I was playing some games and my backlog, and I noticed a trend: misuse of graphics make me angrier than they should. I understand that the creators of the game are entitled to their artistic choices, but in many cases, these choices are flat out wrong. Just as you wouldn’t try to create the Mona Lisa using crayons, some games just do not benefit from using a certain style over another. I think most of what annoys me about it is that there are so many games trying to be something that they are not, or it feels like they aren’t offering anything new or interesting so they try to ride the coattails of something good and popular to be accomplished. I wanted to rationalize these thoughts the best way I know how: to a group of total strangers on the internet! To kick things off...
My favorite example of a game that does retro completely right is VVVVVV. The entire game is built around retro limitations, with only small amounts of flair added. First of all, look at the control scheme - for those who don’t know the game is played using left, right and change gravity. You can also pause. In theory this means that the game could be played on an NES controller, possibly an Atari controller. Second, the game uses the same single screen scrolling mechanisms that so many games used. Not exactly related to the graphics, the soundtrack to the game is probably one of my favorite videogame soundtracks. Finally, the graphics are simplified. Everything is displayed as a blob, as text, and the eponymous v’s act as death spikes. The game does a fantastic job of convincing me that it could have been made in the same era as Mario and Megaman, and never once do I mind the graphics style. I have often felt what I call ‘forced nostalgia’ for the game, where I feel I look back on it fondly as if it were older than it is. Possibly as a result of listening to two songs in the soundtrack in my daily commute for several years.
So how does a game do this wrong? Look at Proteus. This game attempts to blend sprite work with 3D, and personally, I don’t understand why. To begin with, it is incredibly muddy to look at - nothing has a border, so all the pixels blend together. Looking at a screenshot it would be difficult to tell elevation and where objects start and end. The game only really works when in motion, and even still I think it looks terrible. The game uses some interesting music that is procedurally generated, along with sound effects for different animals, but the thing is, all the sounds are fairly modern. Now, I am not saying that this is bad (although if you asked me on the street...), but it does frustrate me with why they chose the graphics they did. It screams one of two things: they didn’t have the resources to produce a game with hand drawn or detailed 3D graphics, or they wanted to score indie points by using pixels, and either way I really feel like they missed the mark. I feel bad praising Dear Esther (another game that if you asked me about on the street...) but it had really appealing visuals in its final release that made wandering through the world a different experience. I really think Proteus would have been better off with something more modern instead of using an arty style that doesn't meld at all with a game focused on 3d exploration.
Most games that try to force a retro feeling fail, which I typically find annoying, so I wanted to point out an example of a game that did the exact opposite: Bionic Commando Rearmed. This was essentially an HD NES game, and it is surprisingly amazing. I had never played the original game, and I really think that the game manages to present itself as a unique and often clever experience. It uses a single mechanic and asks how it can refine that mechanic, it has upgrades, multiple weapons, branching paths, and is overall pretty great. But it loses nothing by having an art style that is more modern, with more detailed background, and improved music. It is worth noting that the modernized soundtrack is incredibly well done, and features yet another one of my favorite video game tracks - probably because it used a catchy melody, then added in some depth (and, ok, because it abuses my speakers).
Everyone knows voxels from one game, so let’s talk about the elephant in the room: Minecraft. Minecraft is an incredible game from how simplistic it can be, but also for the depths of what you can do in it. I could easily go into why the gameplay is fantastic in Minecraft, but I want to focus on the visual. The game has a sort of retro/8 bit look to it (see above), and it does have a 3D perspective (see above), but it does something that completely separates it from similar games: it blends visual style and mechanics together. Almost every single thing in the game can be broken down and manipulated in some way, and almost every thing in the game takes up the same space: 1 cube. If you place down some wood, it will be 1 square tall, if you mine a block, it will mine a 1x1 square. In addition, you know exactly what you are getting when you mine an area because you are breaking down that block. You aren’t sorting through pebbles trying to find coal, you are mining a coal block. It sets expectations wonderfully in such a way that the visuals complement the gameplay, probably in such a way that most other art styles have not.
Again, to contrast, look at something like Cube World. Now, let me ask, what does this game gain by using voxels over any other art style? The cynic in me says “it looks like Minecraft’, but that seems a bit harsh. I will admit that I do prefer voxels over the previously mentioned 3D rendered sprites, but I still feel like a game shouldn’t be using them unless they are for a very specific reason. In addition to the Minecraft example, there is also 3D Dot Game Heroes, a game which is aiming to be an 8 bit game, specifically in my mind Dragon Warrior. But Cube World is trying to be an action rpg with customizable characters, and I have seen that done beautifully in a games ranging from Skyrim to Secret of Evermore. Voxels add nothing to the experience except a tug at the heartstring of people who like Nintendo games and Minecraft. The gameplay could be amazing, and as with most games it would be great if it did well, I just wish they could have picked a more complimentary art style.
And before you even say it, there are two types of people: people who liked Cubivore and people who were wrong.
Now that we have established the Animaniacs “Good idea, bad idea” trend, I bet you are wondering what I will pick as the good example for a color filter. The highly subjective answer? Deus Ex: Human Revolution. The game has a gold filter applied to it, that makes the entire city, and the inside of building, really shine. From the moment that you start up the game, the gold sheen implies that we are in a futuristic setting, and one that is fairly well off. It also makes me think of a very decadent future, one where people have the ability to add cosmetic augmentations to their body. It all just looks so...rich....But looking at it further, what would happen if this color filtering were removed? It would look just like an ordinary game, set in an ordinary city. Now granted, it takes place in Detroit, so either way it looks better than its real world equivalent.
Now, I realize that the filters in the game I am talking about actually add to the atmosphere, but after modding them out I would never go back: The modern Fallout games. Fallout 3 and New Vegas have a green and brown filter applied to them respectively, both of which I really dislike, and thinking about them makes me feel slightly nauseous. I understand that the game takes place in an irradiated future, but by removing the filters the game takes another tone: instead of being the destruction that man has wrought, it showcases the persistence of nature. A beautiful blue sky, green grass, and (modded in) verdant trees add to the feeling that humans are but a temporary state of the earth, one that will be wiped out by their own means, but that nature will ultimately survive. Seeing all of this in contrast to buildings with broken lights, incredibly dark nights, and a society slowly collapsings adds so much more than the feeling of ‘a bomb went off once’.
I actually really, really like cel shading. It is the reason that Wind Waker looks fantastic to this day, and it really seems like a free pass for a game to not age graphically. Still, some games do it better than others, and the shining example of a game doing it right is The Darkness 2. The Darkness is based on a comic book series, so having the game’s art style done with cel shading helps to emulate the feeling of a comic book, with sharp outlines, and bold, vibrant colors. Basically, any game from a comic, manga, or cartoon (Dragon Ball, Simpsons, etc) should be done in this art style, as it keeps true to the source material.
So is there a game that uses this style poorly? I have thought about it quite a bit, and I don’t think so. Mad World looks slightly muddy, and Borderlands didn’t need it, but I think that cel shading is a choice that is fairly well understood. They know that by using it, it will make a game have a comic book/Pixar film quality to it, and as long as that art style matches the narrative and the gameplay, it is easy to pull the trigger on it.
So I suppose this is where I turn it over to you, the reader: what do you think? Is it cute or endearing when a modern dev tries to use retro graphics with modern gameplay? Are there any games where the graphic style either really got underneath your skin or enhanced the game into something special?