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Game And Swatch Color Theory For Game Designers
In a medium as visual as video games currently are, working with color is a key element of design. It might appear that color design is best left to the game artists, but in fact game designers can use proper color management to their advantage, to create strong narratives and clear gameplay. There are many books about this subject, many observations to make and there will be a ton of stuff unmentioned my article here. But still I hope you get some inspiration and arguments for a more conscious use of color in whatever stage, level, world, section or area your are creating. Here is a rough write down of stuff I discuss with my game design students at Games Academy, when it comes to working with colors in video games. Two Levels Of Communication With Color

In this article I’m going to tackle communication with colors on two levels, which I labeled distinct colors and color situations.

Distinct colors are colors that have a commonly known name. As simple as that. Colors, which can instantly and without ambiguity be labeled, are as powerful in communication as any spoken or written word. From an very early age on we are told by our parents, children books, teachers, games and toys to simplify the way we recognize and talk about colors. While in fact there are many variations of hue and brightness and complex mixtures of colors surrounding us, in verbal communication we have learned to settle on the most dominant colors and describing them in the most simplistic and general way. The sky is blue, fire trucks are red, frogs are green, eggs are white and so forth. Maybe adding the quality of "light” or "dark”, if necessary. If you are not thinking in design, art or styling terms, this is how you consciously process how things are colored.

On the color wheel, primary and secondary colors are easily named and therefore distinct. Red, blue, yellow, green, purple, orange. Tertiary colors and even more complex mixtures can be described by their color recipe, but lack distinctive names. Those complex mixtures of color are stuck between their distinct color components, with no identity of their own. In conversations, those colors are usually labeled with the name of a related primary or secondary color. An orange color, with 2/3 yellow and 1/3 red is usually still simply described as orange. Other distinct colors, commonly used in conversations are brown, pink, flesh color (or skin color), silver, gold, turquoise and rainbow color (primary and secondary colors in sequence), sepia and khaki maybe. Then there are distinct colors, that are often described to be colorless, depending on the context: black, grey, white and black-and-white (which is a simple term to describe the absence of colors in media).

To process colors on a subconscious level, we use another simplification. Color Situations. The mixture of colors, the lighting and irregularities due to texture, just the actual colors that hit our eye in all their complexity are summed up into one manageable overall color situation. These situations have a subconscious impact on the viewer, connecting to our primal instincts. To us as animals/early humans color was instrumental for survival. Rich green plant life signals an inhabitable environment with plenty of water, fruits and animals life to live from. Low saturated greasy and browns suggest the opposite, making environments harsh and hostile. Spots of bright reds signal danger, physical damage and pain, since this is how blood looks like in the open. These kind of associations are branded into our subconsciousness and make color situations an effective tool to trigger moods and emotions.

Of course as kids we also learned to identify and describe some color situations verbally and on a conscious level. But this is more about naming the emotional impact a color situation has, instead of naming the colors themselves. So for the sake of clear argumentation in this article, I’d like to make the following hard split:

Divide and Conquer
To effectively aim at the brain oar aim at the guts, you need to clearly separate distinct colors from color situations in your color compositions. There are a few principles, that work quite fine to help the player recognize colors as distinct or as color situations. They of course work best, when used in combination.

The player understands, that some things have been given a specific color for a specific purpose. Traffic lights are red or green to tell us something, clothing is colored for a purpose, colors are used as labels and so on. The player also understands, that there are some things that just happen to have a certain color without a purpose behind it. A rock is grey, just because he is and the sky is blue because of the weather. The player learned from real life to give more attention to colors, when they have been put there by humans for the purpose of communication. If you ask for the player to watch out for red markings on walls, he always will prioritize the purposely placed red graffiti over the accidental blood splatters. This one is actually the strongest principle to make the player recognize, that he is suppose to consider the distinct colors you throw at them.

This has something to do with controlling the focus of the player. Effective contrast can be light vs dark, low saturation vs high saturation, reddish vs greenish, reddish vs blueish. Those contrast are commonly used in real life. Think of the brightness and high saturation of yellow police tape or of warning lights, where distinct colors are often displayed by an own light source. The eye registers contrast in compositions and in sequences. The player can recognize the contrast between a color, which the object currently has and the color, which the object will have next.

This one is simple. If you want the player to consciously process everything that is blue, make sure that nothing else is actually colored blue. That’s how it is done in Gears Of War, where the color blue is exclusive for the COG armor and weaponry. The silly lights on the Gear’s armor, the signals on ammo boxes, the aiming aid when throwing grenades and the sight of the sniper rifle all appear in distinct blue, while everything not COG related consequently isn’t. Epic even goes as far as giving blue lights to now "friendly” hijacked Reavers and Brumaks. Of course the strong saturation contrast to the environments comes into play also.

Conclusion Part One
Now that we got the two buckets of colors separated and cleared up, let’s check on how to utilize them to full effect in part 2 soon.
This is a follow-up to part one. I established some terminology and principles in part one, building up to this article. So read it. No, honestly, do it. Let’s check out a few of thousand ways to use color situations and distinct colors to your advantage. Iconic Colors
Use a limited selection of distinct colors to make your characters recognizable. Just as it is with company logos, corporate identities, simple combinations of distinct colors are easy to remember and quickly to grasp. Back in the days where few pixels needed to flesh out a character, clear distinct colors were necessary to make sprites readable and recognizable (think Mario and Luigi). Nowadays those technical limitations don’t exists. But AAA characters still maximize their own and their franchise’s value of brand recognition by betting on distinct colors. Marketing win.

Puzzle Solving
The player connects objects and elements colored in the same distinct color and is even able to bring distinct colors in order. This he learned from baby age on and later needs no explanation anymore. This helps create instantly understandable gameplay situations.

Separation And Affiliation
From boardgames, over sports, companies and nations to political parties and back to the days of tribes and caves, color labels are used to mark group affiliation. A clear and consistent color language helps the player separate friend from foe. For a player to know his own distinct game color gives any game a sense of competition, even when the gameplay is not centered around conflict. The classic red blue green yellow combo used in New Super Mario Bros. Wii, allows every player to identify with a color on screen and recognize the other players to be from a different party/team/faction, just like he learned when playing board games and sports.

Color Information And Conventions
The player can understand previously learned conventional meanings of colors. You can take from real life, by using the commonly known conventions of your target audience. For that you need to provide the necessary context. Red in and out of itself can have many meanings, so the right context is needed to trigger the correct interpretation. In western cultures, a red cross on any sort of container = medical supplies, a red traffic light = stop, a red light blinking on a machine = danger or malfunction ot a red drop = blood. A red lit room can be a bordello or a photograph’s dark room. So check on the culture and common knowledge of your target gamer and provide context. You can of course establish your own meanings for distinct colors, but if you want to do this you have to be consistent with your distinct colors and give the player time and guidance (maybe even verbal explanations) to learn.

When the player recognizes a distinct color, he will always give it more importance and attention over the overall color situation. This can be used to direct the attention and focus of the player towards certain elements. This is why so many bosses have distinct color weak spots.

Tactile Sensations
Color situations are a very effective way to suggest tactile sensations. The human brain is wired to attribute certain feelings and even the taste of things to certain colors. This is mostly based on memory and conditioning. Reds and oranges are associated with warmth and heat, while blues suggest coldness. This can simply be backtracked to the sensations of fire and water. In color theory we even talk of color temperature and infrared view uses the same system to mark warm and cold objects. Whites and light grays, like early morning fog, suggest freshness. Another way to suggest temperature is warm brightness, referencing sunlight.

You can also convey tactile sensation by using distinct colors. A water tab for example is marked with red and blue for hot and cold water. You can use red and blue, commonly used to indicate burning hot and cooling cold water, to indicate a similar ideas of pain and relief on screen.

Color situations play an important role in determining if an environment is hostile or friendly. Humans are evolutionary primed to feel most secure in fertile areas, which are indicated by strong greens (plant life), strong blues (water) or both. Now adding hints of red, purple, orange or pink, anything warm and you have a very comforting color scheme for your environment. Not so fertile and life friendly environments, like deserts, burned areas, rock, dead wood, rust, rotten plant life come in a mix of blacks, grays, browns, and pale greens. Red adds an idea of threat, heat and danger here. Just keep in mind, what overall color situations our ancestors where searching for or avoiding, when picking a place to stay.

Monochromatic Sequences
Due to the qualities of vintage photography, old film, drawings and low-tech print, placing a sequence in monochromatic colors makes the player look at the sequence from the outside. Instead of being in the sequence, the player feels like looking at some sort of media depicting the sequence. This is often used in movies and comics to illustrate a flashback or exposition sequence, sometimes supported by additional film grain, flickering, washed out areas or fake old paper effects. I’m kind of confused, that there are so little games letting us play monochromatic flashbacks, regarding that black-and-white and sepia are so commonly understood. Monochromatic color situations can of course also be used to give a sequence a unique edge or baseline emotional tone.

The bright, vibrant and oh so random colorfulness of children’s clothing, kindergartens, kid’s drawing utensils, candy and heaps of toys are one of the many things that make Super Mario games instantly appear to be fun. While you fight in the hostile gray-brown environments of Dead Space, explore in the lush green jungles of Tomb Raider, you play in the toy-colored mushroom kingdom. The key here is not to just spread around colors, so that they blob together into one homogenic mix. Playfulness, this childlike feeling, gets triggered by a lot of recognizable objects with distinct colors, so we get the appearance of many fun or tasty things to interact with.

Conclusion Part Two
Like I said, there are a 1001 more observations to make and tricks to note. The many more ways in which colors affect us emotionally, are conventionally used or culturally understood. One could write a whole book about this subject (and some probably already have). But I hope, that you can extract some inspiration from this write down. If you can, you should check part three, where I share some cool tools and tricks to work with color on a game concept level.
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