Pixels in the Present (By Jonathan Kittaka)Posted: 2013-04-16
Pixels in the Present (By Jonathan Kittaka, originally appearing in Russian Igromania video game magazine)
The rise of independent games over the past few years has brought with it a resurgence of pixel art and other visual styles in the vein of games past. For the purposes of this article, I’ll focus on pixel art, specifically (I made the pixel art graphics for the game Anodyne, which recently released on Steam, so I have been thinking a lot about these issues recently). The visuals of early games were born out of hardware limitations that no longer apply to modern gaming platforms, and this has led some people to question the place and purpose of these retro-influenced graphics in games today. Some argue that this nostalgic focus holds back the visual potential of video games. By holding tightly to such a characteristic visual style, developers stagnate and limit their potential audience to people who already appreciate pixels. I think that these concerns are legitimate and interesting, but that they overlook the virtues and opportunities that pixel art offers. I believe that there are still lessons to be learned from pixels, and that, if nothing else, the accessibility of working with pixel art makes it still a valuable tool for each new generation of game developers.
Recently, there have been many games receiving HD remakes that keep the game’s mechanics but update the visual style to a convey a greater level of detail and visual information. I don’t think this is a bad practice, but I do sometimes question the idea that any and every game would be better with modern graphics. Simplification and the reduction of visual information can have a profound effect on the experience of a game. When visual details are withheld, there is room for the player’s mind to fill in the gaps and bring the world to life. Activating a player’s imagination is a powerful tool in immersion; a great example of this is the story-focused game To the Moon. The modest pixel art in To the Moon allows for a great degree of emotional weight to be carried by the smallest gestures. For example, the character River has a characteristic way of averting her eyes–a change of one or two pixels–which becomes a subtle but powerful link to her character across the different time periods in the game.
Another advantage that I have found in some older games is the tight connection between gameplay and visuals that is afforded by their stark imagery. For example, Zelda II, a NES game with very simple graphics, features some of the most dynamic swordplay of any game I have ever played. Many 3d games have combat based on button-mashing, lock-on targeting, buttons to automatically block attacks, or quick time events; the complexity of the visuals in these games prevents you from being able to receive the combat information fast enough to react, so games must automate these features in order to convey an exciting battle. In Zelda II, however, you are in complete control of your character–every parry, every swing, every hit happens very precisely based on your input. This is possibly in part due to the simplicity and abstraction of the graphical style, which allows the action onscreen to be surprisingly quick and subtle. I’m not saying that everyone should or would necessarily enjoy Zelda II more than a modern action game, but I do believe that its visuals contribute to a very unique gameplay experience that has the potential to be extremely rewarding.
Now, even though these successful design elements that I’m describing occur in games with pixel art, it doesn’t mean that the pixels themselves are necessary to achieve these effects. However, I believe that we still have so much to learn about what makes games good, and that it’s worthwhile to keep looking back as well as forward throughout this learning process.
I am uncertain of the future of pixels in my own work and among game development in general. I grew up thinking about and working with pixels, and I’m very attached to the process. To me, pixels are simply a part of life. At the same time, I understand that a lot of people aren’t really able to look past pixel art, especially if they didn’t grow up playing video games; to some, pixels are signposts to a subculture where they feel they don’t belong.
Whatever happens, I believe that pixel art will continue to have a place in game development for quite some time. At the very least, the relative simplicity and efficiency of pixel art helps to open up game development to a wide community of people. Pixel art doesn’t require any expensive software or physical materials, and it’s more forgiving than hi-res or 3d rendered graphics in terms of performance issues. In the right circumstances, pixels can serve as a portal to an incredible universe of creativity, opening up the form of video games to a wider pool of people with new and interesting ideas.