Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Pixel Aesthetic

So, lots of 2D sprite-based games coming out these days. Hm. Super academic mode: activate!

Have you noticed that sprite art is, technically speaking, sliding backwards? I don't mean in terms of actual quality, but in terms of fidelity. Throughout the eighties and nineties, sprite art struggled to be more and more realistic, higher and higher resolution. One of the big draws of Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter was that they had ludicrously detailed sprites.

But these days, nearly everyone is going the opposite direction. Fewer details. Characters that are only a dozen pixels tall. In terms of pixels per character, we're almost back to the time of Atari!

Except, uh, this shit looks fantastic.

Here's the thing: freed from the need for realism, art can explore along other axes. So we see our pixel art stretching out and exploring mood, lighting, color, composition, exaggeration - all the other aspects of art. Without the need for realistic detail work, we can leave off the difficult and confining requirements that high definition brings with it. Just as the easiest of the easy examples, we don't have to move the camera and light the scene to keep the faces clearly distinguishable... which allows us to move the camera and light the scene however the hell we want!

This is also why many of the most recent pixel games don't just have small characters: they have small characters with real-sized (small) heads.

Classically, sprites were given large heads so you could tell what their faces looked like. This wasn't some anime-style choice, it was a requirement if you wanted your character to have a face. But these days, if you want your character to have a detailed face, you can just increase the realism of the art. In turn, if you don't need them to have a detailed face, you don't need them to have an inflated head.

The spidery proportions we're starting to see in pixel art these days is not solely because people were impressed by Superbrothers. It's because the "spidery" style is a powerful aesthetic for exploring new kinds of composition, mood, and exaggeration. People are flocking to it because there's actual art to be done in that style.

Me, though, I'll stick to 3D. I've become fast enough at 3D art that it actually takes more time and overhead to do pixel art. I won't have an easy time exploring the artistic options that the pixel artists can tackle... but that's okay. I'm a mechanics-focused game designer, so I don't have much to say on those matters anyway.

Still, if you see a pixel-art game, don't dismiss it as "lazy" or "retro". Take a look at how it pushes other aspects of art.

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