Gaming's Golden Hour Has Arrived

Gaming's Golden Hour Has Arrived

Which is not a comment on the quality of games, just on their presentation.

We're at E3 this week, covering the year's biggest gaming event. Be sure to check out all our coverage on our E3 2016 hub!

The two biggest influences on video game graphics during the last console generation came from, I would say, The Matrix and Epic's Gears of War.

The former was the first movie to really make digital color processing a central element of its visual design, with its virtual world color-shifted to green and the "real" world desaturated to a bleak grey. The latter introduced the concept of "destroyed beauty," dropping players into a world that probably had been pretty nice-looking at one point or another but presently existed in a state of ruin, lifeless, fragmented, and monochromatic. There was probably some Grand Theft Auto III influence in there as well, but the point is that all these visual design cues combined into the bleakest, most depressing-looking decade of video games ever.

In the space of a few years, the entire industry flipped from bright candy-hued cartoonscapes to muted piles rocks and colorless cityscapes. Of course, that surface appearance also reflected the inner nature of the games themselves, which increasingly worked in concert to suffocate any sense of joy or whimsy from the medium: Gaming's '90s comics phase, basically.

Thankfully for those of us who like making use of both the rods and the cones evolution has blessed the human eye with, artists and designers have steadily been pushing back against the suffocating greyness of video games for a few years. Maybe not surprisingly, the first true harbinger of a more colorful gaming industry came with Grand Theft Auto V, which did something revolutionary: It presented a story that was darker and more oppressive than ever, but it did so in an utterly gorgeous context. GTAV's San Andreas remains one of the single most beautiful game worlds ever rendered in pixels, and slowly the tide began to turn.

Last night's Sony press conference featured a rapid succession of the most gorgeous video games I've ever laid eyes on, sending a clear signal that our long national nightmare of lifeless, suffocating video game graphics has at last come to an end (at least until they come into fashion again). When I say Sony's games were gorgeous, I'm not necessarily speaking in terms of resolution, frame rate, and polygon count the way so many tech-obsessed gamer types fixate on. I'm speaking strictly in terms of design, of scale, of color palettes.

Where once upon a time it was strange to find a shooter with vivid colors - Halo 3 seemed to out of place in 2007! - now we have things like Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, which takes a series that's been one of the poster children of gloomy chroma keys for the past decade and slathers it with a look reminiscent of, well, Halo. (Incidentally, the Infinite Warfare demo was one of the canniest presentations I've ever seen at E3. People have such strong opinions about Call of Duty that detractors will simply tune out at any mention of the game... so Activision cut a demo that opened cold and presented a pretty solid-looking sci-fi shooter full of dynamic skills, only revealing at the very end after everyone had been pulled in unawares that, surprise, this was Call of Duty!)

In fact, it was God of War - traditionally one of gaming's grouchiest-looking game franchises - that kicked off the Sony conference with what I'm now referring to as the PlayStation 4 Look: Lots of outdoor spaces, filled with swaying trees and rippling grasses, glowing with the warm colors of autumn. God of War has it. Horizon: Zero Dawn has it. Days Gone has it. So does fellow zombie-slaying game State of Decay. In fact, it would be easier to enumerate the Sony games that weren't wreathed in beautiful colors: The Last Guardian, which maintains the overexposed, desaturated visual style that's been Team ICO's trademark since long before it was a cliché; Resident Evil VII, which deliberately went all-in on last-gen ugliness to create a creepy, oppressive, virtual reality atmosphere. And... that's about it.

I even spotted some of the PlayStation 4 Look at Microsoft's press conference - Forza Horizon III looked stunning thanks in large part to its lush wild spaces. And even the new Gears of War didn't look as aggressively drab as its predecessors. Truly, we live in a wondrous time. And that time is: Sunset. Photographers refer the period just before sunset as the Golden Hour, the point of the day when the sun sits lowest in the sky and its oblique angle to the atmosphere makes everything radiant. The advent of processors capable of effectively rendering advanced lighting effects and fairly convincing natural spaces (how far we've come from the obsession over grass textures a decade a ago) have led a lot of developers to naturally converge on the same idea: Let's render the world at its most beautiful, now that we can. And few sights are more beautiful than untamed, autumnal wilderness as radiant late-afternoon light oozes across the landscape like honey.

Of course, as welcome a sight as this newfound aesthetic shift is, it will just as easily become a tiresome cliché if everyone hops on the bandwagon like happened last gen with grey and brown. It'll be a prettier cliché to be sure, but still trite. For now, though, I'm simply going to take pleasure in the fact that the excellent color capabilities of the gaming television I bought last year won't go to waste, the sad fate its poor predecessor suffered. And I'll also enjoy the fact that gaming has finally surpassed Hollywood in at least one area: Movies remains stuck in the orange-and-blue chroma key rut, but video games have discovered that, indeed, there's a full spectrum of light to be explored.

We're at E3 this week, covering the year's biggest gaming event. Be sure to check out all our coverage on our E3 2016 hub!

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