I was wondering recently why I like pixel art so much. Be it just a looping scene from an artist or a game like Qora or Hyper Light Drifter, pixel art seems to play my emotions like fiddle.

I thought it could be because that’s what I grew up with. My first games were pixely ones on my old DOS computer or the NES. Nostalgia is a hell of a drug and acts as a lens to distort the past even when we’re experiencing it in the present. If you show Duck Hunt with the old orange NES controller to a 30-something gamer and a 10-year-old  gamer, one of them is going to be way more excited.

While this might be the case, which would be sad because that means that the era of pixel art will be closing in a few decades, I think it might be because pixel art doesn’t focus on hyper-realism, as redundant as that may sound. Pixel art by definition will not represent the real world very well, so instead of showing facial micro-expressions to convey emotion, it needs to build a mood around the scene you’re seeing. Likewise, the labor involved means that every object, shadow, lighting change, and twitch of a cat’s tail was done intentionally to add to the piece.

Once the mood is set, the viewer tends to project more emotion onto it, filling in the blanks with bits of their own experiences that fit into the world they’re watching. The emotions become more personal since they’re slightly unique for every viewer. That means every time I play Hyper Light Drifter, I put myself into the game even more so than if I was able to craft a perfect likeness in Fallout 4 and watch myself killing Super Mutants and running away from Preston Garvey before he can give me another sidequest. Likewise, when the graphics are reduced to pixel art a game company can’t depend on them to draw as many people in, so they put more effort into the story. With these two elements combined, better story-telling and a more unique and emotional visual experience, the game sucks me right into it’s rabbit hole.

There’s exceptions to every rule. There’s pixely games that are just terrible, I even made one for school. But Qora is similar to Dear Ester in that they are both largely “walking simulators” with emotional stories, and yet I’ve played Qora a dozen more times even though Dear Ester is far more realistic. Contrawise, FarCry 5 seems like it had a great story right up until the mo-capped actors had played their part and I was dropped into the game to do the exact same thing I had in the last 4 games; break stuff, kill people, and gather up a resistance. Just a faceless force of nature being told what to do through a walky-talky and formulaically checking off boxes until the bad guy was taken out.

In the end I guess time will tell where pixel art stands in the digital age. It might always have a niche following and put out new art every few years for people like me to enjoy. Or it could be shut out by more conventional forms of art and better selling video games. Who knows. I’m not too sure where I was going with this, but maybe you feel the same way and now you know you’re not alone.

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