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The Undeniable Beauty of Lo-Fi Gaming

We live in an era of shiny new toys. But technology cannot dictate taste.

Back in November, Sony released the PS4 Pro, a more powerful system promising improved graphics, as well as 4K resolutions and High Dynamic Range Color. With the Pro, Sony is banking on the idea that people will see the advantages in a technology that's far from mainstream, and not yet standardized.

Microsoft, Sony's biggest competitor, is also aiming at this market with Project Scorpio, a system they've said will bring even greater performance. It's a gamble that's proven useful before—the Xbox 360 set HD as a minimum standard long before HDTVs were mainstream—but there's a sense of insecurity surrounding all this talk of 4K. People are already claiming that his generation has become outdated, and the easiest way to assuage those fears is to give them more power, and bigger numbers. These large companies are deeply invested in the idea that greater technology means better art.

Meanwhile, there's a growing number of artists intentionally pushing in the opposite direction. There's an increasing appreciation for the artifacts and flaws of older technology, in the same way that the pristine quality of digital sound has influenced a resurgence in vinyl and cassettes.

Back in 1995 screenshot courtesy of Degica

Takaaki Ichijo of Throw the Warped Code Out built the PS1-style horror game Back in 1995. It's a game with obvious love for titles like the original Resident Evil and Silent Hill, and the specific aesthetics that the limitations of early 3D imposed on them. Not only does it render at a low resolution, but as Ichijo explained,  it uses a special shader to render each polygon from a fixed point, preventing the "correct" use of perspective of modern game engines. I asked him what the appeal of this was, and why he made the decision to intentionally evoke a style of game people may consider outdated.

"In April 2015, before I announced it, there weren't any other indie creators using this 32-bit console style, said Ichijo. "So I decided to give it a try. And as you might guess, some people said to me that 'PS1-era graphics don't have value when compared with pixel art.' I didn't think so. This is the style I grew up with in my teens and I'm really fond of it. I wanted to prove that it isn't outdated, I wanted to define PS1-style as a new style or genre of video games.

Ichijo was also kind enough to point me towards games such as " RE.CO.N" , Devil Daggers, Strafe, Dusk, Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor, and Vaccine as examples of other works playing in the a similar PS1-era 3D style.

"The appeal is that it leaves room for the imagination of players. And for people of a specific age, it's a time machine to take back to feeling young for a moment."

Nostalgic appeal is of course a major driver of lo-fi vogue. That's undoubtedly part of movements such as vaporwave, or the resurgence in the popularity of pixel art within games. Nostalgia isn't the only factor in its appeal.  

There's a sense of acknowledgement for both the craft and unique qualities of these "outdated" styles. That acknowledgement is something a lot of the devs Ichijo pointed me to shared, including Thom Glunt, of the Pixel Titans. He's currently at work on STRAFE, a game that channels early first-person shooters. Even the game's site looks like something from the 90's. There's a degree of irony there, given how even then first-person shooters were known for pushing technology.  

When asked about the appeal of this art style, Glunt told me, "I admire the aesthetic of games like Quake and Metal Gear Solid mainly due to their crunchy low poly graphics. As a kid it was something I couldn't articulate but I enjoyed the pixelated textures of the Playstation over the smoothed and muddy textures of the N64."

DUSK screenshot courtesy of New Blood Interactive

David Szymanski, developer of DUSK, a game that evokes that same history of shooters, expressed similar sentiments, especially when asked about the value of lo-fi art compared to the mainstream's focus on high resolutions.  

"Photorealism has its place, but I don't think it should be an end unto itself, and I don't think a lack of photorealism is automatically a bad thing," he told me. "For my part, I think low fidelity visuals work like an impressionist painting. They give a rough idea of a thing rather than outright portraying it, and I think that can ultimately be more immersive."

For Szymanski, it's important to leave space for the viewer's imagination to fill in gaps. "I think that the idea of a thing in your head is more vivid than the thing sitting in front of you.  So showing the player a forest is cool, but giving them the idea of a forest is, I'd argue, even better."

That sense of ambiguity is arguably part of what makes games like Silent Hill 2 work. Not only does the world and story leave a lot to interpretation, but the presentation itself deliberately obscures details and horizons. Even Digital Foundry, the people who literally count pixels to analyze if a game is pushing the highest resolution, have stated a preference for the grainy resolution of the original PS2 release, and the way it adds to the game's tension and art direction.

I brought this up this up with Isobel James Shasha, a developer at Sundae Month who just released Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor, which mixes lo-fi 3D environments with 2D pixel art characters. For them, the ultra-realism of the mainstream doesn't have much appeal. "I think a lot of the value of that look is constructed as part of this toxic consumer culture and an obsession with 'immersion'," they told me, "so I just find that games that don't confine themselves to those values tend to have more freedom to be creative in certain ways."

Header and all Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor screens courtesy of TinyBuild

As Chris Franklin pointed out in a video essay four years ago, a photorealistic experience requires not only absurd amounts of graphical rendering power, but gameplay that avoids abstractions that break that illusion, the kind of abstractions that all games are currently based on. Not only that, but AAA development is often barely commercially feasible, and attempting even higher detail will require more labor and resources with smaller and smaller benefits.

Lo-fi art sidesteps this problem and allows smaller teams the flexibility to work faster and often, more creatively.

"From early on, we knew that the gameplay would be really simple, so we wanted most of the game's 'content' to be in the aliens walking around the spaceport, the world itself, and of course the trash & items for sale around the spaceport," Shasha explained.  "Pixel art & low poly models was the only way we could produce all that art & still have it look really good. In the end there are upwards of 120 characters & 340 items in the game." I heard this frequently from the other devs as well. For small teams especially, lo-fi art is not only an artistic decision, but a practical one.

That's not to say that these games require less skill or artistry, but simply fewer raw resources. Games like Towerfall or even Sonic Championship show that smart use of tried-and-true methods like the principles of traditional animation go a long way in selling characters and momentum, and wouldn't even work as effectively in other styles.

In some ways it's a continuation of the dichotomy between representational and abstract art—it eschews immediate recognition for a more expressive quality. That abstraction can even cover the intentional use of digital artifacts. Think of the way that indie musicians use the distortions brought on by tape dubbing to create more of a "raw" sound, or how blues and rock guitarists intentionally employ audio feedback. Aliasing brought on by low resolutions, and even visual glitches, can bring on a similar quality.

"I think that the idea of a thing in your head is more vivid than the thing sitting in front of you.  So showing the player a forest is cool, but giving them the  idea of a forest is, I'd argue, even better." - David Szymanski 

The use of these artifacts also came up as part of my conversation with David Szymanski. "I think it has a similar impressionistic effect, turning distant objects into abstract blocky shapes", he told me. " It can also be an atmospheric effect, I find: giving a game an air of grittiness or mystery.

"One example I always think of is Noctis IV, which renders procedural moons and planets at an extremely low resolution (I think it's 320x200 if I remember correctly). The otherwise rather barren and simplistic landscapes are actually more interesting as a result of the pixelation obscuring details."

Resolution can work the other way as well. When High Definition cameras were first introduced they revealed flaws that were previously invisible to the audience, requiring tv broadcasters and filmmakers to change parts of production to make up for it. With the popularity of HD remasters across both this and last generation, we've been able to see something similar happening within games.

While remasters like the ICO and Shadow of the Colossus Collection have held up beautifully, plenty of titles don't do as well in the HD light. Looking at the release of Ubisoft's Splinter Cell Trilogy, Digital Foundry came to the conclusion that "( Splinter Cell 1+2) illustrate dramatically that if the core assets aren't up to scratch, dropping them into an HD environment isn't going to help matters and actually serves to more effectively highlight their shortcomings." By simply trying to present the original games with a higher resolution, Ubisoft amplified their flaws and did them a disservice.

Ultimately, the reason that these collections keep getting released is the same reason that the PS4 Pro is in stores—it sells. Showing someone a bigger number is an easier sell than trying to explain the appeal of a completely different approach.

This isn't to say that having more processing power or more output resolutions available is somehow a negative. These simply open up more options, and make new tools available. It only becomes a problem when we see only one way to employ those tools, and judge the quality of games not by their intentions or design, but by the density of their pixels.

Amr Al-Aaser is an Egyptian-Filipino American writer and artist from Chicago. 
They also co-edit deorbital.media and clickbliss.net. They can be found ranting about aesthetics and robots on Twitter, @siegarettes.