We've all heard it before; since the PS3 and Xbox 360 generation,
our games' color palettes have moved towards desaturated tones. I'll
try to explain why this has happened, and focus on one of the less
Since textures are now of higher resolution, dirty surfaces such as
rusty metal, rocks, muddy grounds, damaged concrete, etc., can look
pretty good. On top of that, using specular highlights implies metallic
or wet materials.
Dynamic lighting coupled with normal maps leads us to
make environments where surfaces are not flat; we're more likely to
make damaged or rocky surfaces to get that extra detail in our
environments now that our shaders allow us to, and metallic surfaces to
make specular highlights and normal maps more apparent as the lighting
moves over the surfaces. So by default, the new tech leads us in a
certain direction. We could make some nice looking clean world, but it
would imply new challenges to overcome.
Imagine you were to look at a painting of a person. You know it's
not real, hence there are various errors that might subconsciously
bother you, even though you wouldn't have noticed them if those same
apparent errors were edited into a photo. You might not be able to
pinpoint what's wrong with it, but instinctively your mind noticed
something wasn't right.
Video game worlds are by their very nature
artificial. There's all sorts of factors that we would normally not be
bothered by that will simply feel wrong when seen in a video game. A
very clean hallway will look unfinished and a perfectly straight edge
will look like it lacks detail.
So we can tell that already, the artistic direction has been
influenced by the development of the tech we can now use, and that the
video game medium makes it easier for the viewer to doubt what he sees.
But why desaturated colors? There is one thing that our current consoles
are terrible at; lighting. Our current lighting solutions are
improving, but for the moment we have much difficulty simulating
indirect lighting, especially in real-time. In the previous generation,
graphical quality was not high enough for us to be bothered by the lack
of indirect illumination in our saturated environments, but once again,
as graphical quality rises, so does our expectations of how the world
should be presented. Just as wonky animations will shatter immersion,
so will poor lighting.
To hide this problem, we tend to instinctively desaturate
everything. The mere presence of saturated colors unbalances the rest
of the image. Since we often have some form of ambient occlusion in our
environments, this visual effect makes the game look more visually
convincing. The lack of indirect illumination, or more specifically the
lack of radiosity, brings this level of believability off balance.
Here is an image that illustrates the problem:
top image doesn't look bad, ambient occlusion (the dark edges around
the areas where the different surfaces are close to one another) works
well to add quality to the image. But the lack of radiosity doesn't
feel right. Imagine if this scene was actually a colorful sunlit living
room in a penthouse. The lack of bouncing colors would really cheapen
the quality of the image.
Here's the same image as above, but in black and white:
that the radiosity can't really be perceived, the visual quality doesn't go
The game Mirror's Edge used some nifty tech to simulate
indirect lighting, which was really vital to the game's visual quality.
It simply could not have been set in a clean white city with brightly
saturated surfaces if it wasn't for this tech; it would have made the game look cheap,
fake, and not immersive at all.
Gears of War
on the other hand had an artistic direction developed around the idea
of using the new graphical developments to their full extent, so Epic
went for dark environments with bumpy rocks and dirty metallic surfaces
which would allow them to light the scenes up with multiple dynamic
lights, allowing them to get the most out of their normal maps and
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves has an even more saturated palette than Uncharted: Drake's Fortune
because their lighting solution has vastly improved since and can be
showcased rather well in colorful environments.
They also use saturated
colors to make certain objects stand out so as to guide the player
throughout the level, it's subtle but it works well. Uncharted 2
will probably be even more of a trend setter than Mirror's Edge since
it manages to pull off the gritty look while still using a unique color
palette. It really allows the game to set itself apart from the
our lighting solutions unify and become more dynamic-oriented, we can
expect the next-generation games to have a much wider variety of
color palettes as real-time translucency and indirect illumination
become easily achievable. Expect saturated colors to be the new brown.
[Originally posted at http://www.allegory-of-the-game.com/]