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 obvious reasons.
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:
The 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:
Now that the radiosity can't really be perceived, the visual quality doesn't go off balance.
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 specular highlights.
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 competition.
As 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/]