The blocky charm of pixel graphics games

(Image credit: user DoubleOMURFY, Steam community)

From time to time, I like popping over to Itch.io and browsing for new Indie games—anything goes, really, but I tend to prefer pixel graphics games. It’s a habit I’ve formed over the past few years, dating all the way back to Halloween 2015, I think. My girlfriend and I were looking for games that would fit the mood of the season, and we stumbled upon the Deep Sleep series—a little psychological horror gem that at the time wasn’t yet on Steam. 

Granted, I had played many other pixel graphics games before—Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle, Broken Sword, and the lot—but my encounter with the Deep Sleep series marks the moment when I became interested in retro-graphics. It’s not just me: modern games dressed in pixel clothes are becoming increasingly common, and it’s probably not just because of a bunch of nostalgics hellbent on bringing back the good ol’ games that have something that new ones lack.

DOTT was one crazy ride. (Credit: Steam)

Okay, surely the nostalgia effect does play a role, but that can’t be all. I think there’s something special about pixel graphics. The way it strips down all the bells and whistles from a game, leaving only what you really need to focus on, has a special appeal to me. It’s like playing in distraction-free mode, fully immersed in the world of the game. (Well, the game itself needs to be interesting, of course; some games just suck, and no amount of pixel art can change that fact.)

Being pixelated doesn’t make this landscape any less beautiful. (Credit: Steam)

Of course, there’s pixel art and pixel art. Though not as much as they could be in a modern game, the landscapes in Monkey Island 2 were lively and beautifully detailed, certainly a lot more than they can be in a Bitsy game. Yet both kinds of pixel art have that certain je ne sais quoi I was talking about. I can’t quite put in words what it is, but I think it has to do with the way pixel art captures the essence of things. 

By its very nature, the medium forces you to leave out the finer details and focus on the basic qualities of what you’re trying to represent. People’s faces boil down to two pixels for the eyes, and a handful more for things like mouths, hair, and maybe beards; in extreme cases, your main character could easily be just a single-sprite stick figure. The same goes for objects and places, and while this limitation used to be just a limitation indeed, nowadays it’s one of many brushes in your paint brush set.

A finer brush will allow you to paint finer details that you don’t want to leave up to the player’s imagination; it’ll let you better define what your characters and environments look like, and establish certain facts about them. A larger brush, such as that painting the broad strokes of pixel art, will let the player fill in the blanks that were not a mandatory part of the experience you were creating. Guybrush Threepwood had to have a certain look that was part of his persona; he wasn’t merely an interface between the player and the game environment, so the brush they used to paint him, so to speak, was finer than what you’d use to paint characters in this game, and a lot finer than the brush used in this one; it was a lot coarser than the brushes used to paint Arkham Asylum.

You want weird? ‘Cause this is weird. (Credit: Rusty Lake)

Obviously, a character in a game isn’t just looks. Good writing can make a moving square into the most charming character of all times, but a character that is no more than a walking stick figure is a good choice when you want the player to be the real main character. For a truly immersive experience, you may want to go with a first-person interface, like the aforementioned Deep Sleep series or the disturbingly weird games by Rusty Lake.

(Rusty Lake don’t do pixel games and their games do have main characters with an actual face, but you hardly ever see them, as the games are often first-person.) Main characters like that (or lack thereof) remove a barrier between the player and your plot, letting the game speak directly to the player and allowing him or her to live the events of the game directly, rather than vicariously through the main character. This is something which I think can make the game a lot more immersive.

And no game needs to be immersive more than a good psychological horror game. If it’s supposed to scare you, you need to be 100% in it.  That’s why I think pixel graphics is an excellent choice (though by no means the only one) for this type of game. Pixel art horror games have given me some among the best jumpscares and feelings of dread and isolation I’ve ever experienced. (For example, see again the Deep Sleep series, or The Last Door, or its first four chapters anyway.) 

Deep Sleep 2. (I think?) Way scarier than you might think. (Credit: Steam)

I think the reason for this is again the limited amount of detail present in a pixel art game. We’re most afraid of things we don’t fully understand, or that look off somehow. Pixel graphics presents players with a model of reality sufficiently “complex”, for lack of a better word, to get the gist of what’s going on, but simplified enough to be uncanny. Creating an eerie, unnaturally quiet and lonely environment is a lot easier in pixel graphics than in any modern 3D engine. 

When I say it’s easier, I don’t mean from a technical point of view. (Which might or might not be true; I’ve never made a game—yet.) I mean that pixel graphics, by its own nature, already sits right in the middle of a sort of uncanny valley for art, unlike modern 3D graphics. As an example, I’m willing to bet that none of these games would be half as eerie if they were remade in Unreal Engine. 

This is just my opinion, of course; it’s entirely up for debate and it’s not a rule without exceptions. I’m not a pixel game purist, either. Knock Knock is a 2D-ish, cartoony game that got me flipping on all light switches in my apartment each time after playing it; it’s a glaring example of something that was scary because I didn’t fully (or at all) understand what was going on. Amnesia needs no introduction but bears special mention; The Survey is another example of a 3D game that I found utterly terrifying. (By the way, if you have psychological horror games of any kind to suggest, please do; I’m always looking for a new one to play.)

Knock-knock! Who’s there? A beheaded sanatorium patient, I think? (Credit: Steam)

Finally, and here I’m circling right back all the way to the beginning, there’s the nostalgia effect, which of course is not inherent to pixel art itself. When I was a child, pixel graphics was nearly the state of the art. When I got my NES, at age seven, it was still all the rage; I began playing point-and-click classics only in 1998, when they were already a few years old at least and I was a teen. I guess that playing games during childhood was by default a more immersive and imaginative experience, which I must have linked mentally to the graphics of the time. For example, for me, The Legend of Zelda was an incredibly mysterious and surreal adventure (which I didn’t beat until I was a fourteen-year-old playing emulated games on my PC *ahem*); maybe some of that feeling rubbed off on my perception of pixel art.

This might not be all, and I don’t fully understand the reasons why pixel graphics is so special to me anyway. Maybe that’s a reason in and of itself: what’s more fascinating than something that appeals to you but you don’t quite know why?

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