Colour me happy – colour and symbolism in video games

How a change of colour palette can change everything

A small child stands on a rocky embankment, brittle leaves crackling beneath his feet. Lifeless tree branches puncture the air around him. There is no preamble. No tutorial or prologue. The child starts running, thin limbs pumping, his tiny, red torso the one splash of colour in an otherwise monotone mystery.

I’ve never forgotten that introductory sequence of Inside. Other things happen in that game – huge, awful, terrifying, inexplicable things – but that opening segment sticks in my mind like the dark sap of an alien tree.

Inside’s striking visual style isn’t without precedent, of course. Its predecessor, Limbo, offered a similar 2D, monochromatic palette, coupled with those piercing extremes of light and shadow. Developer Playdead has only released two games thus far, and both sport the same stark stylistic choices.

We never do find out that child’s origin story. The sad truth is, I don’t suppose we need to. His surroundings are nowt but darkness and sharp shapes skulking in corners. There’s an exaggeration to the shapes and shadows here, as though the world we see is presented through the hyper-real lens of a child terrified of the dark. It’s why each shadow is sharp and intimidating, hiding an unmentionable something – an unfathomable something – in its depths. It’s why his experience is drained of colour. And yet on he runs, too fearful to stop, his red sweater the only splash of colour in an otherwise dark and terrifying landscape.

LIMBO
LIMBO. Credit: Playdead

It might feel like a game’s colour is for aesthetics purposes only, perhaps a way of indicating an important button or item, but it’s so much more than that, too. You don’t need to be a psychologist to understand how, or even why, such a muted palette unsettles us so. As well as acting as a functional aid to help sighted gamers identify key items and landmarks, colour tells us how we should feel, too. A world that sings with colour and texture feels warm and bright – inviting, you could say – whilst a world bereft of it, is all but devastating.

This is because colour evokes emotion. It is symbolic. The colour red signifies many things: passion, danger, heat, sacrifice and even success. Blue, on the other hand, can provoke a sense of serenity and nature, elicit memories of summer skies and balmy beaches. You could take any scene from any game and drastically alter its mood by simply laying a coloured lens over it. Colour isn’t just an aesthetic choice – it’s a vital, and often-underrated, way to subtly affect mood, too.

Girls
Girls. Credit: Nomada Studios

Take Gris, for example. Our eponymous heroine also starts in a monochrome world, her turquoise curls the only colour on an otherwise large, empty expanse of… well, nothing. Minutes go past as she too races from her past, and for a long while nothing changes. Yes, the music is melancholy, but you don’t have to hear a single note of it to know Gris is in pain.

But then she lifts herself up off the ground, chin held high, and colour – a dark, bloody, perhaps even ominous red – blooms from her heart, mushrooming around her like a paintbrush dipped in a beaker of water. A half-hour later, you’ll add in subtle greens, then unlock blues and purples. You know that with each new shade, Gris is healing – getting stronger. Colour is her therapy. There are no words. No audio logs. No helpful, expository dialogue. Just colour.

But it’s more than that, too. Colour can also intimate a sense of unease, symbolising when something’s off – alien, even. A still-life of an apple tree in a meadow against a summer sky might not seem out of the ordinary, not at first, but what if that apple was purple? The tree blue? The sky blood red? What would you think about the world you inhabited then?

Games aren’t alone in this, of course – filmmakers have long since been using colour palettes to dictate mood (just look up how many sci-fi movies, not unlike Portal, lean on blue and orange grading). And it’s not without its issues. How colour is decoded varies wildly both culturally and individually, which makes it difficult for developers to utilise colour uniformly across global audiences.

So yes, I remember the vibrant games, the bright, beguiling worlds of The Outer Worlds and Breath Of The Wild that are stuffed with colour and texture. But it’s the dark, shadowy ones that stick with me most. Games like Inside that evoke an overwhelming sense of loss and sadness with nothing but light, shadow and a lone red sweater in the middle of the screen.

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