Image: Mojang Studios/ IGDB

Retro aesthetics: an appeal that hasn’t changed a ‘bit’

Modern videogames have many faces. Often, the visual market for games feels split into two: cinematic realism that’s not always but incredibly often the face of triple-A titles that dominate much of the market, or other, more stylised graphics. While a lot may have changed since the first-ever videogames in arcade machines to allow all of this variety, the simplicity of their interfaces and art styles still appeals to players decades later. Many popular titles of our day utilise simple or pixelated styles that emulate the graphics of games gone by – with all that is possible graphically now, why is this?

The strive for realism is certainly a given phenomenon in the gaming world, and has been for a quite a while now. As technological possibility advances, so too must the mission for games to do more, immerse players further, look better. There’s no question that last year’s Stray was stunningly impressive in its portrayal of a futuristic world, particularly with the playable cat having a model closely based in its movements and behaviour on real ones. The striking nature of graphics such as this always amaze when first seen by audiences. Games like Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain (2010) and Detroit: Become Human (2018) absolutely had players enthused about how good they looked when they came out, and the cinematic experiences that realism allowed the creators to show players. Yet, such graphical feats put the onus on the gaming industry to always be evolving in this direction, and for players to always have new consoles and equipment to be able to keep up. I might have had a lot of fun playing Dragon Age: Inquisition, but having to run it on the lowest display settings to even be able to run it, simply because I don’t have a newer computer or variety of consoles, is more than a little disappointing. Plus, I’m locked out of playing so many titles at all (Monster Hunter: World, I’ll get to you one day). It is interesting to wonder, when the original Heavy Rain looks outdated now and warranted a remaster a few years ago, how quickly our more recent titles will become outstripped by the next innovations in technology. And therein lies the rub – the fatalistic element that realism carries with it from the moment it gets put out there. What’s next? So the texture of a character’s skin looks absolutely perfect. But where do you go from there? To a point where videogames are truly indistinguishable from real life? Beyond impressiveness, what would be the point?

Modern technology allows for pixel art to be so much more complex and interesting than ever before

After all, there’s so much more to a videogame than how it looks. Players aren’t going to put up with poor controls or boring gameplay in a time where there wouldn’t really be an excuse to have either, just because a game looks photorealistic. At the end of the day, developers can always have reboots and remakes of successful games to remaster their look. But it was the gameplay, despite any graphical limitations of their time, that would have been what captured so many players, and thus merited another iteration in the first place – and know that it would be financially viable. Nostalgia is a powerful tool, but it can only take you so far.

Why one might turn to older styles and forms is a long-standing question. Why do some filmmakers choose to shoot using old celluloid film over digital? Why has vinyl seen such a resurgence in popularity lately, in the era of streaming services? The format that is used to make a creative work is so important, an inextricable piece of a constructed whole, entirely able to enhance tone and feel. There’s a reason that Disney’s live-action remakes of its originally animated films don’t work quite as well, and lacked a certain heart and dynamism that, say, 2018’s Into the Spiderverse had because of its art style. A similar example in the gaming world can be found in Telltale’s titles – I don’t think that The Wolf Among Us, though with a realistic motion capture basis, would have the same panache without its artistic edge.

It seems that saying a game has ‘bad graphics’ has really become synonymous with ‘not realistic’. Really, the former phrase should mean ‘inconsistent’ – I’d call the terrible frame rates of the new Pokémon games ‘bad’ – or truly unpleasant to look at. As mentioned earlier, older 3D or realistic games might look ‘bad’ as they age, even if they were ground-breaking at the time. But a particular art style can be timeless. There are so many modern games that are utilising pixelated or simple art, and could easily look like they are from before their time. Stardew Valley takes advantage of a pixelated art style, and this arguably contributes to its popularly relaxing atmosphere with the air of simplicity it has. Toby Fox’s Undertale utilises a somewhat unassuming art style that can at times be almost crude, and others, simply spectacular. I know that when I played 1981’s Galaga on an arcade machine a few months ago, I was wowed by even the bright, starry background and showers of sparks from shooting enemies. Bit-related data limitations of graphics in the early days of gaming certainly didn’t stop developers from stunning. If anything, the notion that limitation breeds creativity rang true. Gaming and the nostalgia for these older styles is so incredibly wrapped up in the physical experience of playing them, from controllers to screens and sounds. In the digital age, it’s so interesting to play with what it means for a game to be a program that you run, made up of bits of data. The pixel style became representative of this format in the early age of technology, and its usage in videogames now harkens back to these influences to speak to a certain tradition, and it’s easy to talk about nostalgia. But for hits in recent years like Celeste, Moonlighter and Inscryption, we can see how modern technology allows for pixel art to be so much more complex and interesting than ever before. It’s no exaggeration to call it an art form, and more and more able to be a force unto itself.


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