When the original Gears of War was released, it was met with critical acclaim on account of its innovative duck-and-cover gameplay, display of graphical power, and its seamless integration of a co-op mode in the campaign. In addition to the wealth of praise that the title received, it was still met with some criticism — particularly, Epic Games' use of a very gray and desaturated color palette.
I, for one, loved the choice of color scheme. It perfectly matched the gritty, hopeless tone of the game. If Gears of War was a movie, it probably wouldn’t have received such harsh criticism in this department. When it comes to creating a dramatic scene, I believe that the bleak, desaturated look makes up for where the game’s dialog and story fall short. Even if you don't understand what's happening plot-wise (as was a complaint of many of my friends and acquaintances), it is difficult to deny the emotional magnification of the experience due to the color effects.
In fact, the desaturation theory states that "…one way of reducing the blunt and brazen impact of high-energy colors in a quiet, introspective scene is to lessen their saturation, give them a monochrome tint, or omit color altogether." This theory is one of many discussed in Herbert Zettl's book, Sight, Sound, Motion: Applied Media Aesthetics. In the same way that dramatic, somber music elicits an emotional response, color manipulation is a key part of connecting the audience with the character(s) (regardless of how you feel about the writing).
With each successive Gears of War entry, we’re seeing more highly saturated color. I think, to a certain extent, this decision acted as a disservice to the story and overall drama. While Epic intended to show skeptics what their engine could do, they seemingly failed to see the thematic impact their color selection had on the narrative. The luscious visuals, while appealing, drew away from the overall despair of the situation. And the characters’ dull armor couldn’t compete with the distraction of the bright, vivid background.
While I believe that the style of Gears of War is fantastic, I am not saying Epic should have continued with the exact same color palette. The developers (or artists) could have, for example, slowly brought more color into the scene as the mood brightened or accentuated different colors — as they did with red and blue. Coupling the gray color palette with the striking use of red made the audience focus on the psychological aspects of the characters (and the mystery surrounding them) as well as the barbarism that humanity was brought to. This is only, however, one of many correlations that can be drawn between the artistic aesthetics and the overall emotional context of Gears of War.
What I'm really trying to say is that game creators should not let critics have such a pronounced impact on their artistic style. When more studios are able to come to terms with that fact that not everyone is going to understand the message they are trying to convey, they’ll have more freedom to discern for themselves which criticism to heed. And our industry will further flourish to new heights.