Retro Activity

It seems like wherever I go these days, I wind up looking at the past. Half of the photos my friends share on Facebook and Twitter are run through a gamut of filters to look like they were shot in 1969 (that’s even the name of one of Hipstamatic’s workflows), and now the same thing is happening with video thanks to apps like 8mm Vintage Camera.

While a major trend of late in digital content creation tools has been the retro styling of interfaces and artifacts, the last several years of PC and console gaming could be seen as a pilgrimage in the opposite direction. Solid Snake, Nico Bellic, and Nathan Drake all furrow their blemished brows and glower at us menacingly in 1080p… at least Master Chief had the decency to put on a helmet.

But not all games operate within this paradigm of photorealism – there are families of titles evolving on the plains outside of the Uncanny Valley, and groups of developers more interested in experimenting with gameplay than participating in the arms race of shader technology.

A great example of this trend towards retro visuals is the Swedish indie juggernaut known as Minecraft. The premise of the game is simple – wake up in a wilderness, prance about exploring for most of the day, find a way to build shelter before nightfall, avoid becoming dogfood for a menagerie of roving monsters – but the really interesting stuff at work in Minecraft is in the context of sandbox gameplay and open collaboration. You can work with friends online to architect elaborate in-game underground fortresses, treehouses, or even working arithmetic logic units; but everything you build has to be crafted from natural substances mined from the world around you and represented by blocks about one foot by one foot in size. While the world of Minecraft is vast, it’s also quite graphically granular. The experience looks and feels more like the result of some macabre mash-up of panspermia and Tetris than other sandbox games like Garry’s Mod, Little Big Planet, or Second Life. The easiest way to describe Minecraft’s gameplay to newcomers is as a digital version of Lego… a version where each block must be carefully smelted from elusive minerals at the core of the earth.

Trevor Haldenby's Minecraft Kingdom

My Minecraft Kingdom... not so meta-meta.

What could have compelled the game’s creator Markus “Notch” Persson to employ such a distinctly retro style in the creation of such an innovative game? And what features of the game are responsible for the sale of more than 1.8 million units in the last year?

Minecraft is built and sold as a Java application. As many have discovered, it runs in a corporate web browser approximately as well as it will on a dedicated gaming rig. 1999‘s Quake III finally moved into the browser as “Quake Live” last year after heavy modifications, but Minecraft was there from the start by drawing in the thousands of blocks making up each world dynamically and by not using particularly elaborate textures. You can customize your in-game character on the site using a 32×32 pixel image… about a third the size of what made for a decent LiveJournal icon ten years ago.

It seems like it’s often assumed that hyper-real graphics will feel good because they’re similar to how we perceive the world with the HD cameras embedded in our faces. The purveyors of gigabyte-packing graphics cards surely presume that visual accuracy is what’s behind the verisimilitude of a good gaming experience. But what about those of us who grew up under the supervision of the Super Mario Brothers and a 12” TV, or their ancestors from the Old Country of Atari? I think it stands to reason that 8-bit graphics and simplistic animations make the average 20 or 30-something gamer feel more at home than anisotropic filters.

Mechanics in Focus
When you’re playing a photorealistic 3D title you’re probably going to invest less effort into considerations of underlying gameplay mechanics than you might if you were enjoying a basement romp in a refrigerator box. Games defined by shiny pretty things certainly have a time and place, but when you’re playing a title that deliberately immerses you in a lo-fi look-and-feel, you’re more likely to be pleasantly surprised by the ingenuity or complexity of the mechanics at work.

Kenfagerdotcom's Minecraft Kingdom

Kenfagerdotcom's Minecraft Kingdom... meta-meta to the power of meta.

Minecraft isn’t alone in utilizing retro graphics to get audiences engaged, before challenging them with innovative gameplay concepts. Jason Rohrer and Daniel Benmergui are both developer-artistes putting out engaging and genre-busting titles with beautiful 8-bit looks.

Screenshot from Jason Rohrer's PASSAGE

Screenshot from Jason Rohrer's PASSAGE

If you’re hungry for a particularly well-executed experiment in innovation through nostalgia, there’s a brand new Toronto-bred iPad title you’ve got to check out: Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP, a collaboration between Capybara Games, the Superbrothers squad of visual artists, and Jim Guthrie. If you spent any time with Sierra’s King’s Quest in 1990 (itself a visual retooling of the Adventure Game Interpreter 1984 original, rebooted once more last year), you’ll feel eerily at home here. But after only a few minutes of play it becomes clear that Sw&Sw is about experimenting with social gaming features that the retro aesthetic might have prevented you from anticipating. For instance, all of the game’s dialogue takes place in the form of 140-or-fewer letter exchanges – enabling players to tweet conversations as they progress, from within the game’s HUD. It’s quite a clever little innovation, allowing players to share their progress through a game that doesn’t quite align with the High Scores ‘n Headshots model of friendly competition familiar to many console gamers. Even the title of the game is displayed on my iPad’s home screen as a hashtag.

Superbrothers Sword & Sworcery EP Screenshot

Screenshot from Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP

Could Capybara have gotten away with encouraging Sw&Sw players to tweet their progress in a photorealistic first-person shooter version of the game? Possibly. Could they have maintained as much of the delightfully corny Your Highness-esque dialogue with such an approach? Perhaps. But could they have made audiences from 15 to 35 feel immediately comfortable with the title while embracing its innovative idiosyncrasies? I’m skeptical.

For a particular group of gamers born in the final decades of the 20th century, 8-bit is the definitive visual vernacular – the lingua franca spoken by fans of racing, RPG, and shoot-em-up titles alike. Perhaps these audiences simply take comfort in the styles associated with a particular era of game development (just as classic rock inevitably trumps auto-tune in the minds of members of my parents’ generation), or perhaps there are valuable lessons to be learned here about how innovation can emerge from the juxtaposition of new ideas with the obviously ancient.

Trevor Haldenby is a producer and photographer living in Toronto. He has attended Wilfrid Laurier University, Rhode Island School of Design, CFC Media Lab, and is presently completing a Master’s of Design in Strategic Foresight & Innovation at OCAD University.