I am on the record as saying that I think that continually spending more money on graphics is foolish. It’s not that I hate good graphics, or that I don’t want to see graphics improve, but I hate what the rising cost of development is doing to the industry. If games cost a lot to make (and they do) then you need to sell millions of them just to break even. With sales targets like that, you can’t afford to experiment. Which is why we have so many bland, same-y shooters. Worse, the increase in graphics power has caused developers to develop this sick fetish for photo-realism that has sucked the color and charm out of far too many titles.
If I can deliver a bit of a beating to one of last year’s sacred cows: Mass Effect 2 had some sections that seemed very uncharacteristically bland for BioWare. KOTOR, Jade Empire, and Mass Effect were visually striking journeys with lots of color. (Except for the random planets in Mass Effect, but stop interrupting – I’m making a point here.) Mass Effect 2 had several industrial ruins where everything was the color of rusted metal. When your floors, walls, horizon, and characters are all the same color, you have a recipe for monotony. If the artists who made the lush, vibrant world of Jade Empire are susceptible to this trend, then who can be safe?
Because of this, I was not looking forward to Crysis 2. I heard that it was set in destroyed New York, and I assumed that it was going to be a study in concrete and dirt. The trend has been for games to become ever more visually bland, even as their graphics engines become more advanced, and I just assumed CryTek was chasing after the “brown shooter” market. Instead, the artists at CryTek gave me a visual treat – a feast of color and contrast. About ten minutes into the game I had to admit that they had melted my Grinch-sized heart and created a world I couldn’t wait to see. I am actually sickened by my own enthusiasm.
It’s odd to realize that the company famous for its technical prowess and making next-next-next gen graphics engines is actually setting itself apart from the competition through the use of art. Yes, the Cry Engine 3 (the graphics engine driving this game) is an amazing piece of technology, but the difference between this engine and the previous one is probably something that’s actually hard to spot in a screenshot. This isn’t the 90’s where a single image is all you need to figure out what year a game was released. Crysis 2 looks better than Half-Life 2, but those games are almost seven years apart. Yet the visual difference between the two is nothing compared to the difference between Doom and Duke Nukem 3D, which were three years apart. Or compare Wolfenstein 3D and Doom, which were only a year apart. Yes, Crysis 2 looks fantastic, but I think the artists deserve as much credit as the programmers who built the foundation.
Color is a powerful tool. I don’t want to go all MovieBob on you, but game developers could learn a lot from filmmakers. George Lucas* once pointed out how he made the main protagonists of Star Wars wear earth tones. (*I’m talking about George Lucas, the filmmaker who was active in the 70’s and 80’s, not the famous toy magnate of today. I don’t know why, but people are always getting those two guys confused.) The good guys wore warm colors, while the bad guys were entirely black and white. It created a stark visual difference between the two sides. It made the troopers stand out on the sand-blasted world of Tatooine, both visually and metaphorically.
When you see a character driving down the road in a red convertible, take a look at the other cars on the road. They’re likely all white and gray so that the car can really stand out. It won’t do to have Vin Diesel pull up in a fiery red hot rod, only to have a bright red Prius scoot up beside him at a traffic light.
In The Matrix, the virtual world was tinted green to help the audience keep track of what world they were in. Most people might have not consciously noticed it, but their subconscious did, and that tint was a powerful tool for helping them make sense of a potentially confusing premise.
The colors you see in movies are carefully chosen to set mood, to draw the eye. To denote importance. To make the audience remember an otherwise unremarkable detail. Which is why I get so pissed off when games build a world out of rusted metal and coat it in a layer of concrete dust. They’re giving up one of the most powerful tools at their disposal.
If you play through Crysis 2, keep an eye out for what the artists have done to make the scene “pop”. Brightly colored cars. The angle of the light. The use of trees to break up large stretches of concrete. Making sure the shadows fall so that the foreground and background have contrast. The game has a few stretches (mostly underground) where things might get a little tiring, but most of the game is interesting, varied, and unique.
Note to other game developers: Before you send your boss over to CryTek with the company checkbook to shop for a new graphics engine, why don’t you try putting a little color into your current engine and see what you get?