Games are deliberately very selective with their colour palettes, because colours are very strong signifiers that evoke different emotions or give different thematic clues. Games will have dominant colour schemes (Super Meat boy is mostly red, because that is the colour of meat, and a lot of Journey is yellow because that is the colour of
journey sand), and colours can also be used to communicate quickly: this thing is bad, while this thing is good. A colour can have multiple and conflicting meanings. Take red as our example. Red means anger and danger as well as love (and also meat). In many games red can be the colour of the enemy, and blue the colour of ‘our side’, but then colours have different associations in different countries, too. In the UK red is the colour of the Labour Party while blue is the Conservatives; in the USA the colours for the political left and right are the other way around – although this is a fairly recent change, as in ‘better dead than red’ becoming popular during the anti-Communist fever of the McCarthy era.
Colour can be used as a mechanic in games, like in The Saboteur, where Paris goes from black and white to colour as you free the various districts from Nazi control, or in Legendary Gary where characters have colour schemes that carry over from the real world to the imaginary world so you can identify them. Colours are used to distinguish teams in games, which is why it’s important to have options for colour blindness in games like the excellent Laser League. Then there are games that are in mostly in black and white, like Limbo, or games like The Unfinished Swan, where you add paint to a mostly monochromatic world. But recently I played two games that are neither black and white nor brightly coloured, but both mostly just… beige. This doesn’t seem like an especially compelling colour, being, as it is, the dry toast of the colour spectrum.
Apocalipsis is a point and click puzzle game about both a literal and figurative end of the world for the main character, Harry, who travels to the afterlife to try and save the woman he loves via the actual, biblical apocalypse. Apocalipsis is on the yellowy-orange end of the beige scale (painting on medieval plaster; old, brittle paper). We see the effects of the traditional big four of Disease, Famine, War and, inevitably, Death, all in an art style with strong black lines and cross hatched shading based on 15th century engravings. You know, the kind where all the people have weird fingers and even if they’re staring at a demon with no neck they just look mildly unsettled, as if they can’t remember if they double locked the door when they left the hovel or castle or whatever. There’s a kind of empty hopelessness to the world Harry inhabits. There’s just mud and sand and skeletal cows, all in the same colour. But this means that when the game does feature colours they stand out more. When Harry passed through a city destroyed by war, the backdrop is tinged with red as if the unseen streets are lit by fire. As he begins his descent into the underworld proper the black rocks are shot through with veins of sickly green. It’s very effective, both as a marker for Harry’s existence being devoid of life and meaning, and as a marker for the medieval period.
Beckett uses a similar colour range to Apocalipsis, albeit a darker one (cardboard box that’s been rained on; nicotine stained ceiling from the 70s) and tells a much more modern, not to mention grimy, noir story. Beckett is a missing persons investigator in an even grimmer version of London than the one that currently exists. The dark browns everywhere seem to express both Beckett’s personal depression and the economic depression of entire communities, as well as being the colour of an unhappy city. It’s the grainy grey-brown of buildings built in a brutalist style that hasn’t aged well, water collecting around blocked street drains, and alleyways sprayed liberally with fag ends and piss. Insects are a prevalent theme – people wear live insects as jewellery, Beckett plants a literal bug in someone’s home, and examining dead crane flies causes him to ponder his own mortality – and beige is also the colour of, for example, a seething bowl of mealworms.
It’s a kind of point and click narrative experience that looks like it was made out of the clippings and cuttings left over from a My First Collage workshop for burnt out private investigators. Dialogue and narration are given in shaky typewriter fonts plastered on the screen. Characters are represented by objects or weird composite images (a woman in a bar is a partly opened mouth attached to a pair of crossed legs in heels), and when they talk they don’t say the words on screen, they make a close, uncomfortable noise that represents them. Beckett coughs. The bartender is the sound of a drink being shaken. A mother is the noise of smacking lips. You will begin to feel uncomfortably unwashed after playing Beckett for approximately half an hour, and the colour choice is an important part of that because it helps to give Beckett a strong sense of place and identity.
Apocalypsis and Beckett are different but interesting games that you might want to check out, but neither would have the same effect or feel if they’d been rendered in glorious 3D high def, making extensive use of the full CMYK spectrum. So maybe dry toast is actually pretty baller.