The Bygone Age of Gratuitous Blood Decals in Video Games

Over the years, various video game trends have waxed and waned. Sometimes, the medium adopts objective improvements, such as higher frame rates and polygon counts. Other times, these trends are stylistic. Case in point: Video game blood. When I was younger, many games — such as Unreal Tournament and Halo — accompanied their carnage with endless buckets of blood.  But since 2010, the video game medium has seemingly tightened its blood faucet.

Don’t get me wrong — it’s still common to see “puffs” and “clouds” of blood when damaging enemies in modern games, particularly in first and third-person action titles. However, throughout the 90s and early aughts, blood effects were far more pronounced and exaggerated. Gunfire and sword-slashes often stained the floors with the blood of your enemies. And the backbone of these effects is a particular effects technology called decals.

A bloody hallway in Half Life

Decals are like textures — flat art applied to 3D surfaces and objects that add detail and tone. But while textures are usually fixed, game engines “paint” decals dynamically over walls and ceilings to improve environmental realism. Some examples include dust, bullet holes, explosive residue. The best, by far, are spatters and splashes of blood.

Sadly, today’s blood decals are either smaller or non-existent compared to games from 1990 to 2010. So what happened?

Oh Blood, Where Art Thou?

Modern video games are more conservative about blood-basting than their predecessors. I can think of two reasons why.

Today’s video game productions are larger and more systematic than ever before. Back in 2001, the blood effects I cherished in games like Halo: Combat Evolved and Half-Life may have been the work of one or two blood-thirsty visual effects artists who pushed for their inclusion. But while 2001’s Halo: Combat Evolved had 107 developers, the most recent entry, Halo 5 (2015), had 1073. Similarly, Half-Life (1998) had 57 developers, but 2020’s Half-Life: Alyx had 392. These dev teams have grown to satisfy the industry’s ever-growing standards for complexity and detail. And with so many design priorities, one artist’s desire for better blood might be seen as frivolous.

The second reason is performance. When video game engines render hundreds of blood decals, it comes at the cost of processing power. Halo: Combat Evolved let you paint the ground with the blood of your enemies by repeatedly shooting or hitting them — but in response, the game’s framerate would plummet.

Smacking an Elite in Halo: CE and staining the ground with purple blood

(Source: YouTube)

Sure, “blood painting” is a cool effect, but that processing power — often limited by ageing console hardware — can be better spent elsewhere. As a developer, why prioritize blood spatters when you can use those resources to accentuate player movement or increase environment detail? Video game resources are limited, and squandering them to appease digital blood-lovers doesn’t always make sense.

That said, to honour a (mostly) bygone age, I thought I’d highlight some of my favourite video game bloodbaths.

Halo: Combat Evolved (2001)

Halo is probably the first game that introduced me to comically excessive levels of in-game blood.

The sci-fi epic has you fighting various humanoid alien species, including stocky, short-lived “Grunts” and formidable, armour-clad “Elites.” Not wanting to spare a drop of immersion, developer Bungie implemented distinct blood effects for each alien race. And as a result, Halo’s gunfights stain environments with a vivid palette of blues, purples, and oranges — as if the developer was inspired by their favourite fruit juices.

Human blood stains in Halo: CE

(Source: YouTube)

Alien blood stains in Halo: CE

(Source: Twitter)

Predictably, Halo’s humans bleed red, but it’s a remarkably watery red. Elites and Jackals leak something akin to blueberry juice, while Grunts are powered by thick, viscous blue raspberry gunk. And finally, there are Hunters, whose neon-orange blood looks tangy and tropical. Delicious.

Half-Life (1998 – GoldSrc)

As a series about interdimensional warfare, Valve’s Half-Life games aren’t shy about bloodshed. However, series entries powered by the GoldSrc engine (Half-Life, Blue Shift, Opposing Force) have a particular penchant for blood.

A bloody fight in Half Life

Still, the level of blood in these screenshots might belie what Half-Life looked like back in the day: I took these screenshots on modern hardware and might’ve increased the in-game decal count, resulting in more blood than usual. Regardless, the outcome is a mixture of chunky, dark crimson blood decals for humans and white-green pus puddles for select aliens.

A bloody hallway in Half Life

Imagine if a big publisher like Activision or EA published official screenshots of an upcoming game with this many blood decals. Their shareholders would probably be horrified.

Team Fortress 2

Team Fortress 2 is another bonafide bloodbath classic from Valve. However, as a 2007 release, it’s a relatively recent title compared to other games on this list.

Visually, Valve opted for a streamlined, stylized cartoon look over realism — but certainly not at the expense of bloodshed. Team Fortress 2’s blood decals are smaller and understated compared to other Valve games, but still prominent thanks to the in-game gibbing: Rockets or grenades blow apart players upon death, littering environments with body parts and dousing them with blood.

A bloody room in Team Fortress 2

(Source: YouTube)

Amusingly, Team Fortress 2 also applies physics to those body parts, meaning that when they roll down hills or slopes, blood follows. Glorious.

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2 Responses

  1. Bennett says:

    Lol this is such a reminiscence. It seemed the edgyness was a major draw back in the day. It reminds me of watching friends shoot holes in enemy carcasses for entertainment and makes me think maybe things are a little better these days hahaha. Still so classic and nostalgic though!

    • Stefan says:

      That’s a good point! It does seem that game devs and players alike have different priorities these days: Mainly, whether or not something is fun and marketable. The emphasis on blood seems like a relic of gaming’s nascent punk-rock stage. I think of Carmack and Romero making Doom and saying “Look at this nasty shit we made! We made it because we can!

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