Graphics Can’t Be Outdated and I Mean That
Video games as a medium are intertwined with technology, and technology is always striving towards a predestined ‘future’. “The future of gaming” isn’t just a marketing tool, it’s the mantra of every AAA studio. Everybody wants to be first in the technological gaming race, the games with the best ray tracing and the most rendered pores on photorealistic characters, often at the expense of our poor CPUs. For example, my PC starts coughing and wheezing after rendering each individual sweat drop on my beautiful Baldur’s Gate 3 party members (worth it).
Because of this, games are often treated more like tech demos than pieces of art–or even just entertainment–to be engaged with. So of course when it comes to older games, the consensus for a lot of gamers is that their graphics are outdated and ugly. This mindset of course sacrifices style in favor of hard realism. Forget chunky 3D models or pixel art, the future of gaming is going to be so much more than that; there’s going to be photorealistic dragons and Keanu Reeves.
This isn’t the first time non-realistic art movements were deemed “ugly” in favor of realism. The early Impressionist movements in Europe were labeled amateur by art critics that favored Neoclassicism. The term ‘Impressionism’ was actually termed by one of those critics who called the artwork unfinished, a simple impression of reality. What’s unique about gaming’s problem is the fact that games are so technology-focused, thus obsessed with ‘progress’. That is what pushes the idea that graphics can be outdated. We don’t call oil paintings outdated because of the invention of photography, but for some reason with gaming, there’s an expiration date for style.
And it’s coming to a head because just like television and movies, we’re in the remake era now.
These days it seems like gaming’s biggest hits are all getting the remake treatment from Resident Evil 4 to (my favorite childhood game) Paper Mario and the Thousand Year Door. The Last of Us and Life is Strange, games that were released in 2013 and 2015 mind you, have both been remastered with updated graphics, if you wanted to see just how fast the graphics game is moving. In the case of RE4, it gave us most of the same great Resident Evil gameplay and story, with updated graphics so we can see Leon Kennedy’s pecs in 4K. I would never complain about spending the game looking at Kennedy’s muscular back, but I’m not so quick to dismiss the original game just because of the fancy new version.
We should also consider how updated graphics’ can conflict with games preservation. Many people would default to calling these remakes as the definitive versions of games with their updated graphics and gameplay. It throws the original games to the wayside simply because the graphics are considered outdated. But I think, for both preservationist historical reasons and artistic reasons, that old games and their limited graphics should be celebrated as opposed to forgotten.
We can consider a case where I believe a remake with updated graphics actually made the game worse: Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories. I first played Chain of Memories as a part of a pack that includes six KH games (this happens to be the best and easiest way to play through the series). Instead of the original GBA version of the game with pixel graphics, they remade the game using 3D graphics for the pack. I was a little disappointed that I wouldn’t be able to see all the pixel art, but figured the game would be mostly the same. But it turns out the updated graphics just made the game worse.
The charming and whimsical worlds of Kingdom Hearts immediately fell flat and dead in Chain of Memories. While there was a story reason for the worlds to be empty, I think the charm of seeing these 3D worlds in pixel art form would have been enough of a treat to keep the game from looking boring. The gameplay also didn’t translate well into a 3D environment, making it frustrating to manage the movement of the character and your deck at the same time, something that might have been easier to do in a 2D space. “Updating” the graphics, in this case, made the game worse. Now, the only pixel art entry in the series isn’t widely available, like all the other, older Kingdom Hearts games..
But I would argue there’s merits to old graphics that go beyond just preservation. Even artists working in other mediums take inspiration from old game graphics. Let’s take Gao Hang as an example. When I first saw Hang’s art I was struck by how he made a traditional painting look exactly like old game models. The polygonal structuring and airbrush coloring masterfully create portraits that would have been right at home in The Sims. According to his bio in the Anya Tisch gallery, he was classically trained in photorealistic painting but more recently took to this more abstract style.
Another artist who works traditionally with video game imagery, Jade Anthony (@groupcritpowerdynamics on Twitter and Instagram), has been making paintings of animals pixelized to look like Nintendogs. Anthony shared some process photos on social media, showing how they use masking tape to create the pixel effect with traditional materials. Clearly people are attracted to this old game aesthetic even when it isn’t readily convenient to accomplish. Perhaps this shows that there’s an appeal to these blocky and pixelated graphics that goes beyond being nostalgic, but instead a style that can be timeless in its own way.
I believe that the future of gaming isn’t hyper realism. Games at their core are an artform, a medium to tell stories. The ray tracing, rendering, and realistic water physics are all just bells and whistles to what games can really offer. Old, low-polygon models and pixels aren’t just placeholder graphics waiting for a 4k facelift, but intentional stylistic decisions that speak both to the tools and the stylistic trends of the time. Video games have made a lot of progress over the years, but progress doesn’t mean we need to toss and replace old games like iPhones.
Harri is a freelance writer, art exhibit employee, doodler, and social media manager for MICE (Massachusetts Independent Comics Expo). Harri’s work has appeared in TechRadar, Polygon, PomeMag, and more! You can follow them and their wacky adventures on Twitter, Instagram or Tumblr @heyriette.