How Designers Use Light and Colour to Create Great Games

25 May 2021

From Myst to Overwatch: How colour and light breathe life into video games

by Zach Kyle

It’s easy to forget how beautiful the world of Myst looked when Cyan published the game in 1993.  Set on a picturesque and mysterious island, The Stranger wanders the world, completing puzzles and unlocking locations filled with heavy fog or shadows or bright sunlight reflecting off of the rippling water.

Myst had to visually arrest because, other than completing puzzles, there wasn’t much for players to do other than to take in the scenery. There were no enemies to fight or even characters to talk to. How did Myst become a bestseller? By making the world feel real, says Elouise Oyzon, an expert in game design.

“While the imagery in Myst is pretty static, and the graphics of the time were pretty limited, the designers made very deliberate choices about light and colour,” Oyzon says. “They came up with something pretty gorgeous.”

Oyzon and Stephen Jacobs teach students how to make video games as professors at Rochester Institute of Technology. They and their colleagues at the School of Interactive Games and Media teach every aspect of game design, including how to program game-play mechanics and how incorporating techniques from film, photography, theater, animation, and the rest of the arts makes games more vibrant.

Light and colour selections are only part of game design, but they are some of the most important tools for making worlds atmospheric and setting a vibe. What would horror-survival games, such as Resident Evil or Dead Space series, be without all of those shadows to conceal monsters or flickering lights to reveal them? How many modern games classics, such as The Witcher 3, Red Dead Redemption 2, and countless others, feature constantly changing light conditions thanks to a full day/night cycle?

Those artistic touches make games immersive, Oyzon says.

“Different times of day feel differently,” Oyzon says. “High-light settings feel safe. High contrast settings or those with more effuse light indicate threat. Those are all things designers play with. It all comes back to how the designer wants the player to feel.”

We asked Oyzon and Stephens to pick a few of their favorite light and colour effects in video games. Here’s what they said.

Experts share designers’ tricks of the trade for making immersive, atmospheric games

Grim Fandango and Genre

Horror isn’t the only genre with a colour palette. Stephens says each genre in film and gaming comes with a visual lexicon that establishes expectations for the type of story about to unfold. One of his favorite games, Grim Fandango, does exactly that with heavy doses of film noir tropes, starting with the dimly-lit detective office.

The game also creates humor and whimsy by making its characters cartoonish skeletons, Stephens says. But the noir genre anchors the experience.

“It’s a game that mashes up the Mayan afterlife and the Day of the Dead and film noir,” Jacobs says. “It riffs on Casa Blanca. Just like horror, noir is genre, and it partially dictates your aesthetics.”

We Happy Few and Colour Reflective Mental State

The game is set in an alternate, dystopian reality in England in the 1960s. It’s a big-brother-is-watching world where the well-heeled take a drug called Joy that gives a feeling of bliss instead of the dread and paranoia resulting from all the creepiness and violence surrounding them.

The protagonist slips into sadness and the colours on the screen become dark and monochromatic. If you choose to take your Joy, the brighter-than-realistic colour palette returns.

“Of course, Joy will kill you eventually. But the effect is pretty great,” Oyzon says.

That unnatural colour palette reinforces the designer’s efforts to create a surreal and paranoid world, she says. Just as Grim Fandango embraces a Day-of-the-Dead sensibility, We Happy Few runs with a 1960s aesthetic in both the character modeling and the lighting that push the weird, faux happiness of the world.

“The choice of the retro aesthetic, along with the “twiggifying” of characters, make them all caricatures of humanity,” Oyzon says. “It makes the game feel more surreal.”


Borderlands and cel-shading

The Borderlands franchise brings the joy of RPG-style looting to an FPS set in a Mad Max movie. The original Borderlands, released in 2009, won critical acclaim for basically looking like a comic book.

Oyzon says a technique called “cel-shading,” or “toon shading,” gives Borderlands its distinctive aesthetic. Everything in the game, from the characters to trash on the ground to rock formations in the distant in the desert, simultaneously pop to the eye while looking two dimensional. But while the world design is cartoonish, Borderland’s colour palette is muted and full of drab browns and reds. That’s deliberate, Oyzon says, and is important for a game that wants to be more Frank Miller than SpongeBob SquarePants.

“The cel-shading gives Borderlands that comic book feel, but the colour pallete is very much in line with the grittier textures and lighting from a graphic novel,” Oyzon says.

Overwatch and colour palette

FPS games tend to either chase realistic graphics, such as the Modern Warfare series, or splattery violence, like the Doom games. Where Borderlands uses colour to add grit to its world, the team strategy-based FPS Overwatch does the opposite. The game is full of splashy pastels that help identify each character’s special attack — which is critical to strategy — as well as differentiate the game from competitors in the genre.

Overwatch is brightly lit and cartoony, but in a much lighter, more playful sense than Borderlands, Oyzon says. “Think of Superman rather than Batman in terms of its colour palette.”


Bioshock and building on the game setting

Often, a game’s setting limits designers’ lighting and colour options, Stephens says. For example, games in the Bioshock series are set in the underwater city of Rapture. While plenty of brightly-lit rooms are scattered through the map, dark greens and blues dominate the game because all of those art deco windows peer
into the watery depths.

That seems like an obvious choice but getting the world to feel a certain way — in this case creepy and isolated — is easier said than done, Stephens says.

The underwater setting certainly influences the colour palette and lighting, but you have to do a good job of it,” he says. “Players have to buy into what you create. If it doesn’t look right, you’ve blown the game.”

Get to Know the Author:

Zach Kyle works at Crucial as a content author. He previously worked for 10 years as a reporter at several newspapers. He enjoys tacos, yard games and The Witcher 3.