Palette Swapping – Elemental Cues

Let me pick up from where I started last march by saying that a palette swapped creature in a game needn’t simply be a conservation of resources, and can be representative of something notably different or important, something made distinct by a change of colour.

For example, revisiting The Fallen from Diablo:

A simple colour swap helps demonstrate progress through the game. It’s been done better since 2000, adding bulk and extra detail to a creature to make it more and more obvious that you have advanced to tougher enemies than you could have faced when you began. However, let’s hold these up against the assorted elemental beasties of a game like Borderlands, in which the native species of the planet Pandora are so heavily exposed to the naturally occurring energies that they have utilised them as defensive mechanisms:

  • Red and on fire usually means that a burning weapon isn’t going to do much.
  • Blue? Put the Tesla grenades away and kiss your shield goodbye.
  • Green usually means acid, but no guarantees.
  • Purple for Slag, a Pandora special that means you’ll take more damage from… not the point, just scrap the Slag guns and switch to something else.

It’s a formula so simple that anyone could grasp it, and most games that utilise various energy types will make some use of such design techniques even if they have very little impact. In D&D most creature have rational vulnerabilities, such as wooden creatures having issues with fire, mechanisms shrugging off poison and so on, but there’s no mistaking a fire giant for a frost giant, or picking out the dragon that spits poison out of a crowd.


Most notable of all might have to be Pokemon, with a few notable exceptions you can usually spot the electric types for the bright yellow colouring and overall lightning-bolt themes, the grass types for the plant life growing out of mostly animal bodies, and on through… wow, eighteen different types? How long has it been since I played?

In fact this is actually the main point I wanted to make: I really like some of the Alolan variations of classic Pokemon from Sun and Moon. Not all of them, flowing locks on Dugtrio seems… well odd, and the sheer amount of moustaches has some deep implications about the design team, but let’s focus on some positives here. For a game that has rather co-opted the term “evolve” to mean something quite different to the de-facto meaning we finally see species that have diversified according to their environs.

Of course Pokemon adapt rather extremely, but I love the snow-white Vulpix, and the (now inappropriately named) icy Sandslash. Geodude and subsequent forms are highly magnetic and are comprised of conductive minerals that grant electrical attacks. Rattatas have been forced to more nocturnal habits, resulting in far greater capacity for stealth and cunning, hence the addition of the Dark type. Marowak’s charnel appearance is made complete with witch-doctor-like flames and necrotic skin tones.

And the most glorious Exeggutor
And the most glorious Exeggutor

One glance at the surface differences of each variation informs a great deal about how the Alolan version will behave in combat, and I sincerely hope to see more of this as the franchise continues. It’s something that we do not see often enough of anymore, not since video game models became more elaborate and detailed, and a colourless silhouette can often be enough to define an enemy, but with that development we often give in too readily to a washed out colour palette, like the classic mud brown and gun-metal grey.

We are not fully beyond the days of Megaman and his colour-changing power selections, Mortal Kombat’s ninja pack, and Mario with the mushroom varieties. There’s an awful lot more we can do with colour that doesn’t seem to be done enough anymore – not saying it’s not being done, just not enough – and we’re seeing too many games with bland colour schemes that could do with just a little more variety to add depth to their look and diversity to their cast.