A powerful display of artistic vitality is unfolding before our eyes, but we're conditioned to overlook it. The game industry's obsessive focus on graphical fidelity has given rise to a counter movement away from realism and toward a purposeful abstraction that defines some of the best contemporary games. We're in the middle of an abstract design renaissance.
Because we routinely associate advances in graphics technology with progress in game design - many review sites continue to score "graphics" with a clear bias toward high-polygon whiz-bang visuals - we tend to describe abstract designs with easily-understood terms: "retro," "8-bit," or "arcade-style - or, worse, we associate them with hardware, e.g."NES-style graphics." Steven Totilo described Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP as "Ico meets Atari."
I'm not suggesting incompetence or dismissiveness here. We do our best to describe the games we play, and that can be difficult with the unconventional ones. "Ico meets Atari" is a clever characterization that says something true about S:S&S EP, and I sort of wish I'd thought of it.
The problem with such descriptions, however, is that they can devalue the aesthetic impact of these designs. Describing a game as "8-bit" may tell us something about its general appearance, but it doesn't say much about how that visual style communicates meaning. Fifteen years ago, primitive graphics may have suggested a concession to limited resources or inaccessible design tools, but no longer.
Today, games like S:S&S EP, Osmos, the Bit.Trip series, and pretty much anything designed by Mark Essen (aka, Messhof) represent designs that embed their "primitive" visual styles into the core experience of playing them. In other words, they look that way because any other art style would diminish them.
We are seeing a creative explosion of such games situated at various points on the abstract-to-representational spectrum, and these designs inevitably influence other designers across genres and throughout the game design space, from indie to AAA developers.
It's easy to see the impact of Pong, for example, on a vector-art inspired game like Bit.Trip.Beat, but Rez can also be found in the mix, as can Nintendo's unheralded bitGenerations design signature. We like to describe games with multiple genre influences as hybrids (e.g. Bit.Trip.Beat is a retro rhythm-based paddle game, aka Pong meets Rez).
But play mechanics are only part of the story. The Bit.Trip games serialize a set of experiences meant to reflect the evolution of a human life as seen through its protagonist, Commander Video. Levels entitled GROWTH, DISCOVERY, DESCENT, DETERMINATION, PATIENCE, and FATE cast the player into playful experiences that reflect the hero's trajectory through life and all its hardships and rewards. Developer Aksys describes the Bit.Trip story this way:
Everything comes from something.
We were before we became. From life comes rhythm, and from rhythm comes life.
We are beings of information.
Everything is a conduit for learning.
We communicate in bits and bytes.
And we will return to something once we become nothing.
Pixelated abstraction makes this possible and communicates a kind of cold digital universe that eventually grows warmer and more colorful. Life flowers and pulsates as you progress, but the designers wisely trust the player to discover and assemble (or not) this experience emerging from abstract presentation. Some may see and enjoy the final game, Bit.Trip.Flux as a more accessible iteration on the original Bit.Trip.Beat, which it is. I experienced it as Epiphany and Catharsis, bringing the 6-part narrative to a fitting and satisfying conclusion.
Depictions of NYC: 6th Ave by John Sloan (1928) and New York, NY by Franz Kline (1953)
The surest demonstration of an art form's dynamism is dialectic creativity - a kind of call and response among artists who see, process, respond, and create - provoking a recurring cycle among other creators that advances on its own collective energy. We bemoan the derivative nature of games, and we're fed a steady stream of imitative designs that prove the point. But focusing on threadbare tropes and overused mechanics may cause us to overlook the astonishingly creative work being produced by game designers experimenting with form, representation, and abstraction.
In my next post, I'll take a closer look at Superbrothers: Sword & Scorcery EP and discuss how it exemplifies what I'm talking about...and why its design should be seen as more than retro hipster cool.