No Time To Play

Musings on pixel art in 2016

by on Jun.16, 2016, under Opinion

I remember playing with a ZX Spectrum on an 11″ black-and-white TV, and marveling at the way you could distinctly see each individual pixel — the resolution was that low. Yet if you put just 64 of them together, suddenly they looked like something: part of a brick wall, a ladder, a jewel…

Fast forward 20 years, when a friend (hi, fluffy!) praised me for the work I put into Escape From Cnossus to make it look like an 8-bit game. I had to explain it was an 8-bit game running in an emulator. Makes me wonder how many of the people playing it on itch.io realize the truth. The game looks just that good — my best-looking at the time in fact.

Most people nowadays seem to associate pixel art with classic NES games. I associate it with everything from the aforementioned Speccy, through Flashback and Street Fighter II Turbo on the SNES, to mid-1990s games like Master of Orion and SimCity 2000 on the PC. Not to mention 2.5D arcade games like Space Harrier and countless racers. So you’ll understand my annoyance at indies who keep churning out cutesy platformers and nothing else, but also at all the snobs who mock them.

No, pixel art isn’t outmoded. Nor are we looking at it solely through nostalgia goggles. It’s a legitimate medium that has proven its worth — just ask Taito about the copyright they claim in their iconic space invader shape. There’s a lot of value in pixel art still, especially since the proliferation of mobile devices has reversed the trend towards bigger and bigger screens just begging to be filled with polygons. Yet if you look at the crop of indie games that took the world by storm early this decade, a lot of them DO end up looking very same-y from a few steps back, no less so than brown shooters.

Upon reading my recent newsletter, another friend (hey, Ping) noted I sound frustrated. And it’s true! But not at the difficulty of selling games — rather, at how childish that first screenshot looks after all the effort I put into it. And sure, it’s my fault that I can’t afford anything better. But even commercial tilesets seem stuck in the same rut: mostly low-contrast 16×16 or 32×32 tiles designed for platformers — or at best console JRPGs. Larger sizes seem reserved for isometric art, which is simply not what I need. Oh, there’s always the option of upscaling, and I intend to use that in a future game, for all that it makes graphics look pixelated. And to my surprise, the screenshot is still readable while scaled to a quarter of the original size. Maybe there’s logic to the madness after all. But another problem looms.

Quite simply, the Angband tiles by David Gervais were the only set I could find with the specific graphics needed in my game.

Exactly one year ago (minus a few days) I was writing on the mirror blog about the importance of reusable art libraries. But these libraries aren’t all that useful if everyone donates what amounts to the same wheel reinvented repeatedly — and every time it’s just a little wobbly. Just enough so to make it unusable without undue effort. And there’s often serious effort going into this donated art! It’s not always scraps from someone’s cutting room floor. Some of it is even complete art packs from actual, released games!

And most of them depict the same few kinds of environments, with a fake 2/3 (if not sideways) perspective and very little variety. Hardly any lend themselves to simple procedural generation. Only one offered enough choice for me to pick what little I need. Almost all of it. Almost.

Mind you, it’s a lot better having to draw a couple tiles myself than 50+. For the low, low price of free, I ought to be grateful. Just wish the game didn’t look like a child’s doodle, but then again, maybe that’s appropriate given the subject matter. Might even be marketable to a younger age group.

At least it’s a generic fantasy game. Never a shortage of art to choose from in that area…

See, people mock retro pixel art games for all the wrong reasons. They say pixel art didn’t use to look crisp (it did, on PC monitors and even some TVs). They say it all looks like old NES games (it doesn’t, the NES had 8×16 pixel tiles at most, with a very recognizable color palette). No, the problem here is — where did we hear that before? — that the vast majority of pixel art games in 2016 are in a handful of narrow subgenres, almost all with the same kind of setting, and quite monotonous once you get over the glitz.

There’s nothing wrong with reviving old art styles and techniques. But game developers, big-budget and indies alike, can’t seem to get out of their little echo chambers already and take inspiration from something other than videogames for a change. Because by now we’re building our fantasies on imitations of older fantasies, and then we complain about failing to be culturally relevant.

It’s not the medium, folks. It’s what we do with it. Don’t waste your skills.

Creative Commons License
Musings on pixel art in 2016 by Felix Pleşoianu is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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