So hey, howsabout that Odin Sphere segment on the latest 1UP Show? I don’t come off like too much of an ass, although through a strange trick of editing they managed to pick only the parts where I repeat myself. The original talk lasted more than 20 minutes, and a constant stream of random interruptions forced us to restart certain segments… so I seem a bit redundant, that’s why. Oh, the random Kirby ball was originally there for a reason — we started the talk by discussing how Odin Sphere is so awesome that we wanted to surround ourselves with spheres day in and day out — buuuut since that part was trimmed out I’m just holding a random Kirby ball for no damn reason. Yeah. Awesome.
Anyway, I think it’s time for another Odin Sphere-inspired blog post. Be warned, I’ve got a ton of these.
I guess it’s pretty much a given that any discussion of Odin Sphere is going to spend much of its time strolling along the well-worn path of OMG SO PRETTY. And that’s because, well, it is pretty. Seriously, it’s a gorgeous game that sets a benchmark for 2D visuals in a place no one could even imagine. The realization blows the average mind, right out the top, jaw-dropping amazement blasting high into the air like spume from a whale’s blowhole.
For all the talk about the game’s stunning good looks, though, it seems like one important aspect of the game is being totally ignored: The color design. No surprise, that; color is the John Paul Jones of graphic whoredom, always overlooked in favor of the flashier elements like poly count, framerates, character design, animation, etc. But color is important! In fact, it’s just about the single most important factor in creating a cohesive visual style. Obviously, it’s important to have characters and environments that look like they belong together, but creating a harmonic palette is the key to pulling everything into a unified whole. And this is one area in which Odin Sphere excels.
It’s remarkable to see because so few games actually use color, or at least use it well. The prevailing philosophy in game design seems to be that everything will seem more realistic if it’s drab, or else you need to dump the entire spectrum in there to make it pretty (ideally with lots of glowing neon effects). Odin Sphere is colorful — extremely colorful — but its use of color is also restrained, tasteful and well-conceived.
The game begins in a battle-torn desert with a blazing orange sky in the background — is the light from a sunset? Burning debris? Either way, its light is picked up in the foreground sands, making them richer and more interesting than your typical desert environment.
Soon the scene shifts to a forested area where the tones shift from brown to green. Still, there’s an earthy undercurrent that makes the levels feel… woodsy? Yes. The palette here is very warm, from the plants to the yellow light that suffuses the background. Cool colors are mainly used for shade in foreground elements that help frame the action in the middle distance.
In both cases, the background color palettes use a fairly limited portion of the spectrum, which helps draw a clear distinction between scenery and characters. Gwendolyn’s vivid blues and purples pop from the desert browns and silvan greens, as do Velvet’s reds. Still, despite sticking to a specific portion of the color wheel, Odin Sphere’s backgrounds demonstrate a painterly use of hues, tints and shades within those palettes.
And that’s the real trick that seems to elude a lot of game designers. You can have colorful graphics that are nevertheless subtle — and tasteful doesn’t have to mean bland. On the contrary, selective color choice is a great way to be expressive, to communicate a concept visually and create an atmosphere.
Take the disparity between Odin Sphere’s different “civilized” areas. The two upper images there are set in the streets of the Valhalla-like Nebulapolis, a city of warriors ruled by King Odin. It’s a majestic place, but it’s also cold and impersonal, like its king — geared toward war and honor rather than compassion and peace. And the colors are cold as well — not just the glowing blue palace in the background and the starry skies, but also the foregrounds. Unlike the desert and forest areas, the browns in Nebulapolis use cool tones to give an impression of a foreboding, joyless empire.
Compare that to the warm interiors in the small village of animal people (whose name escapes my feeble mind at the moment). Lit by candle and firelight, they’re warm, inviting and cozy — the sort of place you go to be pampered by curious anthropomorphs. Which of course is precisely what happens in these little shops; you order up food and crank up your character’s stats. Nebulapolis, on the other hand, isn’t about nurturing, it’s about fighting and political machinations and a complete jerk for a king.
And so on and so forth — see the grassy knoll lit by cool moonlight to give the impression of nighttime. See the icy mountain from which dull granite slabs jut — somehow creating a far more oppressive sensation than ice alone would.
Man, what a beautiful game.
A few other titles come to mind when I think of good color design, too. I mean, it’s not like Vanillaware has the market cornered or anything.
I have to mention Fumito Ueda’s stuff, of course. Ico and Shadow of the Colossus have an ethereal, dreamlike quality that’s largely the product of the “overexposed” lighting and the desaturated color he uses in his work. Well, I assume it’s his call; he’s credited as game designer on both, with an army of character and background designers. So it would stand to reason that Ueda’s the mastermind.
In any case, Ico was an extremely grey and bleak game, but tricks of the light made it look much more exciting than you’d expect from an abandoned castle of death. Shadow of the Colossus was a far more open and expansive game, but it maintained its predecessor’s wistful tone in part through its washed-out appearance. Not that washed-out is not the same as dull; Shadow is a gorgeous game of sweeping horizons and stunning vistas (to say nothing of the big-ass colossi themselves). But the desaturated colors give it a unifying look and style.
But if you want the textbook example of brilliant graphics through better color design, look no further than the works of Hiroshi Minagawa.
Artist Akihiko Yoshida usually gets all the credit for making games like Vagrant Story and Final Fantasy XII look so damn good, and yeah, he deserves a good hearty pat on the back. But really, Yoshida’s main role is to sort of define the general look of the game, the world, the characters. It’s up to Minagawa to supervise Square Enix’s tiny army of graphics people and make sure they create a consistent vision of Ivalice.
Which he does with aplomb! And much of this success stems from the fact that the Ivalice games, unlike the more mainstream Final Fantasy games, use color tastefully. That’s in stark contrast to nearly every other FF since VII — games whose worlds are the brainchildren of Tetsuya Nomura and, to an even greater degree, Tetsuya “T^2” Takahashi (not to be mistaken for the Xenogears dude). Their approach to design seems to involve vomiting neon lights and bizarrely rococo carapace-like shells across every surface. Which, you know, is fine. If you like vomit.
I vastly prefer Minagawa’s aesthetic, though. It has much more to do with sparing use of color, building a world with lots of neutrals and defining tone by tinting the browns and greys with warm and cool accents. The reason Vagrant Story is the best-looking game on PS1 has everything to do with this adherence to a strict, restrained palette (which did occasionally fall by the wayside in favor of garish lightsourcing in places) as well as brilliant attention to detail — the backlighting on Ashley in that upper-right picture, for instance.
And FFXII pulled out all the stops in order to become the best-looking PS2 title ever made. About the only interesting thing I learned at the FFXII Post-mortem talk at GDC this year was that about 70% of the labor involved in FFXII’s creation was graphic-related — and it makes use of really brilliant but subtle effects as a result. The use of atmospheric color (above right) does a lot to add uniformity to the game while simultaneously giving it added visual interest. When you think sewers in video games, you normally think dingy, grey and boring, but the sewers of Rabanastre use a sort of monochromatic blue light both to give a sense of scale and distance as well as add some visual contrast to the brown stone.
I guess this is a little Japan-heavy in focus, but Americans make effective use of color, too. For all I bag on Gears of War (MORE LIKE GREYS OF WAR AMIRITE), it definitely has a distinct look, created in large part by sparing use of color. Granted, most western-developed games tend toward the dingy and boring (Oblivion) or the garish and eye-burning (WoW), but most Japanese games look pretty assy, too.
And that is why you should buy Odin Sphere. The end.
Wow! That was boring. I gotta put that art degree to use one way or another, though. Look, Mom, my tuition wasn’t a complete waste. Happy Mother’s Day.