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The Color of Games
by Matthias Zarzecki on 01/03/13 04:21:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


A thought occurred to me: Can games have a certain "Color"? Not that they contain colors (everything does, after all), but that some games have a certain color that describes it, and between which you make a connection, as in "This game is red!"

I will try to attempt an experiment to convey my point. All the images and screenshots in this article have been blurred, in order to reduce them to a simple "blob" of colors.

I've noticed there are 3 broad categories of colorfulness.

1. Games with a certain color (or color-scheme) woven through them

A good example is Deus Ex: Human Revolution, which is gold. There are no other games who do this, and Human Revolution practically owns it.

The combination of Gold and Black is woven into the fabric of the game, from menus to architecture. Not every level is gold, of course, but it persists and appears in a lot of different ways.

Here is a packshot from Human Revolution, which has been blurred.

And here is an in-game-scene.

Note how the color persists.


Are there more? Well of course!

In Saints Row: The Third, Like in the aforementioned Human Revolution, one color is woven throughout the entire game, seen in menus, architecture, clothing, and other misceallanoues stuff. Unlike Deus Ex, it's not gold, but violet/purple.

Here's Mirror's Edge. It has a unique combination of white and light-blue

This is always recognizable as belonging to Mirror's Edge.


Color is such a basic element, you can structure an entire game around it. Let's take a look at the recent Hotline Miami.

Look at the neon-pink and neon-cyan. What do these colors tell us? The contrast tells us this game is set at night (probably, mostly). It being set a night we can infer it is probably not a happy-go-lucky mario-esque-platformer. These neon colors are rarely used in children's entertainment, underlying the adult themes, perhaps also reminding us of nightclubs. I thought back to 1988-1993, when pink and cyan were en vogue. This could mean the game is either set in that period, or alludes to it, and will probably not feature post-2000-technology.

All this information. Gained from a single composition of colors. These colors are unique. They belong to the game, and its aesthetic.

Well, not completely unique. There is this crappy movie from 1987, whose poster I think was a deliberate basis for Hotline Miami.


2. Packshots/Titles-Images of games with a unique color

Here's the packshot of Left 4 Dead.

No other packshot uses this color. And while the dark green is not prominent throughout the actual game, it does appear, and through the packshot/title a connection is instinctively establiched by the viewer.

Other memorable "Title-Colors" include the stark white-black of Arkham City

And, for a lack of better examples, Left 4 Dead 2



3. Games which fail to establish a color

Another experiment. What do you see?

Packshots of titles which are highly similar and lack any meaningful or unique identifiers. These games fail to establish a unique color. They do actually have some color, but it's mostly Gun-Metal-Grey and Dog-Shit-Brown.

(Clockwise: Call of Duty, Call of Duty 2, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warface, Medal of Honor 2010, Killzone, Gears of War 3)

If you look at these screenshots from afar, you couldn't tell which game they belong to.



Looking at the good examples, it is quite possible to see how a color can be the basis for a game. I keep thinking about centering a game around "yellow". I have no idea what could come out of it, but it probably would be interesting and unique.

Not every game has a color. Not every one has a unique one, which is truly its own. But the successes are recognizable from everywhere. This is an important advantage, and should not be unterestimated.

I'm going to start giving my games colors from now on. I mean more so than usual :P



Also posted on Matthew on Game Design

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Harold Myles
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Interesting. Kind of stretching it on the analysis of Hotline Miami though.

The colors are ... Miami.

Its all those crazy colored Cuban stucco buildings. Look at GTA Vice City. Go to google image search and type in 'Miami'.

Blue, Cyan and pink.

Tom Baird
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Why does Batman Arkham City establish it's color as B&W, but Medal of Honour (also B&W, with a lower brightness) does not. Same with COD4 (It's a distinctive Green Hue).

As well, with #1: Games with a certain color, this has to do with Color Theory and the common practice of defining your palette in advance, especially on a project that has multiple artists. When working on a particular asset (UI, Static Geometry, Models) you are usually given a set palette to choose from of colours that represent the feel of the level or game. Left 4 Dead uses lots of dark greys/browns, with a generally low saturation, to achieve it's dark and gloomy feel. Mirror's Edge uses the Blue/White crisp colours, with Red as a contrast to help players identify relevant geometry (Any time you are feeling stuck, look for a Red object you've not yet reached) and to make the world feel clean, sterilized(which ties into the context of it's story), and yet vibrant with easily identifiable distances(many of the ground textures are highly gridded, rather than using texture offsets and detail maps to hide the seams). The predominantly white, low-detail ground textures, mixed with directional lighting, also allows you to discern horizontal and vertical surfaces quickly and easily to identify exactly where a ledge starts.

The decision of colour and entire palettes throughout a game is usually a very concious choice, and can be chosen to express certain moods and to aid in rapid, intuitive, reading of the environment when attempting to move through it.

Edit: Journey is a great example of concious palette choices and using a focussed palette to evoke a specific atmosphere. It doesn't fit into the 3 categories listed, but it provides a great example to look at to analyse what colours were used, and how they developed the overall atmosphere/mood for each region.

David Serrano
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This is simply an extension of color theory and science. If you'd like to learn how other industries use color to communicate specific themes, moods, tones, etc... I highly recommend Pantone's Guide to Communicating with Color by Leatrice Eisemann:

Jonathan Jennings
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I consider Katamari Damacy / We Love Katamari to be a rainbow . It's so vivid , light , simple, and fun

TC Weidner
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I very much think and love and use certain color pallets for every game. Color is powerful, and can convey much when used deliberately and properly. Artist have known this since the dawn of time, and as mentioned above, businesses has known this for awhile, its why say McDonalds used to use ugly orange and yellow in their interiors, it was to make customer less than comfortable, and therefore keep the booth open and moving.

I love running color themes in games, but thats just me.

Neil Jones
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This is Interesting, I think I like batman's the most because it shows the most contrast from the game and whenever I see anything with a white background all I can think of is batman.

Bernardo Del Castillo
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Yeah, thats cool, a lot of games do OWN a color pallete.. but it can also be a problem.

A lot of people criticised Journey for looking like it would be ALL DESERT, which in the end was just a very specific area of the game. In contrast I feel that human revolution overdid the yellowy hues, at points I wasn't sure if my monitor was just stuck in sepia golden. The point is that we should be setting an aesthetic principle without being forever literally chained to the exact same look.

I call bullsh*t in the nominees to the "undefined" category though, As much as I don't like the series, the cover of modern warfare 1 is PERFECTLY recognizable and has a very distinctive green led color, which is also coherent with most in game hues.

On the other hand, as stylistically cool as I find Arkham's city Black on white, I find it hard to say that it represent's the game very well at all. It stands out in the box, but isn't relaly a good description for the style in the game (In my opinion, it actually speaks about assassin's creed much more than Batman).

In the end, I guess I already said it. I think that the important thing is to set up a tone woven through the whole visual communication of the game. But for me It's not so much a much a precise color definition, as a matter of setting an attitude (like what guildwars 2 does with the painter-esque style).

Chris White
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this is an amazing concept when you truly look at it great article.