The Pixel Age Has (Technically) Ended

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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.

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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.

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One thought on “The Pixel Age Has (Technically) Ended”

  1. Wow! What a brilliant post. It adds a component to the conversation nobody else has. That said, I do think you missed my larger point. According to your assessment of my writing ability, that’s probably my fault. That’s not facetious. I am not a writer by trade.

    First, a minor note. Even if I were to grant that color was a qualitative quality and it gave Link’s Awakening a handicap, I’m comfortable asserting it still has way higher quality art. Saying “good art” is a shorthand for saying Link’s Awakening understands using black for line volume and shadow and depth. Its forms are charming and the language of how they’re made are harmonious and thoughftul (the “striping” on the walls and trees). Any graphic designer or illustrator will tell you it’s finer work, and those, among others, are the reasons. But…Busby is in COLOR! See what I’m getting at? Us having to reassess Bubsy’s quality with color in mind is no problem, because its use of color is atrocious. Giant slabs of green and loud purple. Texturing that looks like rubber vomit/the spray tool in ms paint. The lack of outline and poor choice of color makes Bubsy blend into the background. I could go on and on. That is why we use these shorthands. Bubsy has worse art but higher tech. Zelda has better art and lower tech. “Some people like Bubsy better” is noise. It adds zero content to the conversation and is intended as an anti-intellectual conversation-stopper. I also believe it to be intellectually dishonest on the part of whoever argues it. Subjectivity is a more nuanced and complex concept than “some people like x and some people like y so like…it’s all subjective man!” I think you know it. And that’s a Compliment.

    Second, and most important, this article has nothing to do with the success or failure of Auro or commercial viability in general (aside from incidentally). We’re a very very small company and the economics of Auro have to do with a million factors, the least of which I believe to be the art. That said, considering our company’s size and resources, I am proud of Auro and think it is on a healthy path. The article’s point speaks to having created a barrier between my art and the audience such that some call it “pixelated.” That means they can’t even GET to whether or not the art is “good.”

    My article doesn’t address where things should go when they reach their cultural conclusion. I’m not “casting aside” pixel art for commercial reasons per se. That is to suggest I advocate for safe, pandering work. That is not true. I say push through. Take chances. Challenge your audience. Do earth changing, risky, transformative work. Just do it in a language people speak. You want to write the next zeitgeist-affronting a-vant-garde novel? Great! Just don’t write it in Latin.

    We take for granted that the general public knows that pixel art is a thing. It is more accurate to say that most self-professed gamers do, and a subset of them actually appreciate the form. That may still be a relatively large number, but it’s nowhere near “the general public.” 14-18 year olds who were raised on retina screens will be(rightfully) confused when they see magnified pixel art unless they already have the specialized knowledge of “retro gaming.” Adults in their 20s and 30s who aren’t gamers, but interface with these HD screens all day long would(rightfully) think something is wrong when they see a bunch of squares. Even among gamers, there is ire for pixel art. Check the comments over at polygon.com where the article was republished.

    My game might wind up a total failure. My art might be considered downright bad. None of that matters if I can’t even reach people in the first place without a barrier. Auro isn’t some reskin of the same 5 games that most indie retro games are. It really is a unique little machine that we believe the world needs. Like Chess or Tennis, it’s just one of those “games” unlike any other(I didn’t design it, so I say that without conceit, and as a fan first, dev second). So, making “video gamey” JRPG esque art in the FIRST place was a self-serving mistake on my part.

    Even many gamers and game devs call for “HD remixes.” If more people appreciated good pixel art than I was aware, why aren’t people happy with Street Fighter 2 magnified on their 40 inch LED? All the more opportunity to appreciate the pixel art. Shouldn’t Street Fighter fans be the FIRST demographic to appreciate it? Shouldn’t they have protested HD remix’s creation? Maybe some did, but I remember the initial hype being exciting. Anyway, if the core fanbase is splintering on the issue, like I said in my article, I think that’s compelling.

    I’m not bitter. I’m not angry. I’m happy. I feel like I’ve learned something really valuable, and I’m going to continue making the best art I possibly can. I’m just going to do it in a language people already speak. It’s a cardinal sin to feel entitled to your audience’s time at all, let alone to feel entitled to them acquiring specialized knowledge to even comprehend your work.

    We may be under different impressions of just how understood pixel art is, or perhaps my game is the only one to receive the “pixelated” treatment. Even if it were, my arguments would still stand. I still failed to communicate.

    If I cared about money, I would have spent 4 years of my life making some reptile brained spam the screen match 3 thing. I believe in making the best things we can, even if you starve, which I have.

    Thanks again for your insights, and I hope I’ve made myself more clear.

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