Color is a huge factor in conveying the tone of any visual medium, and gaming is absolutely no exception. From the vibrant pallets of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker to the muted tones of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and even the infamous “piss filter” of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, a game’s choice of color can go a long way in making your game stand out. And nothing stands out quite as much as the boldest choice of all: to deliberately make your game lack any color at all.
Of course, monochrome entertainment isn’t anything new for media, and certainly not for video games either. Some of the most famous retro hits of all time were entirely in just two shades of black and white, including the likes of Pong and Spacewar. While it took film decades to get to color features, it only took Atari 11 years with a color version of Gotcha in 1973, and by the time the Nintendo Entertainment System had rolled around and the industry as we knew it was in full swing, black and white games were a thing of the past.
But should they be? As photographer Mike Ricca wrote in 2012 about the advantages of black and white, “There’s no color, no hue to distract you. Composition suddenly becomes more pronounced, light doubly so. Shadows appear deeper, highlights pop”. The lack of unnecessary color can help you focus on the important details. The prime example for this would be LIMBO, which used the brightest whites for the eyes of the games’ mysterious figures and pitch-black for spurts of blood during the game’s oft-gory deaths, the splotches of black flying across the white and light grey backgrounds.
Of course, another less subtle but certainly more stylistic way to call attention to details using monochrome is to allow certain elements to retain their natural color. Platinum’s Mad World kept everything black and white except for vibrant red splashes of gore ala Sin City, further exaggerating the game’s already over the top violence. Last year’s Hatred took a similar approach, with a majority of the world in greyscale with the exception of the brightest lights and, of course, the buckets and buckets of blood. But unlike Mad World, the gore takes a decidedly darker shade to reflect the tone, even threatening to mix in with the black of the shadows.
To take it a step further, you could look at The Saboteur, which uses this tactic of going into monochrome with the exceptions of bright lights and vibrant blood-red for the many swastikas plastered around Nazi-occupied France. But what’s really interesting is what happens when you clear an area of Nazi influence—the liberated areas undergo a Pleasantville and are drenched in a cheery pallet to drive home the increased spirits of the local population.
In a similar fashion, Splinter Cell: Conviction uses monochrome vs color to show the change in tone, but in this case it’s the bright pallets you should be worried about. Instead of any bars or audio cues, Splinter Cell: Conviction makes it so that the color drains whenever you’re under the cover of shadow. Another great example of transferring from monochrome to color can be seen in the SEGA Genesis cult classic Mickey Mania, where the level based on the classic cartoon Steamboat Willie starts in black and white and finishes in vibrant color, showcasing the legendary Mouse’s transformation to the color age of TV.
Along a similar line, Kingdom Hearts II‘s “Timeless River” level turns Sora and pals black and white to fit in with the retro-cartoon look, a nice touch that really helps sell the level as a period piece. Fallout 3 takes a similar approach with the surprisingly enjoyable Tranquility Lane mission, set in a black and white simulation meant to simulate the sitcoms of the 50s and 60s. But as far as using a lack of color to sell the time period goes, no game is quite as good as L.A. Noire, which has an option to set the game in monochrome to help complete the game’s pastiche of classic film noir. Not only is it just a nice touch on Bondi’s part, it actually makes the game look much better and dampens some of the “uncanny valley” effect of the highly detailed character models.
But that’s just scratching the surface of creative ways monochrome has been used in games. In my many years of playing games, I’ve seen everything from using it to show your character being at death’s door, to the freezing of time, to being an easy way to show when you’re watching a flashback. There’s endless opportunities for what one can do with color, but perhaps the most remarkable of all is when you remove it from the equation entirely.