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A lot of games from the PS1 and especially PS2 era are full of low contrast greys and browns and not much else. Some examples:

enter image description here enter image description here enter image description here enter image description here enter image description here

Why is this? Was it just a design decision, or was there a technical reason?

Edit: Based on comments here are some histograms for a couple of the screenshots. First, Vice City which is the most colourful:

enter image description here

Quite a compressed range of colours, even the neon pink is muted.

Next the woman in purple:

enter image description here

Everything below 50% of the full range, and the RGB curves are closely matched because it's mostly grey.

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    See also TVTropes: Real is Brown.
    – Dranon
    Dec 21 '20 at 19:24
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    screen 3 is not what I would call "full of low contrast greys and browns and not much else". Your own examples belie your premise. Dec 22 '20 at 7:45
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    Life was like that before they invented blue LEDs
    – JCRM
    Dec 22 '20 at 11:24
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    It looks like the gamma needs adjusting in most of those screenshots. Remember that people mostly played these on CRT televisions, which were naturally quite contrasty, have nearly perfect power-law gamma, and had quite dark blacks. If you're playing them in an emulator on a modern LCD/etc screen you'll probably need to adjust the video settings.
    – J...
    Dec 22 '20 at 12:20
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    Those are supposed to be "early 3d games"? I feel old. Dec 22 '20 at 19:19
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On the PS1 the lack of perspective correction when applying textures means that geometry will always retain its correct silhouette but the inner pixels may be displaced. Coupled to that, the most common texture format is paletted 16-colour.

That suggests one obvious way to minimise perceived texture warping: make sure your textures are low-contrast. Then it’s not going to be so obvious that you don’t have a large array of colours available per texture, or that some of the pixels are being painted out of place.

Two obvious art styles emerge: cartoon, ala Crash Bandicoot, where individual objects are so plainly textured that many of them aren’t textured at all; and brown/grey, which neatly avoids those reds and greens that your eye is most sensitive to. There are other options, of course, such as the variety of whites used by the briefly-faddish snowboarding genre, but those two are the more universal.

After that it’s just a question of the target audience. The PlayStation audience initially skewed towards older videogame players so the ‘realistic’ look is a better fit.

Low-contrast design also meshes well with low-resolution textures, especially when bilinearly fillered, so there’s also some technical advantage even elsewhere.

That said, never discount aesthetic choices. Why are movies from the ‘80s so much more likely to contain neon? Certainly not for technical reasons.

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    This is a great answer but I'd point out that all the games in the screenshots I provided are PS2 era, and the original brown game was Quake which didn't have texture warping issues.
    – user
    Dec 22 '20 at 16:51
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    Very interesting. I'm not sure I understand the problem you're describing (of texture warping). Do you happen to have an example, by any chance? Dec 22 '20 at 19:24
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    Quake warps textures; only every 16th pixel is perspective corrected and the ones in between are linearly mapped. That’s to do with how it utilised both U and V pipes on the Pentium efficiently, making sure a floating point calculation always overlapped with the integer stuff. If you walk down a corridor close to the wall, the wall will look a little like fabric fixed to a shifting frame. But, regardless, it owes its limited tones to trying to fit 16 brightnesses of every colour it uses into a 256-colour palette — unlike Doom a lot more effort has gone into gradiated lighting.
    – Tommy
    Dec 22 '20 at 21:15
  • In the PS2 era I maintain it’s to do with low-resolution texturing and seeking to avoid too much overt blurriness from the texture filtering. Except where it’s just an on-trend design choice.
    – Tommy
    Dec 22 '20 at 21:16
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    @user The original Quake stood out from the other games at that time when it came out in 1994, which I would consider to be a deliberate stylistic choice for the dungeon crawler it turned into. You may want to compare it to id's earlier game Doom which had red, pink and neongreen. Dec 22 '20 at 23:03
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Why is this? Was it just a design decision

Undoubtedly. While there may have been 'a lot' of games that set a sombre tone of greys and browns (and not much else), there were also a lot that didn't. Here are some screenshots from The Best PS1 Games, Ever!:-

enter image description here

The colors used are chosen to match the tone of the game. Take Tomb Raider for example (IMO the best 3D game ever!). In the screenshot above (bottom right) lots of muted browns and greys are used because the scene is inside a mountain cave. But in the jungle level...

enter image description here

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    Your Tomb Raider screenshot looks very muted and brown to me.
    – user
    Dec 22 '20 at 10:37
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    Must be something wrong with your eyes. Those colors are mostly stronger than they probably would be be in reality - the bright turquoise water, golden yellow rocks, deep green leaves, cyan sky... and Lara's skin is more orange that Trump's! Dec 22 '20 at 11:25
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    @user I'm starting to wonder if there's something wrong with your computer monitor or something. I have ordinary color vision and I'm looking at the Tomb Raider picture on an ordinary display, and I'd describe the colors as unnaturally vivid with lots of green and blue. Maybe it has a slight yellow cast to it, but it's very far from "muted and brown." Dec 22 '20 at 13:04
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    It might have something to do with color profiles too. I'm watching this on calibrated sRGB display and i my opinion the colors are muted. Lara's skin is orange, but it's muted orange. The colors in other screenshot are much brighter. The original pictures on funstockretro.co.uk are also much brighter than the mosaic above on my screen.
    – ojs
    Dec 22 '20 at 14:01
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    More relevant to your answer though is that cartoon games that aren't supposed to be realistic are more colourful, but anything trying to represent the real world is very dull. Tommy's answer covers this.
    – user
    Dec 22 '20 at 16:49
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I seem to remember reading that the original Quake from id software back in '97 decided to go with 256 color modes due to highcolor (15/16 bit color) and truecolor (16M colors) video cards were still relatively rare. Usually 256 color modes only had 6 bits to assign a color in the DAC, so the ability to get a range of brightness values for a particular color for lighting purposes was quite limited, so you wound up with a relatively dark image.

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    But there is no technical reason to 256 color mode cannot contain bright, shiny colors. See any animated GIF - they had a 256 color palette but can be very bright and contrasted. Dec 22 '20 at 6:30
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    phatcode.net/res/224/files/html/ch55/55-03.html explains what I meant. Sure, you can have bright, shiny colors but it won't look like a true 3D world. Dec 22 '20 at 9:05
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    The 6-bit values span the entire range, but the resolution is so low that you get really obvious color banding if you use the range. Using dark colors and grainy textures makes it a bit less obvious. Modern 6-bit LCDs use temporal dithering to hide the problem.
    – ojs
    Dec 22 '20 at 14:06
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    I never liked Doom precisely because it was all just shades of brown, but much preferred the near-contemporary Dark Forces which managed a wider variety of scenes with similar gameplay and IIRC the same 256-colour limitation. (Admittedly, they changed the palette significantly between levels set in the sewers - brown - and Imperial control rooms - white/grey/neon). So I'd say it's that a muted palette made the design easier, rather than it being a requirement.
    – Lou Knee
    Dec 22 '20 at 14:34
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    Noteworthy: the literal Quake color palette, a synthesis of design & technological motivations
    – kubi
    Dec 22 '20 at 16:51

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