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Playing with Color

A crop of current videogames is exploring new chromatic possibilities. "Seek the strongest color effect possible. The content is of no...

A crop of current videogames is exploring new chromatic possibilities.

"Seek the strongest color effect possible. The content is of no importance." -Henri Matisse

Hopefully this admission will not be anathema to you, but I only recently purchased an HDTV for my home. Part of my reluctance to join the one-third of Americans in the high-definition era was cost: I recently left my job at the Wall Street Journal for the lucrative world of freelancing. But the other piece was philosophical. I didn't want to succumb to the seductive pitches of videogame publishers that breezily pushed graphical fidelity as the most important consideration in understanding the medium. (Sony's new commercials for the holiday season are a prime example.)

This week, I had a slight change of heart. No, I still don't care about granularity or beads of CGI sweat on rippling biceps. But I have developed a new-found appreciation for the importance of color. Games, of course, have been in color for some time. "Galaxian" holds the honor of the first videogame in true RGB color, but since then color has been a descriptive feature. Now, a handful of games are using color as a defining trait.

"The Saboteur," released by Electronic Arts this week, tracks an Irish racecar-driver-turned-apostate who attempts to sabotage the German occupying forces in Paris. The WWII setting, of course, has been tackled dozens of times. ("You can almost hear people's eyes rolling into their heads," says Tom French, the game's lead game director for Pandemic.) But the game's approach to the turbulent time period relies on a novel use of color.

In the game, the occupied areas are shaded black and white with strong notes of red on the Nazi insignia. As you liberate each of the Parisian arrondissements, the areas return to their previous cheery demeanor and flood with color. The shift not only indicates the change in mood, but also serves as a guidepost for the player. Colorful areas are safe; the monochromatic regions are dangerous. "Black and white sucks the life and removes the mood of the world," French says.

Getting the right shades was a long process. "I don't speak art," French says. "But I knew when something was a little bit dark and needed to pop. It's like I could say ‘Choose Pantone 483.'" They cycled through several different shades of red before settling on one they thought worked best.

This new exploration of color can be seen in other games as well. In "the Unfinished Swan," you shoot color from a gun to illuminate the canvas of the world. In the tech demo for the game, the player's environment is completely white; projectiles of paint give the world its shape and allow you to navigate the terrain. In last year's "Mirror's Edge," color served as a signal to lead you through a world dominated by a coercive government. DICE, the developer, deliberately widens your field of vision (much like prey such as deer and antelope). This allows you to see a panorama but also makes everything very flat. That perspective shift forces you to fixate on individual colors. Reds serve as your allies and direct the eye to where the protagonist must go.

Like Matisse, videogame designers have strong chromatic sensibilities and are just as serious about technique and aesthetics as the legendary Fauvist painter. Games like "The Saboteur" won't pay for my television, but, at the very least, they add some much needed flavor to my new apartment.

Jamin Brophy-Warren is a freelance writer living in New Haven, Connecticut. He is a former arts and entertainment reporter for the Wall Street Journal, a contributor at Slate, and editor of the forthcoming gaming magazine Kill Screen.

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