The Merits of the Pixel
Despite its age, pixel graphics show no signs of dying. In an age of planned obsolescence and a never ending-arms race in graphical rendering, pixel art has aged impeccably—with no signs of irrelevancy on the horizon.
Pixel art began simply as the visual representation of a game using incredibly low-resolution technology. Arguably, The Oregon Trail (1971) was among the first game to feature pixelated graphics, even if it featured vague, geological features set against an ominous black void. Titles such as Super Mario Bros (1985) was comprised of blocky, basic graphics because it had no other choice. AS games evolved, so too did the graphics; the Bit Wars turned into a competition to have the more powerful graphical processor, whether that be 16-bit, 32-bit, or the lofty 64-bit.
By the tail end of the century, pixel graphics began to be superseded by more ambitious 3-dimensional graphics, pioneered by Half-Life (1998) and The Sims (1999). With the new millennia came a slew of 3D first-person-shooters, like Counter Strike (2000), Halo (2001), and Splinter Cell (2002), as well as 3D role-playing games like Neverwinter Nights (2002) and EverQuest (2000).
Suffice to say, the 2000s were an age defined by incredible progress made for 3D graphics. The visuals of Halo and Halo 3 (2007), or Grand Theft Auto (1997) and Grand Theft Auto IV (2008) are incomparable. A new generation of consoles—the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and the Nintendo Wii—pushed the limits of graphical processing, and raised the ceilings for developers. The Bit Wars hadn’t ended; they only evolved.
Now devoted gamers work to max out the graphical processing on their own personal computers. The race for graphical realism continues in franchises like Call of Duty, Battlefield, and Far Cry. Even games without realistic graphics like Overwatch (2016) are constantly being pushed by PC players to play at the highest quality and FPS (frames per second). However, there has been a backlash; not everyone wants hyper-realism or cares about stunning performance.
Just as the Romantics of the 18th century rebelled against the Industrial Revolution in favor of a simpler, more nostalgic aesthetic, so too are game developers looking to the pixel graphics of yore, a medium rife with potential and nostalgic value. They would come to define a part of the 2010s as indie developers began to penetrate the market with retro-inspired titles.
Some of the largest titles from the 2010s proved with their pixelated visuals that graphics aren’t the only thing that has improved in gaming: narrative, game feel, and the sheer scale of games have also been improved, with titles like Undertale (2015), Hotline Miami (2012), and Minecraft (2009) exemplifying these improvements respectively, while still paying homage to the pixel. Even in 2018, games like the rogue-like Wizard of Legend combine quality game feel, solid mechanics, and impressive visuals with pixel graphics.
Pixel art has begun to reach beyond gaming -- it has become an artistic medium in and of itself. It is technically, yet tastefully, dated style. The works of Youth Toyoi, known simply as “1041uuu”, an illustrator from Japan, do a stunning job at embodying this. Much of his arts are gifs—living, breathing animations that loop endlessly. They’re hypnotic, with an incredible command of color. They seem to hold the past and the future in both hands, making the present—a Japanese cityscape, a distant Mt. Fuji, or a doe by a riverbank—that much richer and engulfing.
A large contributor to pixel art’s modern success has been its accessibility. It is an incredibly approachable medium, with applications like Piskel, Pixlr, and Gimp providing novices with easy-to-understand experiences in learning how to illustrate and animate using pixel art. Even better, these applications are also completely free. This means the general public has free and easy access to a medium that has an incredibly low skill floor and an incredibly high skill ceiling. It lends itself to absolute novices who can’t draw a stick figure to save their lives, yet still, allow for creators like Youth Toyoi to create emotionally evocative pieces.
Game engines have also become increasingly accessible to the public, which means that these home-brewed pixel graphics have a place to be implemented. The Godot Engine and GameMaker Studios have native pixel art editors, while Godot, Unity, and Unreal are engines that are free for anyone to use and try out.
Pixel art and graphics aren’t going anywhere; the pixel is the purest visual representation of video gaming, and as narrative, game feel, processing power, mechanics, and scope continue to improve within gaming, the pixel aesthetic will remain timeless.