Skip to main content

My Favourite Art Style: The Pixels Of Adventure

Monkey Island and beyond.

RPS has sealed itself inside a chocolate egg for the duration of the UK's long holiday weekend, to emerge only when the reign of Mr Hops The Doom Rabbit has run its dread course. While we slumber, enjoy these fine words previously published as part of our Supporter program. More to come.

Monkey Island 2 marked the dawn of a perfect little era for adventure graphics. I remember seeing it at a computer show and just being blown away. The detail in the opening town. VGA was here, and with art came with it. I still love this era of pixel graphics, and often find it superior to many techniques that came later at creating a world I can get lost in instead of constantly subconsciously picking holes in.

It offers a perfect mix of detail and rough detail, allowing for incredible amounts of character to be both enjoyed and more generally intuited from simple animation and basic images. There's a sense of texture and grain to the image, much like film compared to later games' video. In most cases, and this is something that would bug me in so many higher resolution games, the characters actually fit into the world, rather than being sprites from one universe pasted onto backgrounds in another. It feels cohesive, tactile, like a world you could step into and actually touch, in much the same way that a good cartoon can say more in the simple curve of a character's mouth than any overtly realistic oil painting can ever hope to match.

And that's just Monkey Island 2. Just about every Lucasarts games, the wonders of Kyrandia 2: Hand of Fate, Sierra games like Gabriel Knight... all of them looked great at the time, and generally aged far better than the HD and 3D and FMV games that followed. Especially the early 3D ones. Brr. Double-brr for some of those.

Now, when I say 'pixels', I don't necessarily mean pixel art. Monkey Island 2 for instance wasn't technically pixel art - they were painted with a mix of tools like marker pens and coloured pencils, before being scanned in. When you're dealing with 320x200 images, you get pixels. These days it's more of a deliberate choice, typically because the needs and expectations of something at that or slightly larger scope are so much less than HD. And of course, with that, comes Problems. With 3D, every time two characters have to interact, it becomes impossible to ignore that they're two distinct entities flapping around. With good pixel art, the experience is seamless, unbroken, effective. With pixels, the effect isn't just in what you see, it's in what you don't - the pictures you draw in your mind, the pictures that stay in your memory.

In the hands of a master though, it doesn't matter, and any ideas of the style only working as a pure nostalgia kick get to go right in the bin. In particular, Ben Chandler, in-house artist over at Wadjet Eye Games, is nothing less than a goddamn pixel wizard, with art that shares all the advantages that the style had back in the early 90s with another couple of decades worth of tools, lighting experience and technology, like having an unlimited palette to play with instead of just 256 colours. Technobabylon, Shardlight, Blackwell Epiphany and the upcoming Unavowed are all games that show just what a great artist can do, even if a few sniffy people will sniff on Steam about being able to count the pixels. It's far more worthwhile to admire how good they still look in the right hands, and in the right games, but on any screen.

Read this next