May 28, 2013

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Playing with Pixels: Discussing the Allure of Pixel Art

Playing with Pixels: Discussing the Allure of Pixel Art

monaco-logo

Monaco: What’s Yours is Mine

Ever since the first arcade machines started appearing in the late seventies with their abstract, blocky depictions of aliens, soldiers, and plumbers, nothing has quite communicated the concept of escapism better than pixels.

Once a thing of the past, born from the graphical limitations of classic consoles and PCs, pixel art all but completely went away when the PlayStation and Nintendo 64 brought 3D graphics to the masses. In the last few years however, with the explosion of indie gaming on PCs and then on home consoles, the style has been coming back into relevance not as a product of hardware limitations, but as an artistic choice. Indie hits like Sword & SworcerySuper Meat Boy, and Passage have used the style to great effect, and games like Fez and Minecraft have turned the stylings of pixel art on its head in innovative ways.

Sword&Sworcery

Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP

On April 24, Pocketwatch Games released Monaco on Steam to positive reviews and high sales, and then on Xbox Live Arcade earlier this month. Monaco has quickly become a success, and unsurprisingly for an indie game, its style was heavily inspired by classic pixel art.

But in an ecosystem where some gamers feel that pixel art is reaching the point of oversaturation in the indie scene, Monaco’s graphical style is a fevered visual remix that is more evocative of classic pixel art than its more imitative contemporaries.

Lead developer Andy Schatz spoke with me recently about his thoughts on the style, why he believes it is so popular, and what inspired the art design of Monaco.

 I think that Monaco’s art is born partially out of necessity, given the limitations of the game both from a development standpoint but also because there’s so much information on the screen all the time that it was very important to simplify the shapes,” said Schatz. “If objects have a more detailed or nuanced look to them I think it would have been even harder for your typical player to visually understand what they were seeing, and that’s something we already have an issue with.”

Minecraft

Minecraft

Pixel art can be easily interpreted by players because of its grid-like simplicity, but Schatz believes that it can be difficult to find the balance between displaying too little or too much information to players.

 It’s probably the biggest issue with the game,” Schatz said. “For instance, people have a hard time understanding which direction a guard is facing, and that’s probably because their simplified form isn’t quite a human silhouette.” In games that use a more abstract visual style, it can take longer for players to learn the visual language.

I asked Schatz how he would describe Monaco’s graphics. “It would be dishonest for me to say that Monaco isn’t pixel art. It is. It’s pixel art, but I would say that we do draw more inspiration from vector art. I’d say we’re sort of half way between something like Kentucky Route Zero and Fez. A lot of people use 8-bit as a shorthand to describe Monaco’s graphics and I think that this is just sort of factually wrong. It’s clearly not 8-bit art. The silhouette characters are certainly 8-bit art, but pretty much none of the other art in the game is. It’s much more of a geometric mosaic I guess you could say.”

When the title was originally shown at the Independent Games Festival in 2010, the game had a much different look. “It was in an 8-bit style, a chunky pixel style,” Schatz explained. “And in that old version the visibility and the lighting was all tile-based, so when you could see a tile the whole tile would light up and when you couldn’t see it, it would darken down. And it led to a really neat dynamic mosaic effect but it was even more confusing to the eye, so when I changed the visibility algorithm and the lighting algorithms to be vector-based I wanted the art style to change to reflect that as well. So all of the art is intended to sort of reflect this idea of tilted and skewed vector-based art.”

Monaco_IGF

Monaco as it appeared at IGF 2010

 While the resurgence of pixel art can largely be attributed to the nostalgic yearnings of the young developers of today who grew up playing console games from the 80′s, Schatz curiously never grew up playing on consoles. “I was a PC, Commodore 64 kid when I was young, so that’s not something in my language. My first console was the first Xbox and that’s only because I was working on a game for it.”

 The visual design for Monaco was therefore inspired by sources outside of the well-excavated history of 8 and 16-bit console games. “With regards to the graphic design of the game, that is drawn from graphic design that is typically in heist movies. Search ‘Confidence movie poster’ and look at the first image on Google Image search. That was a movie that I drew a lot of inspiration from the visual design of.

Confidence_Poster

Confidence

 It’s probably impossible to make 2D art and not have it in some way call back to old-school console art, just because by nature it has so much in common, but it’s not something that I was intentionally trying to evoke in any way,” Schatz said. “It was definitely born from the game design.”

The occasionally busy visual design of Monaco is countered by a simple, fool-proof control scheme that was directly inspired by a game famous for its sometimes extremely hard-to-comprehend visuals. “Geometry Wars was probably the primary inspiration behind the control scheme,” Schatz explained. “I wanted to make a game that only used the analog sticks and one trigger, and the trigger was only supposed to be used in an ‘oh shit, I need to use a bomb to get out of this hairy situation’ sort of way.”