The use of white, black and grayscale, which can now be a great ally when we want to create a dramatic and mysterious environment, was a technical limitation at the beginning of their times. The cinema didn´t start to recording in color until 1929 and its use was not popularized until the 60s. The comic uses black and white to reduce costs, and the first videogame was a ball and two white bars on a monochrome background.

However, painters, who have generally had access to color since its inception, used black and white as the default expression method. The lack of color in the scene represented the loss of something essential, used to represent loneliness, loss or pain. Others chose this absence of color to demonstrate to the maximum their abilities when managing volume and light in their works.

When monochrome ceased to be a technical obligation it became a powerful resource.

Film directors also took advantage of their limitations to also exploit the image to the maximum. After the First World War, great German directors were carried away by the post-war pessimism in their country, emerging the German Expressionist Cinema, which accentuated its enigmatic, macabre, sinister and morbid character, giving way to more complex lighting as a medium expressive. This can be seen in works such as Metropolis or The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which have been great references when it comes to using light.

Black and white art in Videogames

As creators of videogames, we have to keep in mind the aesthetics of our games; the hows, and whys of their use. Let´s analyze some examples that will help us see if we want to use black and white as the main artistic thread of our work.There’s a genre where the grayscale always stands out: the horror games. The darkness evokes fear of the unknown and not knowing what there’s beyond the illumination of that small candle that holds the protagonist: the tension is vital. This use of light and darkness drinks a lot of the black and white horror classics.

In the film The Cabinet of Dr.Caligari, great contrast of light and shadow is used, so light falls on those elements on which we want to give a greater touch of unreality, such as the faces of the characters, giving them a feeling of spectral appearance. This makes the light more than a decorative element, being increased or extinguished by highlighting certain actions or emotions of the characters.

Example of black and white art with the video game The Cat Lady

The Cat Lady is a reference in the use of light in black and white.

Limbo, despite not being a horror game per se, uses the techniques of games of this genre to create a mysterious and dark universe. The interspersed gray scales evoke that sun hidden in the darkness that would illuminate the scene if the fog that grows throughout the forest wouldn’t be there. Limbo´s stage is always lit, but never colorful. That focus of light in the background, in addition, gives contrast to the main figures of which the action is formed, which allows the player to focus on what is truly important.

With just a few colors the information about the space, the key elements, and the environment are clear.

This is a resource that is also used in games like Unworthy, where grayscale allows highlighting the main level of the stage, the figure of the protagonist and his enemies. With just a few colors the information about the space, the key elements, and the environment are clear.

Black and white in retro art for videogames

In the introduction, we’ve highlighted black and white as the only option in the early years of video games. If we know something about the players who play indie, is that many still maintain a great love for the great classics of their childhood.

It’s something that developers know and share, so many decide to use that melancholy as the central thread of their game. White, black and 8 bits is a combination that will always evoke those early years. Although Minit´s time mechanics were a revolution, its art was reminiscent of those games between the Atari and the NES.

Games like Minit make great use of black and white retro art

Many developers prefer retro aesthetics, emulating the first consoles. In the image Minit game.

Red as an ally of black and white

There’s a third very common guest when it comes to using grayscale: the color red. We´ve already talked about it in the article “The color red applied to video games”, but this time we’ll see it as part of this combination.Red contrasts greatly with the monotony of the grayscale, and is especially striking when we talk about games that only have white and black. This combination is a sight with an aggressive and crude air. While games like Limbo seek mystery and tension, games like MadWorld or Aztez are more interested in working with aggression, both in terms of gameplay and image.

Black and white together form a completely contrasted and saturated image, very aggressive to the eye. In this scenario, red only has one mission: to enhance that aggressiveness. In these environments, the red only tends to be two things: or blood, or danger signal, as well as something that seeks to make a big impression. This is a resource that we have seen in films like Sin City and Schindler´s List.

In a world where the absence of color reigns, red stands out, and if it’s representing blood, it dominates the image of the brutal aggressiveness that providers look for in this type of games. In games like Downwell, which we have seen above, it is also used to highlight the parts that can damage.

Example of black and white in video game Mad World

The game Mad World use black and white to create a contrast that transmits aggressiveness.

We are faithful defenders that art should never be a complement to the game, but a total part of it, that supports it and gives meaning to the whole. When you are designing, think about what you want to convey, and, if any of the things we have said in this article is familiar ... You know where to take your art to!


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Marta Gil

Marta Gil

PR, Product Manager & Social Media in Gametopia. FemDevs Regional coordinator.
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