Last week, thanks to the Final Fantasy VII Rebirth demo, some old video game discourse returned and overtook social media: The use of yellow paint to mark certain in-game objects or ledges. All it took was a now-viral tweet of Cloud climbing some yellow rocks in the new demo and a comment about how yellow paint was a “virus” and, bam, the debate is raging all over again. Like a comet returning for another scheduled pass by Earth, the yellow paint topic has once again predictably appeared, leading to endless takes, jokes, threads, opinions, and arguments. Why is this topic so incredibly capable of sucking in everyone around it for days or weeks on end? Well, it’s not really because of the paint, but everything the yellow splotches represent.
Quickly, people began sharing the post from Dave Oshry, the boss of indie publisher New Blood, who has over 100k followers on Twitter. From there, we were once again inundated with debates about yellow paint in video games.
If you poke around Twitter, you’ll find hundreds of tweets from gamers, devs, journos, and beyond about how yellow paint is either horrible and immersion-breaking or necessary to help folks navigate levels. There are some people who think it’s fine, but that it should be an option you can toggle on and off. Others (wrongly) think it’s a sign that game devs are lazy. And then there are the folks who are making memes about it. I just saw Sam Lake--Alan Wake II’s director—post a joke about yellow paint earlier today.
The question that came to mind was: Why is the yellow paint debate so impossible for folks to ignore? What is it about paint splotches on rocks or doors that break people’s brains and gets them endlessly debating the color yellow for days on end, once every few years, like clockwork?
Yellow paint can visually summarize so many debates
It could be that the yellow paint debate touches on a wide range of other contentious video game topics and provides a perfect, easy-to-share visual for these issues.
Want to poke fun at how players aren’t smart enough these days or need to “git gud?” Yellow paint provides you with some visual, often viral evidence to support your claims. Do you think games are getting too realistic and, as a result, the worlds are too busy and hard to read? Well, lucky you, yellow paint is here to provide a nice image that encapsulates your entire point. Do you think modern AAA games are bad and boring? A collection of yellow paint screenshots from different titles will help you sell your argument. Are you a developer who wants to demonstrate the lengths devs have to go to get people to pay attention and follow directions? Here, have a yellow paint tweet and image to help start your thread. Do you want to show how some gamers get worked up over silly little things? Grab a screenshot of a bunch of angry people yelling about a yellow paint screenshot. A yellow paint tweet is just like a yellow traffic light: Caution ahead.
And then there’s the other discourse that yellow paint crosses over with: difficulty options. Like clockwork, when a new FromSoft game gets released, some will argue that it doesn’t need a difficulty slider because you can build your character a certain way or will defend the lack of options as the studio staying true to its creative vision. Meanwhile, other folks feel that a few options could help more people play the game and wouldn’t detract from anyone else’s experience.
I can’t sit my grandma or non-gamer friends down and explain why Elden Ring does or doesn’t need an easy mode. But I can show them an out-of-context screenshot of yellow paint-covered rocks or boxes in a photorealistic video game and get a response that amounts to “Yeah, that’s weird.” That ability to spread virally among even non-gamers has helped bring everyone into the yellow paint debate. I’ve even seen folks who write at mainstream, non-gaming outlets discussing this topic online.
The really devious thing about the whole yellow paint debate is that, while it can be used as a visual shorthand for so many different topics, there are no easy answers for the game design problems connected to yellow paint. Get rid of it and some games become unplayable for folks. Keep it and people will make fun of it and complain. Add a toggle and then you have to build your levels and art in a way that can guide players without yellow paint for all the folks who turn it off.
Combine this lack of a clear-cut answer with yellow paint’s ability to get tied into a dozen other video game debates and you end up with a perfect storm of online discourse that sucks everyone around in over and over again. Even as this particular round finally seems to be dying down, I expect another big AAA video game will ship with yellow ledges, and one tweet will set this whole thing off again.