Naughty Dog’s Obsession With Yellow Explained

As one of the industry’s leading game developers, Naughty Dog wields a pedigree that many other studios would kill for. While the reasons behind its success could be attributed to many things, be it the engaging, gritty storytelling of games like The Last of Us or the high-octane run-and-gun action of the Uncharted franchise, it’s indisputable that Naughty Dog has found a formula for its games that works.

One core part of this game design could help explain why its experiences feel so immersive. As the push for realism continues in both visual aesthetics and game design, developers face a hurdle on how to best direct players without being explicitly “game-y.” Naughty Dog’s solution, reflected across both The Last of Us and Uncharted, is its embrace of color coding and abundant use of yellow. Naughty Dog uses yellow so often that to the uninitiated it borders on obsessive, but to seasoned players it is an easily recognized staple design that unconsciously influences better flow.


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Color Coding In Video Games

Naughty Dog was obviously not the first developer to make use of color coding in its games as a means of directing players’ decisions and behaviors. The use of red and blue to juxtapose opposing forces is very prevalent, and can be found in games, films, TV, and more – perhaps best exemplified by Star Wars with Jedi’s typically blue lightsabers clashing against the Sith’s red. Beyond this, other traditional uses of color coding range from categorizing game elements to differentiating them in the midst of gameplay.

Naughty Dog’s use of color is a relatively nuanced change from how it had previously operated, reflective of the time when it first began developing Uncharted in 2007. In a shift from 2D to 3D games with open level design, developers faced a challenge in how to ensure players could identify the correct path forward. The solution was practical: color code assets, interactive points, or whatever was necessary in order to draw the player’s attention to it. Mirror’s Edge is an excellent example in which stark white level design is broken up by the color red to direct the player’s eye.

Mirror’s Edge also appears to have dodged another bullet brought on by advancing graphic fidelity in games. With graphics becoming increasingly realistic to benefit immersion with each passing generation of games, it’s become important for developers to telegraph what can and can’t be interacted with. If the player needs to pick up a certain item to progress, they may have trouble locating it if that item blends in with the level design. Ultimately, even if it breaks immersion, using color to draw players’ attention is important to the gameplay experience.

Naughty Dog and The Color Yellow

Naughty Dog has applied these ideas to the betterment of its own games. From the first Uncharted onward, Naughty Dog has used yellow to direct its players’ attention, and also to signify game elements they should interact with. For example, Uncharted 2’s dramatic opening that depicts Nathan Drake climbing through a derailed train demonstrates Naughty Dog’s awareness of how it needs to educate players on how to navigate levels. Players follow a “path” through the train based on conspicuously yellow things, ranging from pipes to seats. For Naughty Dog, it’s a compromise between user-friendly design and immersion.

This trend continues with all its other games. In The Last of Usit’s used to highlight distant landmarks such as Pittsburgh’s Fort Duquesne Bridge or Boston’s Capitol Building. By spreading this across all its current games, Naughty Dog has spent years learning how to influence players’ understanding that anything yellow must be important. Whether it’s in Uncharted or The Last of Us, players are drawn to yellow objects or environments unconsciously, not realizing that years of playing Naughty Dog games have conditioned them to do so.

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