Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Colour me impressed

January 1, 1954 was the day of the first colourcast. People gathered to witness colour television for the first time, and they were stunned. Some people describe it as a life defining moment, that sense of absolute amazement watching these moving pictures in rich, vivid colour.

January 1, 2004 I was working in a video and games store in town and we had just gotten the film The man who wasn't there which is supposed to have a 40s feel to it. People who rented it returned it when they noticed it was in black and white. That's how much we take colour for granted.

That says a lot about the intelligence of those people, but also how passionately we feel about colour. So why is that?

Well, colour affects us beyond just giving a visual impression. We instinctively react to different colours, and they can actually make us feel things, like cold or warmth, sadness or happiness.

Did you know, for example, that the colour of waiting areas in hospitals is light green to sooth and calm patients and their families? Did you know that in casinos, the colour red is used to stimulate your senses and make you gamble more? Colour is light and light is energy - energy that has tremendous power over our emotions.

An emotion would be nothing on its own, though. The feeling of sadness is overwhelming because you're normally happy or neutral. Unless your life stinks that is, but let's just assume it doesn't for argument's sake.

Luckily there is contrast between colours aswell, and the same applies there. Transistions between colours can have an enormous impact, and the more surprising the transition is, the more intense. Have you ever had a birthday where your partner asks you to cover your eyes, walks you in a room and goes "OKAY, LOOK!!" and the room is FULL of flowers? Me neither. Anyway, we all saw the movie, and the girl goes "OH MY GOD!" and all that. Well that's not all just "you're a psychotic nutcase!", it's also "I'm having a near-orgasmic sensation right now because of all the pretty colours!" No really, I'm serious.

In the early 90s, the lack of graphics fidelity in games still slapped any realism ambitions on the fingers and made people think of ways to keep things visually interesting. At that point, platformers peaked, and it was according to Template 1A that developers made levels based on different themes. We all know them by now. Cave levels, lava levels, snow levels, water levels, forest levels, castles, ghost houses, etc etc etc. The funny thing is that even though presumably nobody thought too much about it, this provided contrast.

You'd be running around in Emerald Hill Zone, kick Robotnik's ass and start the next level in the cold and metallc Chemical Plant Zone. Now, years later I realise that there was a subconcious desire to see the next level and find out what that was like, because there was just no way you could guess.

Logic makes things comprehendible, and consistency makes things predictable. Logic is a sad result of realism, and now that graphics have reached a point where you can achieve something approaching realism, logic defeats the desire to make levels differ in the snow and lava way. There's more though, and I've taken the liberty to photoshop two screenshots to illustrate the difference.

I've divided them diagonally and desaturated one field.

Sonic The Hedgehog 2006 - in colour.
Gears of War - in colour, supposedly.

This is probably my biggest concern when it comes to game design right now. For some unfathomable reason we've managed to create entire subgenres of realism and grittyness that have forsaken the emotional impact of colour alltogether. Genres that have proven to be far more popular than the alternative. Combine that with the increasingly popular design choice of creating one large physical space for a game to take place - a realistic and predictably city-like city for example - and the visual flair potential of games is all but murdered.

Because that's what they have. Potential. Potential to affect us emotionally unlike any other medium - or perhaps like all of them combined. Games should be exciting, surprising, ever changing, and they should make us feel stuff. Every new level really should be like opening your eyes after being led into a room full of flowers, a near-orgasmic sensation. There should be a subconcious desire to see that next bit of it and not have it all figured out after five minutes of play.

Stop burning bridges and bring back blue skies.