A pixel artist renounces pixel art
I’ve wanted to write this article for some time now, and this seems like the perfect opportunity to do so.
For those of you who are aware of Dinofarm Games and our recent release, Auro, for iOS and Android, you know that we spent literally years producing carefully handmade, meticulous pixel art. After weeks of work, I just finished the most recent piece.
The upcoming PC port of the game needed a new title screen image, as the game will be in landscape view. You can see it in the header image of this article.
I hope it’s clear from this image that I love pixel art. Auro was a love letter to the amazing stuff Nintendo, Capcom, Konami and SNK produced in the ’90s. That art was probably the primary reason I got into this field in the first place. It’s a beautiful form, and some of my favorite pixel artwork is being made today.
That said, the word “renounce” is not just clickbait. Auro is likely to be the last Dinofarm Games title to feature pixel art.
Our team has been debating this for a long time, because we all unanimously love the aesthetic. The debate arose from the occasional anxiety we would get from the “HD this, HD that” fetishism that began in the early 2000s. In a way, our culture’s obsession with higher and higher resolutions made us defiant. It reinforced our stance on pixel art purism.
But in the last year, I’ve come to a very different conclusion. It’s not about what I like. It never is.
HD fetishism has always been around
HD is the current buzzword used to market both hardware and software. The “high” in “high definition” is relative. Twenty-five years ago, “16-bit graphics” was the operative phrase, but it was ultimately the same concept; 16-bit graphics was just the the HD of its time.
Creators understand that screen size/resolution is just a canvas like any other. A good artist can make anything from a Game Boy screen to a 60-inch LED television look good. Problems arise when it comes time to convey to a layperson what constitutes good art. It takes a lot of effort to explain how this:
has much better art than this:
Early game artists had precious few “tiles.”
In Mighty Final Fight (pictured on the left above), Guy’s eye is constructed with illusion in mind. By strategically grouping colors and observing their relationships, more complex shapes and forms were implied. The use of flesh tone under the eyelash and on the iris even implies other colors!
The pixels in Mighty Final Fight contain actual information. To illustrate, I drew a higher-resolution extrapolation based on the information coded into these little squares. As you can see, I was able to infer a ton of detail and depth from Guy, but even though both examples use virtually the same amount of pixels, I could barely do anything with Rambo.
Techniques like those used in Mighty Final Fight, we have only retroactively come to call “pixel art techniques.” If the artists of the time had access to better production tools, I’m sure they would have been thrilled. “Pixel art” was never a thing — nobody was thinking, “I think we’ll go with pixel art for this game.” Rather, they were simply working in the “H-est D” available to them.
Pixel art: a form after the fact
Only now, after the fact, is “pixel art” an elective aesthetic style. In the early ’80s, IBM PCs could only display 4 colors for a full-screen illustration (black, white, cyan and magenta). Blending colors was impossible, so artists would “checkerboard” two colors together. At a glance, this looks like a color exactly halfway between the two. This technique is called dithering.
Sometimes the word “pixelated” is used in a derogatory sense, and sometimes not. Either way, anyone who uses the word clearly doesn’t grasp the concept that pixel art is a deliberate, predetermined art style. And it’s not just with us. IGN’s reviewer of the SNK fighter King of Fighters 13 had this to say about the sprite work: “While they look a bit pixelated, the character models look quite good.”
Yes. I think Street Fighter 4 is a garish, sloppy eyesore with sub-par animation. Let’s see if IGN agrees.
At first glance, it looks serviceable. I think animators and artists can spot the issues right away, but to the average gamer, it’s perfectly clear and fine-looking.
Anyone remember Street Fighter 3: 3rd Strike?
Chun-Li’s body in SF3 works like a whip cracking. When every frame is a new drawing, it allows for things like flowing drapery, muscles flexing and unflexing, the natural sort of warp the body takes when it moves in extreme ways, etc. The effect is nothing short of magical.
While I’ve seen far worse than Chun-Li in SF4, the animation is just kind of dead and sloppily done. There is no urgency, and many of her limbs and facial movements seem bizarre and out of place. Because of this, SF4 Chun-Li looks like she’s posing for a photo shoot, whereas SF3 Chun-Li looks full of adrenaline and intensity… almost as though she were in a fight!
To be clear, SF4‘s bad animation has nothing to do with it being in 3D. I’m not saying SF3 is superior because it’s in 2D. I’m saying it’s superior because it’s better art/animation. Pixar, for example, produces some of the most genius animation I’ve ever seen. Conversely, tons of American TV has terrible 2D animation.
Is the difference clear yet? Hopefully it is to most people. But look how long it took me to explain that. Now watch this:
Street Fighter 4 is in 1080p
Street Fighter 4 runs at 60 fps
Street Fighter 3, on the other hand, is pixelated.
Final Fantasy Tactics Advance for Game Boy Advance
…rather than digitizing high-resolution 3D models and cramming them into a low-resolution sprite.
Grim Fandango for PC
…rather than against it by stretching a compressed photograph across a Games4Life slab.
Talk about a “jump” in technology!
When every pixel was visible to the naked eye, it made sense for an artist to hand-place each and every one. Nowadays, it’s no wonder people think something is wrong when they see games like ours on an iPhone 6 screen.
The Escapists by Mouldy Toof Studios for Steam
Evidently, even some retro game enthusiasts want to get rid of pixels so badly that they would rather have a computer smear the art like runny makeup than appreciate the pixel art for what it is. A few years back, the Hebrew University and Microsoft set out to “depixelize” pixel art through a new anti-aliasing (pixel-smoothing) algorithm.
I don’t care what you have to do, just GET RID OF THOSE SQUARES!
The hand-placement of the squares is precisely what makes this kind of art valuable. If anyone besides artists should appreciate that, it’s retro game enthusiasts. When even they are splintering on this issue, I think it’s time to face the chiptunes.
Dinofarm’s art moving forward
It is with a heavy heart that I hang up the old pencil tool for all of our future games. To any dismayed pixel art heads out there, the good news is, we will continue to support Auro with expansion material, ports and other new content. Since we’re at the point of no return with Auro, all future art for it will still be pixel art. Like I said, I love pixel art, so on a personal note, I’m happy to be able to scratch that itch for a while.
As for the future, I’m planning to shed purism and do my best to mature. I plan to embrace the medium, whatever that may be, and make the best art I possibly can. No level of technology or spectacle can match the careful, hand-done touch of an artist. There are no shortcuts, and there are no algorithms. There is no cheap way to make it good, only relatively good ways to make it cheap.
Anyone think those smoothing algorithms above actually improved the pixel art? I wouldn’t blame you, as the smooth lines are speaking a more modern language. That said, I’ll close by illustrating my larger point with, well, an illustration. Pixel art, 3D art, mosaic art, stop-motion art, etc. are just mediums. Don’t let the medium come between you and your audience. Speak in a language people can understand so that they can actually see what makes your work great without a tax.
Working at a high resolution doesn’t prevent us from making great game art. The things that made pixel art great are the same things that make “HD” art great. Artists must make the decisions, not computers. Instead of hand-placing squares, hand-place curves. Good art is good art, and nothing beats the real deal. Embracing the medium simply ensures that everybody else knows it.
Embrace the medium!
Blake Reynolds is a game developer from Westchester, NY. He’s co-founder and lead artist of Dinofarm Games, the creators of 100 Rogues and Auro: A Monster-Bumping Adventure.