Are Games Pixel Art? Yes.

By Jim Rossignol on May 27th, 2010 at 10:26 am.


Such is the poor quality of my brain function that I assumed this brief documentary about pixel art (below) had found its way into my browser /because/ I’d seen it on RPS. Not so. Fortunately the mini-movie itself was made by people with far shinier brains that myself, and features a bunch of people talking sagely about videogames and pixel art. It really is worth ten minutes of the time you have left.

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33 Comments »

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  1. Brumisator says:

    It’d be interesting to see what people who don’t have any “8-bit” nostalgia think about pixel art.
    And I don’t mean 10 year old Gears of War players, I mean 50-60 year olds who’ve never played a videogame in their life.

    Well, I’d ask my parents but art is not really their thing anyway.

    • Jim Rossignol says:

      There’s definitely a gap in comprehension. A games course lecturer friend of mine reported on how one of his students explained that Space Invaders was “designed to look retro.”

    • Wilson says:

      @frightlever – I think your point about Dwarf Fortress is interesting. Are you saying that your Dwarf Fortress experience (the epic tale) is less valid because most outside observers don’t understand it? There’s a lot of art I don’t ‘get’, and a lot of instances where I see something that has been defined as ‘art’ where I can’t understand how anyone could see it as art. Yet I would be hesitant to rubbish the people who claim it is art, simply because they may well know or see something I don’t. In the case of Dwarf Fortress, to an outside observer it’s both. I don’t think that reduces the validity of the quality of Dwarf Fortress.

    • Sarlix says:

      When the likes of damien hirst’s stuff was considered as art, that pretty much removed any barriers that existed on ‘what is art’ for me. If that can be art then surely anything can be. It’s just down to the subjective opinion of the viewer. Any form of self expression that results in an external aesthetic could be seen as art I guess.

      How can people not see pixel art as art when there is stuff like this?

      http://www.pixeljoint.com/pixelart/12004.htm

      http://www.pixeljoint.com/pixels/new_icons.asp?ob=rating

    • Wulf says:

      For what it’s worth, Sarlix, I agree. I think what some people–like frightlever–don’t understand is that they don’t understand. I don’t mean that in a derogatory way, because it’s impossible for any human to be able to comprehend and understand everything, but the lack of understanding of one person doesn’t at all lessen something that’s understood by another. In my opinion.
       
      It’s like poetry, there are too many people that don’t appreciate or understand poetry, they’ll call it prose, it’s pretty words, but is it really art? I think so. I’m a huge fan of poetry, I bloody love poetry, even if I’m not much good at writing it myself (stanzas and I rarely agree). If you show poetry to someone who’s never really read it, they just won’t get it, they might never, and worse, they might even try to convince you that your perceptions are incorrect.
       
      Reality is fun though, because it’s a paradox created by subjective thought. In reality, both parties are both correct and incorrect at the same time. This is because of the nature of subjectivity, because to one person in their understanding of life, the Universe, and everything, poetry isn’t art, they can’t understand how it could be art. To the other person, they have their own perceptions, their own take on reality, which is equally as subjective, and they couldn’t possibly understand how poetry couldn’t be art.
       
      This can be applied to everything.
       
      So what frightlever is actually saying is that in his personal take on the Universe pixel art can’t be art, because he’s unable to comprehend how it could be art. And that’s how things are for him. It’s because he hasn’t been able to see in this form of art what you or I do, and without that experience of seeing and understanding something as art, he can’t put himself in the same position. So from frightlever’s perspective it’s easier to say that something simply isn’t art.
       
      On a personal level I think he’s incorrect and I disagree, he clearly feels the same about those who see art in pixel works, but that’s the way it has to be. Some people will be able to say that they understand how art could be there, and they’ll respect the possibility, they could also respect that different people see different things, no matter what one is viewing.
       
      Most people though will probably find that it’s easier to think that what something views outside of oneself is objective, and therefore any perceptions regarding that must also too be objective, and if the viewer cannot see art, then it must so be true that there is no art. If someone is not capable of seeing something, it’s far easier to objectively say that it cannot exist, because it makes life easier for people when they don’t have to deal with the possibilities.
       
      But art is like beauty, and beauty is in the eye of the beholder, put 50 people in front of something and you’ll get divisive views as to whether it’s beautiful or not. And some will inevitably believe that because they cannot see beauty, then there’s objectively no conceivable way that that which they view can be beautiful.
       
      It’s kind of like an inverse version of faith. Absolute self-belief, with no room for doubt.
       
      So can pixel art be art? Is it art or just graphic art? That’s for you to decide, because you’re the only one who can. Subjectively speaking, of course!

    • Sarlix says:

      @Wulf

      Nice post, but I think it’s a bit early in the morning for me to fully appreciate!

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    HermitUK says:

    One thing I do notice is that the deocumentary makes little distinction between “Pixel Art” and “Pixel Art For Games”.

    Rohrer even notes in the video that he used pixels in Passage because it was necessary for the competition. Likewise pixel art in paint is usually easier than high res art, especially for your aspiring indie developer who’s a programmer first and an artist second. I still think that part of the reason for their endurance is down to necessity.

    That’s not to say it isn’t art, mind. And awesome art to boot. Just to pick a few choice examples from the ever awesome Pixel Joint:
    http://www.pixeljoint.com/pixelart/17123.htm
    http://www.pixeljoint.com/pixelart/12082.htm
    http://www.pixeljoint.com/pixelart/5400.htm

    • Pod says:

      Helm is the king of the pixel art sene. (IMHO)

    • Wulf says:

      I’d seen Colossal Katamari before, love that one.

      Those though, all of them, are absolutely stunning. I think my fave though is the Spartan, as it makes quite a strong impact.

  3. Cooper says:

    That comment by Rohrer about pixel art looking not as we remember it looking, but through the nostalgic lens of emulators was an interesting one. I’d never thought about it in that way. Largely because I’ve only ever experienced those games via emulators.

    (Consider the current 80s fashion ‘revival’. We’re remembering 80s fashion as we see it emulated now, on TV, in pop music etc. Or even as it was being emulated then, in the odd simulacra of 80s life that were the pop videos and films of the 80s. Most 80s fashion lovers now would baulk at the majority of what people actually looked like in the 80s, even as they wear their ‘vintage originals’)

    But whenever nostalgia comes up we find outselves having to take Baudrillard a bit seriously – nostalgia ‘assumes its true meaning’ once representations of the real begin to subsume the real itself into model simulations and we remember the past, not as it was, but as we find it represented to us now. What were the Wachowski brothers thinking?

    Also Re: Those without experience of the games.

    I never had a console, though I knew friends who did. Anything nostalgic for me means ASCII art or, further back, green-on-black screens.

    Yet I’m a huge fan of pixel art (both in games and as ‘stand alone’ pieces) and chip music (despite never having a gameboy)

    For me, whilst I recognise the nostalgia behind it, my interest has more to do with the aesthetics or producing something relateable and often representational with such limited tools. A similar aesthetic to a lot of modern abstract art.

    But there’s an important difference, I think (I may be wrong) between many abstract forms of ‘fine art’ and low-fi, digital art.
    Digital art seems to work in reverse, possibly. Apart from ‘demakes’, pixel art and chip music builds upwards, up from monochromatic or monophonic systems, stopping at a point such as ‘what gameboys are capable of’, or where the pixels are capable of being interpreted. Which is somewhat the reverse of cubism or other modern abstract forms of art which are about ‘taking away’ from what is being represented until you end up with some kind of ‘core’ which is abstracted, but still representational. Hence the obvious parrallels with pointilism, I guess, which ‘builds up and stops’ much like digital low-fi art does.

    • Brumisator says:

      Yeah.
      To me, stripping out the nostalgia factor is probably an essential part of the non-videogame low-fi art thing stuff [vocabulary breakdown].

      what I mean is instead of having “music that sounds like a gameboy”, it should be, or become “music made with simple, low bitrate syntheric sounds”, so not using old hardware, or copying it, but using that artistic direction.

  4. Brumisator says:

    Sarlix, The quality of craftsmanship or the prettiness of a picture have nothing to do with its artistic value.
    This is what countless professional artists have told me IRL…don’t ask me what makes art Art, I have no idea.

    • Tei says:

      “Sarlix, The quality of craftsmanship or the prettiness of a picture have nothing to do with its artistic value.”

      Prettiness can’t have a link, since a ugly thing can be art (a scarey painting about a dude in a bridge scared). But quality of craftsmanship has a role. A painting with not quality whatsoever is not whortiwhly. Thats like bad poetry. Bad poetry can’t never be art.

    • Sarlix says:

      @Brumisator

      Yeah, that was kind of my point….I have no fixed view on what is art and what isn’t.

      I used the Damien Hirst example because it was excepted by the art world as an expectable art form. The moment that happened they basically threw away the right to classify other works. How could you say to someone ‘sorry but that just isn’t art, but see this dead cow in formaldehyde…’

      @Tei

      “Thats like bad poetry. Bad poetry can’t never be art.”

      I disagree, have you ever read any Japanese Haiku? One of the most famous being:

      An old pond!
      A frog jumps in-
      The sound of water.

      Some people would say that is bad poetry and not art, but the whole of Japan would strongly disagree.

    • Jad says:

      Sarlix, if you think that Damien Hirst is the moment when the art world finally said “anything can be art”, you’re off by a quite a few decades. Andy Warhol constructed facsimiles of household items, John Cage composed a song comprised entirely of four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence, and Marcel Duchamp famously placed a urinal on a pedestal in a museum.

      The examples above, by the way, are in part why I think the whole “Are games art?” question is faintly ridiculous — yes they are, because “art” has been defined to include urinals by those who argue about the definitions of these sort of things. In the the serious art world this stuff isn’t even a debate any more, and hasn’t been for a long time.

    • Sarlix says:

      @Jad

      That was the only example I could think of, my art history is clearly lacking.

      Thanks for filling me in.

  5. Berzee says:

    @Brumisator — you wanna find out what older people without nostalgia think of pixel art?

    One hyphenated word: cross-stitch.

    Also, obligatory link to Pixelation: http://www.wayofthepixel.net/pixelation/index.php

    and my favorite definition of pixel art: “Pixel art is playing with colored blocks.”

  6. Tei says:

    I have played Commodore 64 games on a black and gray TV, a color one, and a green monitor. The pixesls of Commodore 64 are big an fat (FUN FACT: C64 pixels have more width than height). Theres some effects added by the CRT technology, that are like “shaders” that change how the art look, but these are not important.

    What we miss that used to be visible? on the old good times: Pixel Memory,… a pixel moving on a 1983 screen create a light trail. We have lost these trails, because our current technology of pixels have no memory, so a point blinking or a point moving create no trails whatsoever.

    About Pixel Art be art.. well.. is in the name Pixel *Art*. I think is easy.

    • Mario Figueiredo says:

      >> What we miss that used to be visible? on the old good times: Pixel Memory,… a pixel moving on a 1983 screen create a light trail.

      You, sir, have my utmost respect and admiration.

  7. Mario Figueiredo says:

    Absolutely fascinating, Jim. Thanks for bringing this piece to our attention. I’m a little blown away by the video text and imagery to produce an intelligible comment, I think.

    Pixel “Art” is deeply ingrained in my perception of gaming since it brings a whole lot of nostalgia. Something I’m very sensible to. So I openly admit a complete and proud bias towards pixels capabilities to produce an engaging gaming experience, in contrast to modern polygon methods who tend to dilute our imagination in favor of a very descriptive graphic world. And imagination is to me still the cornerstone of gaming.

    It has also garnered a status on its own right as it is mentioned by the end of the documentary. Which have been allowing its use on incredibly creative ways, and many of them not directly attached to a gaming experience. It’s maybe on those areas that I remove the quotes around Art and use the expression Pixel Art, without fear. Where the pixels are free from the gaming experience that have been conditioning their visual qualities. Like controls, game story, bugs, is it boring, is it not boring, It’s too shot, it’s too long, an any other game design decisions that cover or even condition the development of pixel-based works that work solely as a visual experience.

  8. Jae Armstrong says:

    Pixel art, eh? Where’s Helm when you need him?

  9. Dervish says:

    This documentary is awful. Rohrer doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Calling CRT’s “blurry” and saying nothing about the effect of scanlines? Ignoring the fact that manuals such as Super Mario Bros. and Zelda had blown-up pixelicious images of the enemies and items? Ugh. This whole thing is a bunch of artwankery over the supposedly magical essence of a little block of color. It’s bullshit and it’s insulting to use people like Rohrer (who may have some interesting ideas, but his art sucks no matter how you look at it) and ignoring some of the pixel MASTERPIECES from the 8-bit or modern era. But who cares about stuff like Shatterhand or Metal Slug when you can earn INDIE CRED?! omg this stuff is so retro!!!1

    See also: people that think NES music is all about the instrumentation instead of, you know, good compositions.

  10. Wulf says:

    I’ve said almost all I can on this, so I won’t repeat myself.

    What I will say is that I strongly encourage each and every one of you to watch Dan the Man, if you haven’t all ready (and maybe even if you have).

    It’s a wonderful take on the Wonderboy Universe. I recognised it as the Sega Master System Wonderboy games (Wonderboy in Monster Land and Wonderboy III) almost immediately, and it’s just so fun.

    It also reminds me of another thing I’d absolutely love to point people at: Kid Radd. The official site is down at the moment, but there’s a mirror. I won’t say anything about that other than linking it.

  11. Thirith says:

    Heh. Funny coincidence – my last blog entry was about pixel art. Nice video – thanks for posting it!

  12. Helm says:

    We had a little discussion over at Pixelation over this:

    http://www.wayofthepixel.net/pixelation/index.php?topic=10403.msg111517#new

    To recap my point:

    The documentary is well-made and interesting and the interviewers raise a lot of personal opinions that are very much worth discussion (and I agree with a lot that Jason Rorher says). But it’s very light on the history of the medium angle and I hope some future documentary attempts to tackle the almost 30 years’ worth of ‘making artwork with pixels’.

    One thing worth exploring in pixel art is a parallel of the ‘are videogames art?’ ongoing discussion. I mean by that that for the majority of the history of the medium it was not considered a medium at all, but instead a necessary evil. Computers showed images in pixels, so manipulating pixels to make images as well as they could was natural. Any tool and any process that led to realistic-looking art that bypassed its pixelly essence was fair game.

    But in the last 5 years or so there have been discussions and natural movement towards the appreciation of pixel art for its distinctive aesthetic value (much like videogames are being explored as interactive experiences and less like ‘it must be fun’ games).

    However this doesn’t mean that the only ‘arty’ pixel art is of the retro-looking, blocky variety. There are other aesthetic schemes people have employed to make art that is both distinctively pixelly and also faking higher color fidelity/resolution via various techniques and tricks pixel art communities have developed over the years. The important thing to mention is then that ‘computer-art aesthetics’ (of which pixel art is a subset) do not exhaust themselves in a resurgence of ‘retro-looking’ blocky art. Other means exist. Some would argue that the purity of working in a controlled and very constrained medium can arrive at distinctively computer-art looking objects that are no less complex and multifaceted than real media works on canvas or paper. There are various schools of thought on how many colors one could use to achive something, about dithering, about manual anti-aliasing, about the perils of banding, so so so many things worth exploring.

    For some more pixel art theory (if you’re so interested) you could do worse than read the ramblethread here: http://www.wayofthepixel.net/pixelation/index.php?topic=8110.0

    This documentary is welcome, but it only scratches the surface. Pixel art has a rich history and a very diverse palette and to look at it from the indie gaming / retro art vantage would be a disservice only if that was the last word on the matter. I hope it’s not.

  13. littlewilly91 says:

    Problem with pixel games is the gameplay. Sometimes the little thing you want to make, you want to work in full 3D. That’s a massively key part of the game. To really pull you into say an aircraft cockpit you need that third dimension.

    What developers can take away from the pixel art movement is that making a game more photo realistic doesn’t make it more gripping. What does is perfecting an easy to recognize impression of what you are trying to represent. The one with that’s prettiest, the one that makes the right emotional ties, whatever, that’s the character model you want.

    Of course the art direction must then be carried through the rest of the game, and not a jumble of so many things that it becomes annoying. (unless of course that’s the point of the game.)

    There are various aesthetic standards that have grown up and that many games adopt. There’s realistic like Crysis, Gears Of War style, Cartoony/WWII propoganda style of Team Fortress 2, cel shading, pixel art, and a million variations of these. Art styles can then vary within the game, such as with Bioshock’s apocalyptic Art Deco architecture. I want there to be more established styles that developers with no imagination can be a part of aswell as more dang variety. Art direction is like one of the four spokes in the wheel of a game- others being story, gameplay and the technology beneath it all. A game can be entertaining even if it only does something amazing with one of these factors, so splitting your time neatly between each is a good bet. I think a lot of the time art gets left behind.

    Most gaming media just write these various aesthetics off as “stylised” which sucks a lot.

  14. littlewilly91 says:

    I wish emulators had a “cathode ray” mode, which would make the games look like they were designed to even on LCD screens. I mean that would be the default too.

    Finding beauty in pixels is a very modern thing, since on those old systems you couldn’t see them really.

    • RobF says:

      Stella, the 2600 emulator has just that. It’s quite lovely too.

    • Mario Figueiredo says:

      Emulators like MAME (an arcade games emulator) have filters that mimic very well scanlines of many types.

      Meanwhile, ZXSpin and Spectaculator (ZXSpectrum emulators) emulate very well TV screen conditions and especially the processor attribute clash (color bleeding) behavior.

      These are the two types of emulation that interest me. And they do a very convincing job. I can’t answer for the others.