Pixel Nostalgia

To follow up on the last post, make sure to check out this very nice response on Stephen Northcott’s blog–I think it balances out the tone of my initial remarks quite nicely. Whereas my post perhaps dwelled a bit too long on the decline of pixel art in mainstream gaming, here Northcott gives us a slightly more upbeat outlook for the future, citing Silicon Studio’s 3D Dot Game Heroes as a recent example of “how big publishing houses are starting to take notice of this hitherto underground Indie scene.”

It is also not suprising how popular this medium is set to be when you consider the average age of serious video game players these days. There are a lot of 30 – 40 year olds out there with a nostalgic view of the handful of decades that video games have been around.

He has a point: nostalgia probably has a lot to do with recent high-profile examples of the pixel aesthetic (I wrote a comment on his post with some ideas about why this happens).

The problem with nostalgia, however,  is that its power inevitably (ironically?) weakens over time. Right now, it is working to our advantage by appealing to the older generation of gamers. But some day these older gamers will die, taking their nostalgia with them. Worse, our nostalgic longing will steadily lose much of its power during our own lifespan, since eventually we’ll have to yield control of the medium to a  new generation of developers and players who  are being taught to see 3D as standard and pixels as “retro.”

So how can we protect pixels from the certain death that awaits us? Obviously, the first thing we need is to continue developing awesome pixel-based games. But just as important, we need to  secure a permanent place for pixels in videogame discourse.  Future gamers might not be able to fully understand our sense of nostalgia regardless of what we do (and this is a good thing, given that it is our nostalgia, not theirs), but by making a forceful case on its behalf, we can at least ensure that it remains a dignified and relevant option for game developers far into the future. This is what happened to black and white in film, and it will happen to pixel art as well if we make a strong enough case for it (a few more youtube documentaries Pixel and we’d already be halfway there). Hopefully we’ll do better than film, so that pixel art won’t be as rare as black and white movies have become nowadays.

Speaking of pixels and nostalgia, check out this super sweet stop-motion tribute to classic NES games!

The pixel is alive indeed. For more info on the film, see this Kotaku post.

This entry was published on May 28, 2010 at 4:35 pm. It’s filed under game criticism, videogames and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

4 thoughts on “Pixel Nostalgia

  1. Celeste on said:

    Change is a good thing, even if your intentions are to protect pixel based art are valid, the next generations have been spoiled by extremely good graphics and 3D gaming will not stand for just pixels. I cannot go back to playing (1st generation) tetris after playing something like Red dead redemption. Games are required to have better technology than they did in the past because it’s an evolution. Maybe the DS is a viable source for pixelated art, but even then, I haven’t played my DS in a year or so.

  2. Hey Celeste, thanks for the input.

    Two brief comments:

    1) Red Dead Redemption is indeed a great game (I certainly don’t think it’s better than Tetris, but that’s another discussion ;). However, I have a problem with the notion that great games have to somehow invalidate older great games. Would you say that Toy Story made 2D animation obsolete? Is it automatically better than Snow White simply because it is more technologically advanced? I don’t think so. Indeed, I think most of us in one way or another recognize that films are more than the technologies that make them possible. The same goes for videogames.

    2) I disagree with the idea that ‘evolution’ has any place in the way we speak about videogames. Microwaves evolve, iPhones evolve, but mediums of expression are not so simple.

    When an Apple engineer begins to design a new phone, his task is clear: how can I build a better, faster, more accessible phone? But when an artist begins to work, the question becomes far more ambiguous and subjective: how can I best express the vision that inspires me to create? How the artist goes about doing this really depends on the sensibilities that he want to get across. Steven Spielberg didn’t use black and white in Schindler’s List because he wanted to make his film on the cheap, he obviously did so for artistic reasons. The same can be said about a bunch of other things that seem more “primitive” at first glance: Punk Rock, modern folk music, the entirety of 20th century painting, etc.

    Accordingly, I defend pixel graphics not because I’m nostalgic for the “good old days” or because I dislike 3D, but rather because I feel that the pixel aesthetic has unique powers of its own. Pixels are more abstract, allusive and expressive than polygons. Polygons are great if your goal is to create believable environments and “lifelike” characters. Without them, Red Dead Redemption would not work as well. But realism is not always the best way of getting a message across. There are times when one’s feelings and ideas are best communicated through the sort of abstraction that pixels allow.

    Ironically, pixel graphics often age better than 3D games. Since pixels aren’t trying to mimic the real world, they don’t lose their power once technology allows for more “realistic” graphics. Mario 64 looks blurry, blocky, and somewhat depopulated when compared to recent 3D Mario games, but Super Mario Bros. 3 looks just as charming as it did when it came out.

    Speaking of which, did you know that the only reason Mario has a mustache is because there werent enough pixels to draw a proper mouth on Mario? Mario’s clothing is also the result of pixel limitations: the overalls were created so that players could distinguish Mario’s arms from the rest of his body. If Mario were created today, he probably wouldn’t be as charming; instead, we would get yet another muscular, clean-cut (white male) space marine who is praised for being “lifelike” even though he resembles a comic book superhero and somehow feels less human than the pudgy pixelated plumber.

    Hmmm….that went on for a while didn’t it? Here’s hoping that it makes some kind of sense.

  3. Since you posted this way back in May, it’s probably past the time to comment, but your remark: “But some day these older gamers will die, taking their nostalgia with them.” bugged me.
    It might be the fact that you put older gamers in the 30 – 40 year old group, which means I’m an older gamer or it might be the fact that you mentioned I’m going to die, which is something I try not to think about.

    But, overall, I think you’re wrong. I don’t think the nostalgia will go away with the older gamers. Despite Celeste’s remark that she can’t go back to 1st generation games, I think a lot of gamers – even the young ones – long for those games. I play a lot of videogames with my grandchildren and, I hope, to live long enough to play videogames with them when they’re adults. I would be willing to bet that after I’m gone, they will still long for the games we played together, even though by the time I’m dead, games will have evolved into something we can’t even imagine today.

  4. It is never too late to comment–thanks for your input! I’m only sorry that it took me more than a week to read it.

    I actually don’t think that our points of view on this issue are all that different. Perhaps I didn’t phrase the issue correctly, so let me try to clarify a couple of points.

    1) In retrospect, the claim that “someday older gamers will die” seems a tad melodramatic (not to mention inaccurate, given that everyone will die someday, not just older gamers!). My point was simply this: someday, the generation that grew up with pixelated graphics will no longer be here; accordingly, it seems reckless and short-sighted to expect that the nostalgia of 30 and 40 year olds will be enough to ensure the survival of pixel graphics.

    I’m not trying to minimize the role that nostalgia plays in our lives: everyone gets nostalgic from time to time. There are times when these feelings are perfectly natural and appropriate. But is it enough to secure the future of pixels? I don’t think so.

    We need more than that, and I think you illustrate this point quite eloquently in your second paragraph.

    2) Your grandchildren are incredibly lucky: they play videogames with their grandfather–that’s awesome! I have no doubt that one day they’ll wax nostalgic (and deservedly so) about the time you spent playing together.

    But this is a different kind of nostalgia: it is directly tied to you and the relationship they have with you, not with the games themselves.

    That being said, if they learn to love these games on their own merits, it’ll be because you *taught* them to love the games. You exposed them to the games; you put those games in context, you explained their significance (historical or personal), pointed out the interesting details that they might have missed or taken for granted, etc.

    In short–you introduced them to videogame history and, crucially, instilled in them a sense that this an “important” thing: a cultural artifact that can stand the test of time instead of a technology-driven hobby dominated by escapist gadgetry.

    Your grandchildren may get nostalgic about their relationship with you, but they won’t get nostalgic over classic games anymore than I can get nostalgic over Jimi Hendrix. I’m too young to get nostalgic over Hendrix, but I CAN appreciate and admire him thanks to the influence of others who taught me how and why they came to love his music. The same goes for your grandchildren (we hope).

    I have a similar situation with a nephew, who became a diehard 2D Mario fanatic after prolonged exposure to the NES and SNES classics. It feels great to see him fall in love with these games….because when I play with him, I’m not simply creating future memories of our time together, I’m also exposing him to a culture.

    Thus, my suspicion of nostalgia is the result of wanting something more substantive. Something that transcends (but does not replace or invalidate) our longing for the safety and familiarity of the past.

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