Hand Drawn Colour-blind Friendliness: She Remembered Caterpillars
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
She Remembered Caterpillars is a puzzle game where a set of coloured characters needs to be navigated through a maze of coloured obstacles. Each character can only cross certain obstacles while others obstruct its way.
When I started working on this project, I was not yet aware of one of its major visual hurdles. At first I went the obvious way: bridges look like bridges, and walls look like walls. Character design could be anything but it would have to fit the world, of course. The results seemed promising. I could have stopped there. But I would not be writing this if I had.
But shortly thereafter, I came across an article about includification (a term coined by ablegamers) and how a game ideally should have options for those with colour-deficiencies. That made me think. Especially since there was a very early preview of our game on PCgamesN that started with the line,’this game is not for the colour-blind.’ After a bit of research, I realised that many games where the core mechanic uses a wide range of colours simply skip this part. But why? I wondered if it was that much more work.
Could I redesign the characters and obstacles in such a way that even someone with a strong deficiency would be able to play the game? It was obvious to me from the start that including a colour shift option in the game would not work because the game features a spectrum of eight colours. This left one other solution: combine each colour with a specific symbol.
While not a big challenge at first, it quickly dawned on me that not only did the symbols need to appear on the characters but also on each obstacle. What made all this even more difficult was the fact that in this game, players have the ability to merge two characters into a new colour which, in turn, meant that the symbols would have to explain this as well. And obviously it needed to be legible.
One might think that there is a wealth of information on this topic, given that 10% of humanity have a colour-deficiency of one form or another. However, apart from a few design articles I could not find anything that seemed helpful. Fortunately, I remembered some of my art education—specifically Wassily Kandinsky—and borrowed his way of associating basic shapes with primary colours. From there, I developed a set of matching merged symbols for the secondary colours. Consequently, black needed to be the combination of all of the symbols while white, the absence of colour (in this game), had to be a shape that was something else entirely.
However, creating a game in such a way that a colourblind or colour-deficient person can play it without a lot of trouble is not solved by simply associating shapes and colours. Afterall it was always supposed to be a game with coloured backgrounds. Every detail, every colour, every movement creates an additional piece of information that needs to be processed and understood. For She Remembered Caterpillars this meant making sure that the essential elements needed to remain readable regardless of who was looking at them. This is the main reason why I tried to make sure that on all characters and obstacles there is always a visible contrast between the colour, the associated symbol, and the backgrounds. To achieve this I made extensive use of a colour-blindess simulation tool called Color Oracle. Below is composite of screenshots showing the differences.
The approach resulted in backgrounds that tend to be relatively dark and mostly not as saturated as the main puzzle elements. One of the biggest challenges for me was balancing the amount of detail. I tried for simpler backgrounds in an early version but they did not feel immersive enough for me. The result sometimes is (hopefully) a working trade-off somewhere between legibility and a good sense of place.
and a final side by side comparison
She Remembered Caterpillars (caterpillar.solutions) is a fungipunk fantasy about love, loss, and holding on, told in the format of a colour-based puzzle game. A tale as the bond between parent and child, this lush and bewildering title will have players testing their wits against a variety of challenges, some devious, and others outright nefarious, but all beautiful and very, very strange.