with vibrant reds and greens.
Another example is the vivid fantasy universe in one of this author's favorite game series, Ratchet & Clank. It's a third-person action extravaganza where players fight off the likes of alien armies and murderous robots, and it's about as colorful as any game can be. Sure, it doesn't share the mature tone shared by just about every other game mentioned here, but it's no less exciting for it, nor has it suffered any less praise because of it. It's an excellent series known for pushing the limits of the hardware it runs on, and part of its breathtaking charm comes down to the bright and and luxurious feel of its many worlds.
I'm not of the opinion that realism in video games is directly tied to monochromatic environments. If anything, a representation of the natural world should feel exactly that – natural. Our world is lush and filled with all the colors that humans can perceive. And if games are dealing in worlds that are not based here on Earth (or a place much like it), regardless of whether or not it is futuristic or alien in origin, those worlds should reflect the sense of wonder inherent to those themes. Sure, a Blade Runner-esque look in a game can be fun and appropriate, but after years of gray- and brown-dominated landscapes, surely someone has to say enough is enough.
Though it may certainly seem this way, this isn't an argument against themes that favor a monochromatic visual style. A game about fighting Nazis in an alternate-past castle isn't going to have the particular palette featured by something like Katamari Damacy. And that's just fine. Rather, this is an argument for games to do what they're uniquely suited to do, and that is to provide an experience that pushes the boundaries of a player's imagination.
We have the choice to be dropped into any environment we like, to engage in a vicarious experience outside the realm of our realities. Why anyone would prefer to place themselves into a barren sepia-toned wasteland is beyond me, and the idea that people might pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars for the privilege is downright bewildering. The high-fidelity, high-definition technological landscape we live alongside is a fount of possibility, and I for one want to see the resulting software pushed to its psychedelic, technicolor limits.