Damn your eyes!
In a previous post, I briefly mentioned that certain members of the online fan community had reacted with dismay (that’s a polite euphemism, by the way) to Diablo III’s richer colour palette as compared with its predecessors. Today, I want to expand on this issue.
Colour in games is a subject I’ve touched on before. To put it simply, I think there isn’t enough of it. The trend, these days, is to go for grim, desaturated visuals in games, presumably because the developers are under the mistaken impression that using a colour palette comprised exclusively of brown and grey makes their product seem more mature and “serious”. The games industry has a rather irritating habit of aping Hollywood rather than breaking new ground of its own, and I suspect that what we’re currently seeing with games like Gears of War (in my opinion one of the most visually unappealing games released in recent years) is an offshoot of this. In filmspeak, “desaturated” has come to equal “raw and gritty”, and game developers, thinking that “raw and gritty” beats “fun and escapist” any day (despite the fact that any game’s first goal, surely, is to be fun to play), have latched on to this grim aesthetic.
Above: Isn’t this cheery?
I’ve already demonstrated the visual decay of the Unreal Tournament franchise, with the latest instalment, Unreal Tournament III, sucking all the saturation and joy out of a franchise that once prided itself on its arresting design and frankly excellent use of colour. Thankfully, there are people who understand that not everyone wants to play their games exclusively in brown and grey, with the recently released Community Bonus Pack 3 serving as an excellent example of what the game should have looked like from the outset. Here, a group of fans have taken the tools made freely available to them with the game and have created levels which, frankly, blow their official counterparts out of the water in terms of aesthetics.
Someone else who gets it is Brian Morrisroe, art director on Diablo III. Here is what he has to say on the subject of visual design:
There’s a certain amount of grit and realism that we want to bring to the game, but it’s important to take the player into a fantasy realm. That’s what we’re really all about here, is exploring that idea of giving you something you’ve never seen before. If we simply took photographs and just applied that to a bunch of polygons, that’s really not us doing our job, so we really wanted to explore and push this idea of bringing a unique, different look to the Diablo III universe.
Quite. Rob Pardo, Blizzard Entertainment’s Vice President of Game Design, expands on this when talking about the game’s colour design:
If you look at Diablo I and II […] they obviously have the Gothic look to it, but […] they weren’t very colourful games, and one of the challenges we wanted to take with Diablo III was could we add colour but still maintain that Gothic dark feel? […] I think we want to take […] dark as an emotion rather than actual colour art choice, and I think that’s something that took a long time to get to the point that we’re at now - like, I think we’ve probably gone through at least three pretty major art direction shifts until we got to the point where we’re on stage, because I think it’s really difficult to pull that off, but we’re really happy with the look of the game now.
This is all well and good, and I must say that, from watching the gameplay trailer and looking at the screenshots, and perhaps most importantly from listening to what the people in charge of the game’s look have to say, any fears I might have had that they didn’t know what they were doing quickly evaporated. Yes, the original Diablo is a tense, atmospheric exercise in mood, and much of its success in that regard an be attributed to the desaturated palette and heavy use of shadows, but that doesn’t mean that this is the only way to achieve that mood. Rich colours can be just as effective at conveying terror. Just ask Dario Argento:
Unfortunately, none of this seems to have occurred to the armchair game designers currently throwing their toys out of the pram over the new game’s art style. The web, in particular Blizzard’s official Battle.net and unofficial diii.net forums, are awash with people reacting with horror to the game’s frankly lovely graphics. Petitions have sprung up and angry gamers have threatened to boycott the game unless Blizzard alters the art style to make it look exactly they way they want, while the less articulate have resorted to calling the graphics “gay”, “cartoony” and “childish”.
The reaction, from some people, has been so extreme that the subject of this negative response was even broached in an interview with Brian Morrisroe and producer Keith Lee. Mercifully, Morrisroe’s response was a polite but firm “fuck off”:
Diablo II had some very vibrant colours in it, and that’s something we wanted to play up, and […] something we really wanted to continue to explore was how can we use that colour, how can we use that vibrancy to really establish a mood? If you look at a lot of pop culture out there, colour is used to establish emotional states, and that’s something that we’ve studied over the development of the product. […] We pick our palettes accordingly, so although it might seem vibrant, the contrast levels, the dark and light values that you’re seeing within the game are still within the realm of the universe that you know, but we’re just adding a bit more colour to bring out an emotional response from the player.
The thing is, what the complainers seem to be forgetting is that, if the vibrancy offends their eyes so greatly, it’s easy enough to dial down the saturation either on their monitor or within their graphics card’s control panel, in order to get something more akin to what they’re looking for. Once colour has been removed, however, it’s incredibly hard to add it back, and turning up the saturation control doesn’t make shades of brown and grey any less brown or grey. There seems to be an expectation among some people that Diablo III should both look and play exactly the same as its predecessors, which I honestly don’t understand.