E. Darwin Hartshorn: //Boilerplate

Medium Must Match Message

This is a good article to read.

Auro wasn’t supposed to be “retro.” To me, the “retro game” aesthetic isn’t just pixel art, but an appeal to the specific sounds, feedback, and look and feel of a specific set of old school games. While it’s true that Auro was an homage to my favorite game art, I never intended for it to be “retro.” I just wanted to make great pixel art, yet it inexorably gets lumped in with the retro aesthetic.
But here’s the clincher. It’s not their fault.

“Retro?” Poppycock! I’ll have you know I’m quite jiggy with it!

The Artist’s Responsibility
Though I never intended for Auro to be a “retro-style” game, what I intended doesn’t matter at all, and it’s 100% my fault for failing to communicate in a language people understand.

As a game developer, time is the most valuable resource a human can give you. Nobody owes us their time or attention. As such, when someone gives us their time, an implicit agreement is made and we are now in debt to that person. We owe it to them to deliver value for their time, and to deliver it efficiently.

I am an illustrator/animator. The kind of value that illustrators/animators are responsible for is distinct among other types of visual artists. We must establish meaningful intent as close to instantaneously as possible. By meaningful intent, I simply mean that the audience has to internalize the concept, motion, emotion, perspective, etc. of a pieceright away. The second the audience asks “how can he bend that way without breaking his spine,” or  “Why is he shooting where he’s not looking,” we have failed them. They don’t owe us the time to look at our work in the first place. They certainly don’t owe us the time to squint their eyes and try to make sense of our work.

Meaningful intent applies to medium as well. In choosing to make our game with pixel art, we have accidentally taken on a war on two fronts. My job was to make Auro’s art polished, inviting, and clear to the audience, not to also educate the audience that pixel art is a deliberate style.

My main point dances around Mr. Reynolds’ point.  The consumers of Auro criticized it for its ‘pixelated’ art, not understanding that it was intentional.  Reynolds correctly places the blame on his failure to communicate, but seems only to brush in passing on how he failed.  The quote, “Auro wasn’t supposed to be “retro.” To me, the “retro game” aesthetic isn’t just pixel art, but an appeal to the specific sounds, feedback, and look and feel of a specific set of old school games,” is the closest I see to an explicit recognition of the issue.

The issue is that the medium doesn’t match the message.

Every work of art, including games, sends a message.

Don’t read too much into that.  Sometimes the message is just a feeling, such as the joy of successfully navigating an obstacle course (e.g. the Mario games).  I have no interest in sending messages on the role of intersex dynamics in the workplace, or some such serious topic.  I am an entertainer.  I simply wish to entertain.

Media colors the message.

Whether it’s sound, graphics, or game mechanics, everything you use to send your message to the player flavors that message.  At best, the flavoring enhances the message and makes it more clear.  At worst, it contradicts the message, making it more confusing.

Let’s look at how game art plays into this.  Here’s Charlie Murder by James Silva over at Ska Studios:

All the chaos! All the beautiful chaos!

All the chaos! All the beautiful chaos!

Silva’s art is kind of… well, not so great.  I’m a way better artist than he is.  Maybe.

Or maybe not.  It’s hard to tell because his art fits the zany, frenetic, over-the-top style of his games perfectly.  For all I know, he’s another Picasso, deliberately altering his style to match his message.

After all, the artwork you see wasn’t made by James Silva.  Some or all of it was made by his wife, Michelle Silva, and I won’t hesitate to wager that she’s a better artist than I.

This would be her self-portrait.

This would be her self-portrait.

She redid the art for Charlie Murder, but kept it in the same style.  Because the style adds to the message.

Now let’s take a look at pixel art.

Here’s a successful pixel art game:

And here’s a screenshot from one that’s having a little more trouble, despite its well-attested quality:

And yet quite good.

Shovel Knight is a retro platformer, which is instantly apparent from any screenshot.  Auro is a, uh, well…

What is it?  It looks like a puzzle game in the vein of Angry Birds and Candy Crush saga.  But puzzle games don’t have pixel art, they have shiny, Web 2.0-style vector art or else cartoony, cell-shaded vector art.

… Actually, it’s a turn-based tactical game, sort of a rogue-meets-battletech hybrid.

And therein lies the trouble.  Auro‘s look doesn’t say “Deep, Complex Strategies here!”  It says… something else.  What it says is hard to tell.  It’s pixel art, which says “retro”, but it looks like it’s pixel art pretending to be cartoony puzzle game.  That’s two wildly conflicting styles, both of which are also in conflict with what the game actually is.

The problem is not bad art.  The art is very well done.  Nor is the problem that pixel art is intrinsically misunderstood by the hoi polloi both Reynolds and I wish to woo.  Said hoi polloi gladly shell out for Shovel Knight.  The problem is the mismatch of message and medium.

The Message of Pixel Art

In the age of High Definition Art, Pixel Art adds one of these flavors to the message:

1) This is a Retro-Nostalgia Game.


Dig it.

2) This is an artsy, atmospheric game.


3) This is a story set in cyberspace or is about computer stuff.

Code Monkeys

Pixel art is used so consistently for these three purposes that it has taken on a subconscious connection to them throughout the world, and when a player sees pixel art, the art primes an expectation that any minute now, he’s going to experience retro gameplay, atmospheric artsiness, or a story about cyberspace or computers.

If the game (or TV show, or whatever) does not deliver one of these three things in short order, dissonance arises.  The mood of the art clashes with the message of the game.  It becomes a distraction.  If the game does deliver on the premise, the art enhances the experience.

The Core: Matching Media to Message

It is theoretically possible to use pixel art for something that doesn’t touch on one of the messages I’ve identified.  An artist could take the medium and use it to send a different message.  I don’t know how, or if it’s practically (as opposed to theoretically) possible, but in theory it can be done.  The question to ask is “does this add to what I’m trying to say.”

So… this was all a great, big wind-up to a discussion of changes I’m pondering for Bestiary.  But I think another post is in order.

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