HIP TO BE SQUARE: CONNECTING THE DOTS OF PIXEL ART

by Travis Cameron

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Pixel art was once a means to an end for video game designers, one step above text-based ASCII art for making sense of the action on screen. Severe hardware limitations made the creation of each clear illustration a hard-fought battle. With modern tech, pixel art isn’t the only show in town, but it’s one hobbyists and professional artists are showing up to in increasing numbers.

ASCII Dungeon from Rogue, 1980. Developed by Epyx, Inc.

A child of the late 70’s, pixel art (PA) shares elements with older and younger styles equally atomic in their repeated basic units. The foundational particle of PA is the pixel – often perfectly or nearly square, though variations exist. The Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) coded for slightly irregular 8:7 pixels, which were then made even more rectangular when stretched to fit on the 4:3 displays of CRT televisions. [1] Whatever the shape, they are typically uniform across an artwork. In their uniformity, pixel artworks evoke pointillism, bead art, textiles and mosaics. Artworks with high pixel counts often especially resemble sand art in their graininess. PA is impressionistic by nature, since low-resolutions ask the viewer (or game case, arcade cabinet or promotional art) to fill in the gaps. PA also has close relatives in crafts and toys, like Bedazzling sequins onto fabric, arranging pegs onto a Lite-Brite, color by number sets using uniform stickers, ironable plastic bead art sets (often featuring old video game sprites as the patterns to follow), and Lego or domino stacking displays. Beyond a sense of atomic order, other practices share essential PA techniques. [2] Many pixel artworks use restricted color palettes. In the early days this was due to processing limitations or because of colorless liquid crystal or black and white displays. Nowadays, restrictions are self-imposed by artists to achieve a retro look. In order to create the appearance of multiple shades despite a limited palette, pixel artists rely on dithering techniques, much like printed newspapers, product labels, comic books, and pop art (à la Lichtenstein) arrange their dots.

Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, 1991 at 8:7 aspect ratio (Left) and 4:3 (Right)

In the self-imposition of harsh restrictions by pixel artists, the discipline shares the puzzle-solving feel that leads many to any art form or hobby. In taking on a limited color palette in order to evoke a defunct game console, or a limited “canvas” size for the same reason (say, 160 x 144 pixels for that Game Boy Color look), a pixel artist is working in a similar spirit to the composer who restricts himself to 12 tones for a serialist piece. PA asks the creator to find creativity in overcoming self-imposed obstacles, making the process into a kind of game in and of itself, like how rule-bound fugues doubled as delightful puzzles for Baroque composers. Even with higher color counts and expanded canvases, PA requires the careful weighing of fine details, as one misplaced pixel can smudge the readability of an object or letter. [3] In its deliberate emulation of defunct technology, PA is a cousin of current visual and musical trends. Visually, consider intentionally distorted “glitch” art that might reawaken the muscle memory (for those of us who remember) of adjusting the tracking on a cassette. Consider, also, the overlaying of VHS or CRT-style scanlines and time markers onto videos (especially on Snapchat), the camera lens flare effects digitally added to big budget action flicks, or the Polaroid-style borders added to digital photos. Musically, there are modern orchestral pieces that emulate audio processing effects such as phasing or distortion using only acoustic sounds. [4] PA’s most direct musical counterpart is “chiptune”, the electronic music trend that emulates (or incorporates) the sound chips of older game consoles, computers and arcade cabinets.

PA has its drawbacks and advantages compared to other digital art forms. As a rule, it is impossible to prime your canvas. The overall warmth of a backlit screen display differs radically across devices. While this is a pain for any digital art shared online, the restricted palettes of PA make it a pronounced hassle. [5] This isn’t even considering that a viewer may have already shifted their device’s display settings far away from the default.

My own pixel study of the Château Frontenac in Quebec City. Limited to four colors and a width of 160 pixels to match certain Game Boy Color specs

The backlit, electronic nature of the canvas also means that true black is out of reach. Even if a pixel artist managed to convert every screen to an OLED model that doesn’t backlight blackened pixels, arguably the glow of lit pixels would still bleed into the dark areas for the viewer due to physics. It also means that an artist cannot overlay materials onto the canvas to achieve specific textures, like one might lay salt, cheesecloth, plastic wrap or soap bubbles onto a watercolor canvas, for instance. [6]

One thing PA has always excelled at is iconography. The perfect angles in PA (the ones in which lines of individual pixels repeat stair step-like patterns – up one over one for 45 degrees, up two over one for 26 degrees and so on) encourage simplicity and angularity. These are desirable traits for mouse cursor symbols, or small icons of cameras or magnifying glasses. The reliance on perfect angles to create clean lines in video game and app icons has created a strong ethos of design in iconography that outlasts the need to think in pixels.

While the formal aspects of PA have shaped how it was used initially, its social contexts and psychological benefits may make better explanations for its growth, within and outside of the videogame industry. The industry used to be heavily reliant on pixel graphics, until 3D graphics were possible and eventually expected. While the big videogame studios may use pixel graphics from time to time, independent (indie) studios have been leading the renaissance. Pixel Studio’s 2004 release of Cave Story (a moody platformer that looked like it could have been an SNES console title in the 90’s) comes to mind as an early indie game that reignited passion for PA as a style in new titles, rather than just something experienced by retro gamers playing old games or their re-releases. By now, PA platformer games have become a cliché for indie studios, but one that is still widely praised when well-executed (the 2018 release of PA platformer Celeste by Matt Makes Games, for example).

The use of PA by indie developers can be viewed as both a subversive and pragmatic choice. Indie developers can save money, time and manpower (all in short supply for indie teams) by eschewing photo-realistic 3D graphics for 2D styles like PA. As long as intensive 3D graphics and large open worlds are the norm for the largest game development studios, choosing to focus on a more compact and visually simple game lends a studio (or enterprising solo developer) a rebellious posture. This is increasingly fashionable and profitable, the more stories come out of larger studios sacrificing employee welfare for the higher workloads required to create large, detailed games in short order. It is also a bold move to adopt a 2D style like PA, since the spectacle of flashy realistic graphics is not there to distract from narrative and level-design choices. [7] A game with PA graphics had better be good, so that the art style looks like an intentional choice contributing to a cohesive whole, rather than just cutting corners by adding squares.

(Top) Pixel Studio’s Cave Story, 2004. Compare with Nintendo’s Super Metroid, 1994 (Bottom)

If a studio chooses to adopt PA as a style, an elegant design philosophy is likely to follow for the project. PA, from its beginnings, demanded purity of design, as a squat pixel character sprite can only have a few defining features before becoming a blob of lost details. At low pixel counts, a character like Mario from Super Mario Bros. manages to have a hat, moustache, gloves, suspenders (with buttons!) and footwear. Pacman manages to keep a sense of directionality and the semblance of a mouth, but little else. No one will tell you that upon playing these characters’ earliest outings, they became immersed to the point of feeling they were really eating ghosts or stomping on winged turtles, but you can be sure they formed opinions on their level designs.

Celeste, released in 2018 by Matt Makes Games Inc.

Pixel art enjoys success as an art form and hobby outside of the game industry due to the social nature of the art form as one that is shared online, the way it evokes certain feelings (namely nostalgia and agency), its low cost of entry, and how it allows for the vicarious experience of being a game designer or animator.

Mario character sprites from Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros., 1983

Pixel art is easy to get into, with few psychological or financial barriers. Commercial software has divorced the act of PA creation from the context of professional coding or game design. On top of that, most popular software is free or costs less than going out to eat. There’s no need to go to a hobby or art store, pick out pixels, canvases and tools and then hold your breath upon seeing the checkout price. Pixels don’t get less sharp over time, and an artist can achieve levels of color transparency without turpentine.

Unlike art forms that require fine motor skills, pixel art is less likely to be associated with a sense of skill level-related shame or embarrassment carried from childhood. In this way, it sidesteps insecurities many carry that prevent them from singing or drawing in public and to a lesser extent in private. [8] Former R.E.M. front man Michael Stipe used typewriters or word processors to avoid discomfort about his handwriting while writing lyrics. [9] PA can do the same for those who want to draw but feel self-conscious doing it the analog way.

Those who adopt PA as a hobby can experience the psychological benefits any hobby can impart: a sense of flow, accomplishment, agency in having created something that wasn’t there before, and a sense of progression in skill level over time. PA can create a sense of flow especially well though its sculptural creation process. PA requires one to sketch out shapes and then resize them, chipping away at them until they have outlines worthy of Tex Avery. The constant honing in on small, sometimes pixel-sized areas of the overall work to edit before zooming out to take in the bigger picture can create a sense of rhythm akin to sea otters looking for clams, diving down to reach for one, and then returning to the surface to take a fresh look before diving down again.

PA can also create a sense of connection between practitioners who share progress and take inspiration from one another. PA, with its small file sizes and convenient canvas sizes (often not needing to be cropped for square displays), is eminently shareable on social media. The prevalence of animated GIF images online is also a plus for PA, which is already steeped in the basic principles of animation.

From the early days of PA in video games, it has been possible to express simple actions with a few still frames, not unlike a child’s flipbook stick figure animations, or the frantic animations of old Hanna-Barbera characters. Early instances of Mega Man or Metroid hero Samus Aran may be wildly different characters than classic Shaggy or Scooby-Doo, but they all express running with a few frames of animation. This means that with minimal effort and tools compared to traditional animation, someone can make a simple PA GIF, share it online, and have it meet the level of complexity required to seem like a successful nod to video game animation.

Those who engage in PA have the vicarious experiences of being a game designer and of playing games they enjoyed in the past. Someone may not have all the skills required to make a game on their own, or the connections or life circumstances required to get onto a development team, but they can still create an image that looks like it has been pulled from a full game. The importance of this cannot be understated, given the extent to which the typical workplace or academic setting is dull for the average adult or adolescent. PA functions as an effective escape and creative outlet, in part due to its connection to playing real video games. Hobbies generally invoke a sense of play, but PA adds an additional layer of vicarious play on top, through the snapshot created of the game that doesn’t exist in its entirety but that one can still imagine as being complete.

Running animation frames from Capcom’s Mega Man, 1987

The derivative relationship PA has with past video games means that PA is one step closer to being used in a kitschy way compared to other digital art forms, evoking nostalgia or sentimentality at the possible loss of originality and subtle emotion. This is compounded by PA’s inability to handle nuance, especially in low resolution works. This capacity for kitsch becomes apparent when PA is used within another medium. The use of hand-drawn pixels in Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim graphic novel series (and corresponding 3D voxels in the film adaptation) to denote things like heart symbol health meters during fights make for effective shorthand because of how ubiquitous the imagery is in games. This allows the pixel or voxel-based visual gags in movies like Scott Pilgrim or Wreck-It Ralph to scan despite lasting seconds. Objects bursting into a cloud of voxels or pixels at the point of destruction are now visual clichés in animated films dealing with games or virtual realities.

In the context of science fiction, the brand of nostalgia conjured by pixels and early vector graphics is more tied to the late 70’s and early 80’s instead of just video games (though Stranger Things accomplishes nostalgia simply by flashing imagery of actual 80’s games being played). When modern Star Wars releases continue to use pixel and early vector graphics on ship and device displays, the playful vision of alien technology doubles as a nod to what was possible to depict on 80’s hardware. When the Mandalorian in the eponymous Star Wars series uses binoculars with a strong pixelated zoom effect, it lends an added air of sentimental homage that Luke’s in the first film did not back in ‘77.

Fireworks burst into voxels in Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph, 2012

This isn’t to say that PA can’t rise above kitsch, or can’t be comforting through the conjuring up of a viewer’s early experiences with games. It could be argued that PA is one of the most honest forms of digital art. With most digital art styles, pixels are hidden (through high resolution imagery or anti-aliasing) to prevent the published image from appearing corrupted or blown out. While pixels are embraced as the foundational unit of PA, they are usually viewed as undesired “artifacts” elsewhere. This aversion to pixels (also present in the development of “retina” displays for Apple devices that mask pixels and the obsessive impulse of museums to rescan artworks for archival each time a minor bump in fidelity is possible) highlights a desire to hide the process of image creation. PA is forthright in its nature as a digital art form. If you can’t see the pixels at all, it can’t be PA. Verisimilitude with real-life objects is usually not the goal, and so pixel artists know from the beginning that the seams will be showing, and the seams are celebrated as a result.

Luke’s Binoculars in Star Wars: Episode IV, Lucasfilm Ltd.1977 with minor digital artifacts such as pixels that appear to be blown out
A similar scene in Disney’s The Mandalorian, 2019 with scanlines superimposed and strong digital glitch effects added

Travis Cameron graduated from Missouri State University in 2019 with a BA in Philosophy. He plans on pursuing grad school in the future with anticipated research interests in aesthetics, American transcendentalism, metaethics, and the connections between language and music.

Notes

[1] Now that gamers have moved on to modern TVs and monitors, there is an ongoing debate as to whether retro games should be emulated at pixel aspect ratios matching their coded sizes or at 4:3 to match what the games would have looked like when originally played on CRT TVs. Some retro game compilations offer aspect options, as well as the ability to digitally add CRT lines back in.

[2]  The most abstract connection may be using stars in the sky to draw constellations, though in that case the spacing and number of basic units is predetermined.

[3]  The history of arcade game typography is an excellent case study in using pixels to simulate clear and expressive handwritten fonts.

[4] David Bruce Composer has an excellent discussion of digital effect mimicry in orchestration on his youtube here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o9vPufhh16s

[5] Good luck achieving consistent cool or warm off-white tones across devices, which are easily overtaken by the level of blue or yellow in a backlit display.

[6] Though PA programs may allow for certain processing filter effects or scrambling brushes that can jumble up pixels, allowing for some experimentation in visual texture.

[7] Though early strides in pixel art were subversive even within a PA-saturated market (moral outcry over the gore in early Mortal Kombat games, amazement or motion-sickness induced by early pseudo-3D graphics – in third-person shooters like Space Harrier, Pole Position-style racers, and early first-person shooters – as well as the gradual increases in pixel and color counts for home consoles, each seen as pushing the boundaries of what was possible. Mortal Kombat was also notable for its early adoption of digitizing photos of actors to create the pixel character sprites, akin to rotoscope. Modern advancements within PA lie in techniques like voxels (3D pixels not unlike Lego pieces), particle effects and butter-smooth animations.

[8] Laypeople comfortable enough to paint next to one another are in three categories: those painting walls or fences; children with tubs of finger paint and no sense of shame; or adults gathered around canvases who’ve drunk enough wine to have their sense of it diluted. 

[9] https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/15/arts/music/michael-stipe-rem-out-of-time-interview.html

One thought on “HIP TO BE SQUARE: CONNECTING THE DOTS OF PIXEL ART

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  1. Fun! Your Château Frontenac did remind me of tapestry, where pixels have been around for a long time, often with a restricted palette, and of course ASCII art. I did run the same photo through aalib’s aview, but only got a nice picture if it was allowed to use terminal tricks (inverting, font colour).

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