When I was younger, I only really played video games on my Stepdads PC. I have fond memories of playing thief and monkey island whenever I could a quick session. When I had to move, I was given a NES with around 30 or so games which I enjoyed greatly and played for many years. This lead into a SNES, SEGA Mega drive and eventually into a PS1 and N64. And despite the games industry moving on from pixels into Polygons, I have always had a strong fondness and nostalgia for them.
Initially, Pixels were used a necessity due to technology still being in its earlier days. Some of the earliest home consoles used few colours and low complexity graphics. As the technology developed further, systems were able to display more colours and hold greater file sizes, so the complexity increased. With increased file sizes came high numbers of sprites per character, allowing for smoother and more complex animations.
Technology eventually advanced to polygons and moved on to 3D spaces, but despite this there has always been a place for games using pixels. A good example of this would be the “Castlevania” series. When the PlayStation One first released, there was a large influx of games using polygons to better take advantage of the benefits the console offered. However, there were other series that kept with their Pixel roots and used the increased processing and memory power to make the most out of the system. Castlevania uses complex, high quality sprites with fantastic animations and even elements of 3D mixed into the game (Such as save rooms and certain magic effects). The series attempted to release 3D iterations on the N64 with mixed results (My experience at the time was good but playing it as an adult it seems very poorly designed and no where near as good as others in the series). With the move to PS2, the series attempted again to move into the 3D space with both a traditional styled Castlevania and a fighting game, both rather poorly received. Meanwhile, the series continued on the GBA with great success thank mostly to its traditional design that pleases fans of the series. However, from a personal opinion (And one mirrored by its fans), the pixel art style suits its best with clear Gothic influences and an almost hand drawn look about the assets. The series continued on the DS (A system that can handle 3D to some degree) with its pixel art style and was met with great success.
Despite greatly advanced technology, Pixels still have a strong part of the modern games industry. With games such as “Shovel knight”, “Undertale”, “Broforce” and more, Pixels as an artistic device are still strong in the games industry and look to be that way for the foreseeable future.
After giving Journey a decent amount of play time over the last couple of days, I can safely say it is one of the most beautiful art styles I have seen in gaming and a shining example of what games in the Art game genre can achieve.
The game uses colour not only as an aesthetically pleasing element, but also as a method of effecting player mood and behaviour (Alongside music cues). When the player is wandering from area to area, the colour pallet is often bright and vibrant with warm oranges and deep reds. When the game needs to take on a more lonely or negative mood, the game darkens the whole colour pallet and use cooler colours. Simply taking a screenshot of the game at most times produces something beautiful and clearly shows a focus on the visual style of the game.
The art does not just look good either. The art style is also a vital part of the games design toolkit. Due to not using UI, the game has to be very intelligent with its use of player direction. The player is often out in the open with few landmarks to lead the player in a set direction. Despite this, thanks to a signature landmark (The mountain in the distance) that leads the player in the right direction and good camera movement that zooms the player out a large distance whenever the game calls for it. Through the use of lighting, the player is often subtly drawn to important areas or pointed in the right direction to look for the answer. This method can range from something as subtle as more light making its way through some ruins than in other areas to obvious cues such as bright light beams illuminating areas of a cave.
Each environment in the game uses a unique focus colour that helps distinguish what would usual be a number of plains with occasional ruins scattered around to many unique and separate environments. From rich red plains to Icy blue cliffs and Teal caves, the environment design carried the game in so many ways (And considering the gameplay lacking overmuch beyond light platforming, this was important). Usually, gameplay of this nature would get old rather quickly were it not for the stunning art direction, entertaining platforming abilities (Sand surfing and flying) and length of the game (3-4 hours, although I took slightly longer due to taking a few notes). The game perfectly filled the time it requested and will stay in my memory far stronger and longer than games of far greater length and complexity.
Both through the use of gameplay manipulation and art direction, the player is always going in the right direction and feeling the appropriate way when required to fully capture any given moment. The art direction of this game is fantastic and easily an example for others to strive for.
One particular genre of games that have always both interested and frustrated me in equal measure are Art games. Over the last week I have been playing a number of games that fall under the category of Art games and the majority look fantastic as far as art style is concerned but that is usually where the praise ends for me.
If I had to describe art games, I would describe them as games with a focus as using games as a medium to make an artistic statement, either through the use of narrative or visual focuses. Typically, these games have unique and interesting art styles as well as gameplay that typically revolve around a central mechanic.
The problem I have personally with this style of games (And the following is a blanket statement that by no means covers every game in the genre) is that many of them seem to sacrifice the gameplay for the artistic side of the game. Over the last week I have played “Never alone”, “That dragon Cancer” “Everybody’s gone to the rapture” and “The unfinished Swan”. Most of them had great Art styles and sometimes well written stories, but the gameplay themselves was severely lacking. Unfinished swan looked fantastic and had a neat gameplay mechanic, but the novelty wore off far faster than the game had content. Never alone had a good story to tell and an appealing art style, but the gameplay itself was a dry, fairly unchallenging puzzle-platformer which lost me very quickly.
Despite my criticism, there are many examples of this style of game that are fantastic and showcase that games can make strong statements both in terms of quality and intent. “Braid” Offers fantastic gameplay with an interesting mechanic coupled with an intriguing narrative and unique appealing art style that is easy to remember. Another good example of this style of game is “Flower”. Flower uses an interesting mechanic of petals flying through the air whilst cutscenes tell a story. The game is designed intelligently, keeping the length short enough that the mechanic and story do not outstay their welcome whilst being long enough to feel satisfying as an enclosed experience.
Art games are something that I love visually but often find myself disappointed as far as the mechanics are concerned. The good examples make me hopeful but the bas examples leave me sour. Over the next couple of days I am going to purchase Journey for the PS4 and give my opinions on it here as its art style alone has interested me greatly.