On a recent episode of Radiolab, the linguist Guy Deutscher discussed teaching his daughter the names of different colors. He would point to different things in the world and say they were either green, or red, or yellow. Without having ever pointed to it before, he one day asked her what color the sky was. She wouldn’t say. Grey? Purple? For whatever reason, blue never presented itself as the obvious answer.
Dan da Rocha and Henry Hoffman’s Hue is interested in exploring why. It does this by going beyond the subtle differences between colors and instead seeing what happens when you fuse them to the very fabric of reality. What if being unable to perceive a certain color erased everything that emitted it?
For a game whose visual conceit is based around dark, bold lines and monochromatic colors, there’s a surprising amount of depth to Hue. There are death gauntlets to survive and puzzles to solve, but also something else; something vibrating at the edge of human perception. Like stripping the paint from the walls of an old room, each new layer the game reveals evokes something at once long lost and yet strangely familiar.
Hue, the game’s titular protagonist, is searching for his mother, a researcher trying to discover the true nature of color in a world that has none. Along the way, he finds pieces of a ring that allow him to perceive color for the first time and alter the world around him as a result. When a particular color is selected, everything else of that shade fades into the background eliminating obstacles and revealing new paths.
In this respect, Hue shares a vague kinship with Fez. Where the latter liked to play with two dimensional perceptions of three dimensional spaces, the former challenges your ability to problem solve across multiple planes of existence simultaneously.
The game’s early levels ease you into this way of thinking. With only one or two colors to juggle at the start, sorting out how to get from point A to point B is straightforward enough. Falling boulders and skulls that try to crush you like Thwomps from Super Mario Bros. add some urgency to the platforming, but swap purple for teal and they’ll fade into the background leaving you unscathed.
Eventually, however, these manageable technicolor knots give way to fully scrambled Rubik’s Cubes. The addition of lasers, balloons, and spray paints, among other obstacles, push each new level in bizarre and uncanny directions. Scampering through a cave filled with moving platforms and a rainbow of death rays feels silly at first — until you realize just how cleverly the basic tenets of platforming play off the game’s color mechanic.
Perhaps a red laser needs to strike a conduit on the opposite wall to lift a gate. Before you can hop onto the ledge where the gate’s just opened, however, there’s a yellow crate that needs to be pulled over. A mass of blue bricks is blocking the way though, so first they’ll need to be made invisible. But as soon as you do, a purple skull is revealed above you that promptly drops on Hue’s head.
As a result, Hue also owes something to games like Super Meat Boy and Limbo. Using one simple idea as the springboard for endless variation, the game introduces new mechanics and interesting twists at a rate that breeds creativity rather than frustration. Hue is always one step ahead rather than three or four. It’s the kind of pacing that’s easy to overlook when done so well — but crucial to the feeling of illumination that Hue often produces.
After solving a particularly difficult puzzle, the game takes time to revel in these brief epiphanies. Letters written from Hue’s mom (voiced by Anna Acton) help contextualize them in a larger narrative about love and loss, while also reflecting on the philosophy of sense and perception.
“Perhaps blue is nothing but a shade of grey to you,” she writes. There are no obstacles during these moments, only long tunnels and sprawling corridors. For an instant, the game gestures beyond its cerebral labyrinths toward the more human drama, tinged with nostalgia and regret, that grounds them.
Each color that’s added to the spectrum of Hue’s perception enriches the world around him, but it also further solidifies it. Every new possibility that’s realized is one that also becomes fixed. The first time a doorway or crate is revealed by switching the world from blue to orange is lovely.
Toward the end of Hue, however, as each new discovery and mechanic becomes familiar, it also becomes less dynamic. When the rules of its world are finally demystified, all that’s left is to navigate them as effectively as possible. A question like “What color is the sky?” loses its ambiguity and re-emerges as a mundane fact. In this way Hue captures the bittersweet quality inherent in all exploration: eventually you get to the end.