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Why are modern games so colorful?
Modern video games feature incredibly vibrant, saturated color palettes compared to games from decades past. There are several reasons for this evolution in visual style:
As gaming hardware has advanced, developers have gained access to technology that can display far more colors and graphical details. Early game systems like the Atari 2600 had severe limitations, with games restricted to 8 colors and blocky, low-resolution graphics. The NES improved upon this with 52 colors, but backgrounds were still simple and repetitive. Early PC games were similarly limited by graphics cards that could only handle a small color palette.
But over time, technology improved dramatically. The Super NES could display 32,768 colors, letting developers create more varied, intricate environments. The first PlayStation brought lush, colorful 3D worlds to home consoles. And modern gaming PCs and consoles like the PlayStation 5 can display over 16 million colors, allowing for photorealistic graphics.
|Over 16 million
As this table shows, modern consoles can display exponentially more colors than early systems, allowing for much more vibrant graphics.
Even with the improved technology, the use of highly saturated, varied color palettes is also an artistic choice. Early 3D games often mirrored the muted palettes of Doom and Quake, using lots of greys and browns. But over time, developers realized that games didn’t need to be confined to this aesthetic.
Cartoony games like Super Mario 64 showed that vibrant colors could bring joy and whimsy to games. Titles like Jet Set Radio and Wind Waker used cel shading to create graphically distinct looks. As open worlds became more popular, games like Crackdown implemented outlines and highlights to help players visually parse complex environments. Stylized indies like Journey leveraged bold, monochromatic palettes to create emotion.
There are practical reasons for colorful graphics too. Vibrant colors simply make objects, items, and characters easier to recognize compared to muted, dreary visuals. Distinct palettes help differentiate areas from one another. But many modern games use color not just for utility, but as an integral part of their visual identities.
Game developers draw from wider artistic mediums too, many of which utilize vivid colors. Cartoons and anime often exaggerate colors well beyond realism. Comic books leverage color to distinguish characters, locations, emotions, and eras. Pop art challenged tradition by embracing bright, bold colors. All of these influences have made their mark on gaming visuals.
Developers also study real-world locations when building environments. While many environments trend toward greens and browns, the real world has plenty of vibrant environments to draw from. Tropical settings like jungles and archipelagos, urban cityscapes filled with lights and signs, and fantastical places like candy shops all provide color inspiration. Games can realize these environments with far more visual splendor than reality.
Display technology has also driven the push toward more vibrant visuals. Early CRT monitors had fairly muted color and contrast. But LCDs, OLEDs, and other modern display types can reproduce colors with much greater accuracy.
And unlike CRTs, modern screens don’t wash out colors and contrast when viewed at an angle. With much of the audience now playing games on high-quality screens, developers can safely utilize the full spectrum without worrying about how the graphics will display.
Wide color gamuts, HDR, and advanced contrast also help modern displays make colors truly pop. So even if game visuals seem exaggerated on paper, they often appear natural and realistic on modern screens. This freedom empowers developers to think entirely new colors rather than dialing back their imaginations.
Vibrant color palettes also help games appeal to wider audiences outside hardcore gamers. Just as colorful mobile games bring in casual players, modern console and PC titles want to expand their reach too. Using visuals with broader appeal helps attract new customers.
Many popular competitive multiplayer games like Overwatch, Fortnite, and Apex Legends leverage bright, inviting graphics to appeal to youth audiences. Titles hoping to break into foreign markets often minimize cultural references in visuals and utilize universally recognizable color palettes. So in some cases, color helps decide the fate of whole projects.
Art Direction Advancements
Another key driver is the maturation of art direction in gaming. In the past, visual design was often an afterthought. But today’s games include art directors, concept artists, and other roles dedicated to crafting cohesive visual identities.
With holistic art direction, color becomes an integral part of conceptualizing and developing worlds, not just an addition at the end. And visual consistency across every asset creates a unified aesthetic.
These artistic leaders draw on color theory, psychology principles, and other knowledge. Their deeper understanding unlocks visual possibilities that weren’t considered or feasible in the past. And improved workflows let these visions reach final games intact.
Thoughtful use of color also helps storytelling by conveying symbolism and meaning. Red might represent danger, while green signals safety. Orange fiery levels can portray a sense of hell, while blue sanctuaries provide respite. Character designs can expose personalities through color too.
Environments mirror characters’ emotional states with palettes. Warm, vibrant colors might shift to cold, muted hues after a tragedy. Levels can transition from desaturated blacks and whites to explosive color after pivotal story moments. Color theming underscores narratives globally or within segments.
Setting the Mood
Color choice extends beyond pure symbolism into setting overall mood and tone as well. Different color combinations produce different psychological and emotional responses in players. So art teams carefully pick palettes that reinforce intended sensations.
Vibrant, saturated hues feel playful and childlike, perfect for cartoon worlds. Darker tones convey grim, hopeless emotions in horror settings. Highly contrasting complementary colors like orange and blue feel bold and exciting for action. More harmonious analogous palettes help provide calming atmosphere.
Vibrant colors also help games stand out in a crowded market. With so many titles releasing across so many platforms, visuals play a critical role in grabbing customer attention. Games relying on muted, traditional palettes risk blending into the fray.
But explosive, unusual colors are naturally eye-catching and memorable. They build brand recognition over safe, generic visuals. Colorful worlds clearly communicate genre and tone at a glance. And color leaves lasting impressions that persist even after players move on.
For indie developers, color provides a venue for personal artistic expression. Mainstream AAA games must satisfy shareholders, so their visuals trend toward mass appeal. But smaller projects allow individuals or small teams to inject more stylistic flair.
The most memorable indies often leverage color to craft their own signature visual identities. Limbo’s stark monochrome conveys grim horror. Journey’s sandy palette creates soothing loneliness. Papers, Please communist red evokes oppression. Color amplifies each game’s individuality.
Vibrant colors also help games thrive as streaming content. Streamers want to play titles that pop on broadcasts, since muted graphics can appear dull and dreary to audiences. Eye-catching colors make games enticing prospects for livestreams.
Color also helps streams showcase game worlds and moments. Streamers want viewers to appreciate exciting artistic setpieces. Colorful particle effects make battles more readable and satisfying to watch. So modern streaming prioritizes visuals that work both for players and spectators.
From unlocked artistic potential to wider mainstream appeal, many forces have driven gaming’s embrace of vibrant color. Modern hardware removes historical limitations, letting developers realize any color imaginable. Vibrant palettes attract new audiences. Mature art direction leverages color psychologically and symbolically. Streamer-friendly visuals utilize color to maximize appeal. While early games were restrained to simple palettes, modern titles are free to utilize the entire spectrum to craft gaming’s most vibrant art.