In defence of grey and brown in video games

The observation doesn’t just apply to Gears of War. While the modern military shooter is often maligned as the most black-and-white-TV friendly genre of all, let’s not forget that Call of Duty 4—the game that certainly inspired this-gen’s biggest trend—used a desaturated palette for a reason.

CoD4 is a very different game to its descendents. A brutal, uncompromising, morally ambiguous tale of the unglamorous horror of military action, it’s a very deliberate attempt to highlight the matter-of-fact grimness suffered and inflicted by both sides. It’s a game that kicks off with your ‘heroes’ murdering a bunch of guards in their sleep. It peaks with your character’s slow, lingering death by radiation poisoning. 

The stand-out mission is a downbeat, methodically-paced stealth crawl through tall grass and irradiated wasteland in order to make one very significant kill via the very personal medium of sniping. The Technicolor treatment would kill CoD 4 dead. Yes, the gameplay could remain as it is, but the emotional resonance of that gameplay? No. The game just would not be the same overall work. Think about its follow-ups in contrast.

The later CoD games (whether Modern Warfare or Black Ops) became increasingly vibrant, trading in CoD 4’s blasted concrete minimalism for snowfields, favellas, jungle and bombast. As a result, the games slowly lost their sense of amoral realism and became increasingly possessed by the spirit of the summer blockbuster. With extra colour and extra gloss came great design extravagances which, while spectacular in a heavily stage-managed Hollywood kind of way, lost a great deal of the gritty intimacy that made CoD 4 such a striking experience. We've gone from uncomfortable document of dramatised real-world conflict to luminous action-figure heroics.

Hell, even a game as visually glorious as BioShock Infinite knows the value of subdued visuals. The first two-thirds of the game are awash with every colour the human mind is currently capable of perceiving. But during the third act, as poop most furiously interfaces with whirling blade, things get noticeably darker. Skies become bleaker, buildings become greyer. The game’s chromatic bandwidth becomes a great deal narrower indeed. Okay, BioShock Infinite never exactly becomes Killzone 2 in the clouds, but the fact is that the rule of visual punctuation is being adhered to. If the third act’s relentless, ever-scaling combat is the vocabulary that explains the desperation of the situation, then the visual atmosphere is the grammar that sets the whole thing off.

The first Bioshock is famed for the poetic sense of tragedy evoked by its setting. Every one of the player’s actions in and against Rapture is given extra weight by the decaying, faded opulence around him. And the simple fact is that BioShock wouldn’t be half as poetic an experience if that opulence wasn’t exactly as faded as it is.

And this is hardly a new thing. The concept of Pathetic Fallacy (or the attribution of human emotions or sentiments to inanimate objects) has been around in art since the mid-1800s. And it’s been in use for a lot longer than it has been formalised. It’s just a core part of the way humans create narrative, and creating narrative is a core part of the way humans interpret the world.

All of which semi-high-fallutin’ freewheeling brings us back to a single, simple point. Grim and gritty visuals in a video game are not inherently a bad thing. If they’re used simply because everyone else is doing it, or as lazy shorthand for “This game is serious and mature”, then of course they have no reason to assault your eyeballs. But if they’re being used to add texture, tone and narrative heft to an already well-constructed mix of gameplay and story, then in that case grey and brown are pretty damn indispensable.

You know that kid at parties who talks too much? Drink in hand, way too enthusiastic, ponderously well-educated in topics no one in their right mind should know about? Loud? Well, that kid’s occasionally us. GR Editorials is a semi-regular feature where we share our informed insights on the news at hand. Sharp, funny, and finger-on-the-pulse, it’s the information you need to know even when you don’t know you need it.


  • 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.
  • 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.

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

  • 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.

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