There’s a lot to like about Deus Ex: Human Revolution. It has the style and mood of Christopher Nolan’s post-Insomnia work: a moody action epic with brains, one that’s as interested in characters as it is in firefights and explosions. From the opening titles, Michael McCann’s score evokes Hans Zimmer’s work on films like Inception and Dark Knight, shot through with strains of Vangelis.
But there is one area where Human Revolution starts to look like a second-rate blockbuster: it’s gaudy, exhausting visuals and two-tone color visual scheme. This is an exhausting game to look at for 20 or so hours, and the tragically limited palette annihilates any hope of setting one location apart from another.
To see what’s going on here, and it’s worth reading this great piece on digital color-grading in modern films. You’ll learn all about teal and orange, and why filmmakers distort their images toward those extremes.
Now the funny thing about Human Revolution is that it wouldn’t seem like this should be a problem. Unlike film, game developers don’t have to work with real actors or lighting. With film you can understand how a hack director might want his movie to look “better”, for actors to stand out more. A competent cinematographer and sense of visual style could also suffice for those purposes but, hey, Hollywood is Hollywood.
But, as in so many other things, games follow Hollywood straight over a cliff. So we get Human Revolution: a very good game with some legitimately great touches, undercut by visuals that bend over backwards to emulate the same kind of visual drama we see in theaters every summer. Now the orange is obvious in Human Revolution, but if you look closely, you’ll see that every other shade of gray or green is slightly bent toward teal. Look at these pictures that showcase Human Revolution’s visual diversity.