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In defence of grey and brown in video games

I was playing Gears of War: Judgment the other night. I was having fun, but eventually I realised something felt amiss. It took me a minute to plant my finger upon it. Everything seemed present and correct. There were guns. There was cover. There was shooting initiated by using said guns from behind said cover. But even taking Judgment’s excellent new arcade-style framework into account, it was lacking something I’d previously loved about Gears.

And then it hit me with force of a lead-lined truck full of galvanised guilt. I had become all that I hated. I was missing grey and brown.

You see I’ve long been the most aggressive banner-waver for the Bring Back Colour Brigade (the banner itself is covered in glitter and really quite fabulous, as I’m sure you can imagine). I grew up on the battlefields of the 8 and 16-bit eras, and spent my formative years wading through endless pools of congealing colour, the pixelated bodies of my enemies not so much strewn around me as flashing excitedly and disappearing. Often in a cheery hail of stars.

I’ve hated the desaturation generation for its tedious gritty aesthetic. Games are supposed to be a fun, creative medium of unlimited imagination. They’re the medium of world-building. Games are like digital lucid dreams in which anything and anywhere is possible. Yet in the era in which HD has made every game world inestimably more tangible and affecting, we’ve dropped imagination in favour of a boring adherence to reality. Screw you, brown and grey. Screw you with a Big Daddy’s rusted forearm.

But actually no, come back. You see it turns out I kind of miss you when you’re not around.

Not always, of course. This isn’t some kind of aesthetic Stockholm Syndrome where I’ve had my emotions so deadened by dull muddy tones that the mere sight of blue or yellow sends me scurrying back to the safety of my muddy hole lest I feel something. It’s just that some games do lose their dramatic impact once they go the way of Rainbow Brite.

Take Gears as a case in point. The first game is a perfect blend of gameplay, story and tone. Narratively it’s a desperate tale of stark, day-to-day survival, and the uncompromising assault of its gameplay is a flawless analogue. In both story and combat, Delta Squad are outnumbered, outgunned, forced into hiding and always on the back-foot. And the bombed-out desolation of Sera’s once-opulent streets makes the situation feel every bit as bleak as it plays. Gears of War is a cold, grey experience with an immense sense of isolation and as such, its visual design ties everything together beautifully.

Cut forward five years and we now have Gears of War 3. We’re told that humanity is now teetering so close to the brink that only its athletically-honed toenails can keep it from extinction. Yet we open on the warm, open-air deck of a jolly old farm ship, rendered with a colour palette and ambience straight out of Donkey Kong Country

Yes, the game uses a greater variety of environments than its predecessors, but between the summery, colour-soaked visuals and Marcus’ new short-sleeved holiday look, the vibe is completely incongruous with how desperate we’re told things are.

The situation is made even more apparent in Gears: Judgment. Without the excuse of a rangier narrative journey, the pallet change is even more jarring. We’re back on the mean streets of Jacinto, but it really doesn’t feel like we’re in the same place we visited in the first game, visually or emotionally. Yes, Gears’ gameplay has become less demanding over the years, and the main Judgment campaign’s stop-start structure certainly makes it less narratively affecting, but the ambience of the game absolutely hammers out any serious gravitas that might have remained.

Gears 1 was a morose, weighty, apocalyptic war movie. Gears 3 and Judgment feel like playing gory Saturday morning cartoons. Of course the way you feel about that comes down to subjective personal preference, but if you’re looking at games as directorial narrative works rather than simply fun excursions then tonal texture goes a hell of a long way.

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31 comments

  • ChinaMite - April 7, 2013 3:29 p.m.

    In the title, defense is spelled wrong. Good read though.
  • SwirlyGreenLogo - April 7, 2013 7:47 p.m.

    GR is riddled with typos, but this isn't one of them. That's the UK spelling, buddy.
  • ChinaMite - April 8, 2013 5:01 p.m.

    Oh...well i stand corrected. I'm American.
  • Arobadope - April 6, 2013 9:47 a.m.

    Wait.....Gears of War 1 wasn't that brown and gray I would recommend going back and replaying it. Yes, it had a good amount of both, but it also had a lot of areas where there was quite a lot of color.
  • dns - April 6, 2013 8:56 a.m.

    The problem isn't one or other game using more gray and brown than other colours (If those games are set in a game that it makes sense, normally post war setting). But the problem is that games that tend to be realistic use more gray and brown than the real life. Don't no but to me Mirror's Edge colourful skies are way more beautiful and remarkable than the "realistic" Battlefield 3.
  • sephex - April 6, 2013 4:55 a.m.

    Gears of War is the only game grey and brown fits.
  • Craza - April 6, 2013 1:18 a.m.

    Depending on the game, a somewhat drab color palate will suit the game better than a bright one. In a game like Fallout, which is a pretty recent post-apocalyptic world in which practically no plant life exists because of little sunlight and intense radioactive fallout, you would not expect to regularly come across a lush oasis with bright green trees (which you do later on, but you find out why). Now, in Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, it's a post-apocalyptic world also, but it's hundreds of years after the fact, so there has been time for the world to go back to normal with its overgrown environment. Skyrim, on the other hand, is set in an extreme cold, temperate climate. There are beautiful landscapes and some greenery here and there, but you would not find abundant colorful flowers and green grasses in a typically rocky, snow-packed area. I get how people would complain that every game looks the same with its browns and greys, but it is pretty dependent on the type and style of the game, or the mood the game is trying to represent. So, I was happy to read this article, and I can agree. I love cheery and colorful games, but that style doesn't go well with a dark, moody atmosphere (Unless you're doing it ironically). Think of Limbo, too, and how a different art style might not have worked nearly as well as the one it has now. As far as the Call of Duty series, I think what I said before still comes into play. In CoD4, you're in tundra, bleak cities that have been ravaged by war, and other places that wouldn't have much color to begin with. In Modern Warfare 2, you're in cities with more color because they've just recently been invaded. There is still plenty to see of that place's culture. There are dark moments, too, however. It's a great topic that I'm glad to see has been brought up, and brings a new mindset when it comes to color schemes in the big games today.
  • NullG7 - April 6, 2013 2:25 p.m.

    Did you say everything you wanted to say? Your comment is a bit short.
  • Craza - April 6, 2013 4:35 p.m.

    Nah, of course not.
  • Slayer11496 - April 6, 2013 12:37 a.m.

    Gotta admit, you're totally right. The toned that faded pallets give subtly make the game more memorable. For the right game, of course.
  • SUCKxITxEZ - April 5, 2013 10:11 p.m.

    I never understood why people didnt like the grey and brown scheme. Always kept me calmer, so I could play much longer before getting frustrated. I always pick hard mode, even if it kicks my ass, but all these colorful shooters recently get my heated quickly, even if im doing well. Starting to think the color gets me all crazy or something.
  • avantguardian - April 5, 2013 8:46 p.m.

    yep, i'm all about equal opportunity when it comes to color schemes. nice article, hooters. in regards to gears: judgment, i haven't played it, but since it's a prequel, i could see the depiction of the world as being a lot less far-gone. hence, a more colorful palette. don't know about gears 3 though...
  • talleyXIV - April 5, 2013 4:56 p.m.

    Certain games need brown and grey while others do better with colors. I want my Mario games with tons of beautiful color, but on the same I want Gears of War to be gritty and dark. Generalizing and saying that all games need one or the other is dumb.
  • TNStratLvr - April 5, 2013 4:13 p.m.

    When Quake was released back in 1996 it was revolutionary in graphics, network code, distribution and started a new era for the modding community. But over the next several years there followed a consensus of gripes about the color palette used in every mod and game using the Quake engine. “Too much brown and grey ,” they would yell and so developers started trying to implement a wider color pallet and once Half-Life came out no one was gripping anymore. 16 bit textures and game locals that had nothing to do with stone and dirt filled the market. Fast forward to 2006 and the same gripes start to surface with the release of Gears of War. “It’s all grey and brown,” is heard from the bell towers once more and of course the developers pacified the nay sayers and Gears of War 2 came out with a broader color pallet. Not enough of course to stifle all claims but most. By Gears of War 3 there is not a frame that does not try to implement every color of the rainbow. Which brings me to today. I have been playing through the GoW series in anticipation of Judgment that is released on March 19th and not to mention that it is my favorite series of this generation. The story is well , weak I admit but the character progression and third person action has yet to be matched. There is something familiar and honest about every encounter these soldiers run into. And aside from Baird they do it because that is what they signed on to do there is not many left to do it. They are in a war for the planet and odds against them they do it and get the job done. Much like Master Chief and his unwillingness to give up. Also being able see your character feels almost like your controlling a story and brings me back to the battles I had as a kid when the kids on the block would pool all their GI Joe’s together for one massive battle that lasted until dinner time. Gears of War starts in a decimated city. Understand? Destroyed, unpopulated, and full of monsters. Should it look like candy land? I see what the developers were going for with the art style. Grim and gritty. I missed it with Gears of war 3. It is dark and broken and sets the mood for the world around them. I didn’t see that grittiness with GoW3 although it is by far the best in the series. Epic Games changed some things based on fan response, as they should. I mean we are the ones buying the games, however I just wish that more developers would stick to what they vision as a world or a character. This is an art form and you can’t make everyone happy. eldergamer.blog.com
  • AtlanteanLancer - April 5, 2013 3:51 p.m.

    after some time of lurking this article made me join the site it takes guts to admit you were wrong. very good.
  • avantguardian - April 5, 2013 8:37 p.m.

    welcome!
  • AtlanteanLancer - April 6, 2013 10:01 a.m.

    ty!
  • shawksta - April 5, 2013 2:53 p.m.

    Nice read David, you always know how to make your point, even by your own skills that will just get to the point, keep at it! The bleak look does tend to stick with aspects and especially story sometimes when it gets its point across.
  • Lurkero - April 5, 2013 12:54 p.m.

    Grey and brown shooters tend to be the best sellers, but in terms of every other genre the games are rather colorful and saturated. I would associate the popularity of grey and brown more with the shooting part and everything else tends to be peripheral.

Showing 1-20 of 31 comments

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