It’s been a while since I’ve had a chance to write about video games. For the last month or so, I’ve been frantically busy organising to go to Socialist Cuba, being in Socialist Cuba & writing about Socialist Cuba. Reports etc are becoming available on the Revolutionary Communist Group website & the Rock Around the Blockade blog.
Now, however, I have a little time. I’m on a coach to Bristol. The man sat across from my partner & I has eaten about 5 sandwiches that smell of feet. He clicks his tongue, constantly. The people at the back of the bus do not understand headphone volume. With more passengers at every stop, I can only assume the situation will turn from bad to worse. The internet is my only salvation.
I just read an article called ‘A Pixel Artist Renounces Pixel Art‘ by Blake Reynolds, the leading artist at Dinofarm Games. In part, I think it’s quite a defensive piece, attempting to negotiate the commercial failure of the team’s latest game, Auro. However, there is more to it than that. I would recommend reading it: cetain sections are eloquent & perhaps even insightful. At the very least, the correlation between graphical fidelity & artistic style is a topic that doesn’t get discussed anywhere near enough.
The most interesting aspect of Reynolds’ argument is his understanding of technical limitations & aesthetic product. The theme is repeated throughout the article & changes meaning during iteration, losing its clarity. The seed can be located in Reynolds’ opening paragraphs: ‘HD is the current buzz word used to market both hardware and software. The “high” in “high definition” is relative. 25 years ago, “16 bit graphics” was the operative word, but it was ultimately the same concept; 16 bit graphics was just the the HD of its time. Creators understand that screen size/resolution is just a canvas like any other.’
Personally, I have absolutely no interest in discussing what art I think is “good” or “not good” here. This makes up a bulk of Reynolds’ article, as he explains ideas relating to the construction of pixel images, animation, etc. I could spend a great deal of time dissecting his preferneces – for example, the comparison between Zelda & Bubsy is erroneous; colour is a qualitative factor & its introduction denotes a new basis for critical judgement. However, this is largely irrelevant. Whilst technique, skill etc are certainly real & actual, taste is an ideological category. As I have argued in numerous articles, aesthetics are “socially constructed” (See my ‘Introduction’ to “Jobcentre Diaries”: Notes on Collective Artistic Production, RED (2014) for my most concise phrasing of the argument). I use quotation marks because I think the term is misleading. Aesthetics are socially constructed, only insofar as they are the result of human development. Video games, & specifically video game art, demonstrate this quite concretely.
Let’s be quite clear, what Reynolds is addressing when he discusses technical limitations or development is the productive forces of society, the means of social production. A further article should explore the complexities of consumption etc in a post-digital world; unfortunately, this is beyond our present scope. When the productive forces develop, new methods of understanding them arise throughout society. So, for example, the aesthetic understanding we carry into Pong is quite specific. We understand that a single, white pixel represents a ball etc. We understand this because the aesthetic system which we use to understand Pong tells us this. It has been developed from a practical standpoint: to allow us to play the game. With each iteration & development of video game production, as technology advances, our understanding of aesthetics undertakes a qualitative leap. At a certain point, mere practicality was not the only aesthetic consideration & more “normal” artistic aesthetics were introduced into video games. Since this development, most developments have been incremental & quantative, rarely affecting play – ie consumption. Certainly, since the introduction of 3D gameplay, aesthetic development in video games has primarily been quantitative. The importance of understanding this is to understand the difference between style (ie form) & content. There can be variations within a form – Tetris has gone through numerous iterations – without compromising content. The content of video game aesthetics is essentially functional. It tells us how to play.
This development of aesthetics allows us to interpret certain forms of play, to develop what I tentatively refer to as a ludic language. It is not that we forget certain styles or forms with a new aesthetic development: we all still understand how to play Pong. However, certain forms can be seen as outdated & cast off. This is the essence of Reynolds’ argument – he wants to cast off pixel art &, by association, the gameplay its ludic language describes. It has become ‘niche’.
The question, therefore, posed is not whether or not pixel art is irrelevant to consumers, if contemporary video gamers can’t understamd the ludic meaning of pixel art or even if technological development compels us to throw away old stylings. The question that Reynolds highlights, albeit unwittingly, is what do we do when an aesthetic has reached a concluding point in its historical development?
I’m not going to pretend that I’m intelligent enough to answer this question. I am going to tell you that something the Cubans said to me seems to apply. In a discussion at the Hermanos Saiz Association – a youth culture project funded by the Ministry of Culture & the Union of Young Communists – we asked to what extent rap had been considered acceptable music in Cuba. The vice president of the association responded:
‘Hip-hop and rap were seen as a bad influence. So, the Association decided to include this genre in its work. Thanks to the work of the Association, this is recognised. We now have Cuban hip-hop and rap. The relations between the Association and these kinds of music have always been good.’
I would apply the same logic to dying forms as I would to emergent forms. Unfortunately, that requires the profit motive be annihilated – Reynolds stands as proof: he loves pixel art but renounces it for the consumer. Artistic integration requires Socialism.