At the Edges of an Aesthetic

by L. Rhodes

The first thing I learned about "bumping tactics" videogame Auro is that the lead artist is swearing off pixel art for future games. If nothing else, "A Pixel Artist Renounces Pixel Art," Blake Reynolds' post explaining the decision, is valuable for its exploration of what distinguishes good pixel art from bad. And, at first blush anyway, the reasoning he gives for his resolution is pretty convincing. There is, he says, a gulf between the intentions of pixel artists and the visual language to which most modern videogame audiences are accustomed. If players misunderstand the intent of a visual scheme built in low resolution and with a limited color palette — if, for example, they remark that a videogame looks "pixelated," meaning unfinished or glitchy — that represents a breakdown of communication that does more to hurt the artist than the audience.

There's some very attractive character design in Auro, and I plan to give it a try. Looking at the art, though, I wonder if there might not be more to that communication breakdown than ignorance about the conventions of pixel art. Reynolds' art for the game is certainly low-res compared to, say, Child of Light, a game with a not wholly dissimilar aesthetic, but which embraces high definition in order to achieve a watercolor effect. Compared to videogame graphics from the 8- and 16-bit eras, though, the resolution in Auro is astoundingly dense. At certain magnifications, it can even be difficult to tell that it's pixel art. Which leads me to wonder if we might be entering the pixel art equivalent of the uncanny valley — that unnerving middle range before realism becomes utterly convincing. Auro vs. Child of Light

Top: Auro (Dinofarm Games, 2016)
Bottom: Child of Light (Ubisoft, 2014)

With any aesthetic, there are degrees of artifice that will tend to stand out to the audience. One of the functions of that artifice is to signal deliberation. By its very artificiality, it implies that the artists chose to depart from reality, and that choice entails meaning. Ergo, some portion of the meaningfulness of any given work of art arises as a result of its artifice — that is to say, of its aesthetic or style. That's especially evident when our attention is drawn to the style, as in Picasso's Guernica, but it's also true in works where familiarity makes the aesthetic less immediately noticeable — say, in modern mainstream superhero comics. Guernica

Pablo Picasso's Guernica (1937)

At the edges of the aesthetic, though, the artifice begins to blur. Think of that as the aesthetic threshold. Tread too closely to that threshold or, God forbid, cross it, and audiences may no longer recognize the artificiality as deliberate. They will see it, instead, as a failed attempt to represent your subject in some other style. That confusion creates opportunities for miscommunication. Between the aesthetic and the audience, the work loses some portion of the meaning the artist intended to convey.

Where the aesthetic threshold falls in any given style will differ according to the one's familiarity with the conventions of that style. So, to borrow an example from Reynolds' essay, audiences immersed in the pixel art community can look at characters from King of Fighters XIII and immediately recognize a loving embrace of the pixel art aesthetic. If you don't regularly look at painstakingly composed and minutely detailed examples of the form, though, you might suppose that art composed for one resolution is being displayed at another. Standing so close to the aesthetic threshold, the style begins to look like a botched attempt at traditional cel animation.

That may also account, in part, for our general ambivalence for 2D art in the middle generations of console development. Reynolds contrasts screenshots from Link's Awakening and the SNES port of Bubsy. To be sure, there are plenty of problems with the Bubsy image (like poor differentiation between foreground and background elements), but it may also be that we recognize the attempt in games of that era to achieve a style that just wasn't possible given the technical limitations of the hardware. Resolutions that could convincingly render 2D sprites as though they had been constructed from ink and paint on celluloid wouldn't be possible until later on, with games like Paper Mario. Bubsy's problems, in that sense, are a result of the approach toward the border between aesthetics. Link's Awakening, on the other hand, was so far removed from the possibility of passing for cel animation that the visual designers were practically forced to wield the pixel as an aesthetic unit. Because they did so deliberately and with great skill, it stands as an exemplar of the form.

All of which suggests that no one need abandon pixel art as a visual style for videogames. Even when the goal is to speak to a general audience rather than fans of the form pixel art remains a viable form once we walk it back from the aesthetic threshold. But if the territory around that threshold is what interests an artist — and for many within the pixel art community, that interest seems almost exclusive — then it makes sense that they'd direct their most sophisticated work toward the more specialized audience, while talking to the general audience in an altogether different style.