This short pixel art documentary by Simon Cottee is required viewing for readers of this blog (thanks for reading, by the way). An unassuming film with an unassuming title, Pixel may be modest in scope, but it is also a deeply enjoyable and thoughtful account of the rise, fall, and triumphant return of pixel art in videogames and other media.
Perhaps the most memorable part of the film is an interview with Jason Rohrer in which he attempts to justify the use of pixels in his own work with an interpretation consisting of two distinct but complimentary claims. His first point is that abstract, pixelated graphics make it easier for players to identify themselves with the characters, a concept that should come as no surprise to people with an interest in games or animation in general. His second point is a bit more surprising, given that it’s about technology, and given Rohrer’s reputation for being one of the least nerdy, least techie, and most artsy game designers around. Even more surprising–he actually makes a lot of sense (okay, maybe that isn’t so surprising, but it definitely makes for a more powerful defense of his taste in graphics).
Essentially, Rohrer’s point is that pixel art offers the most natural and transparent approach to making videogame imagery, due mostly to the fact that pixels, like videogames, always take place inside a computer. It’s a powerful thought, but a relatively simple one when you think about it. More importantly, it shows that Rohrer recognizes the need to reconcile the expressive nature of videogames with the technology that makes them possible.
Reconciling these two ideas is especially important in our 3D-dominated world, where pixelated abstraction is often portrayed as a reactionary move deployed by those who remain suspicious of polygons. Consequently, it becomes extremely easy to buy into the notion that pixel revivalists are simply part of a “backlash” against advances in game technology. Rohrer’s response turns this idea on its head by depicting pixels as the authentic and “hardcore” style, while simultaneously implying that 3D is the real format of choice for “casual” gamers (that means you, Halo fans…you casual gamers you). Simply put, pixels are not a backlash against technology, they are the quintessential videogame technology. Likewise, the use of pixels does not constitute a rejection of realism, but rather an affirmation of abstraction.
At one point during the documentary, Rohrer suggests that an appreciation of pixel art is inextricably tied to achieving videogame literacy. He’s right, which is why this documentary should be applauded for doing its part to remedy the situation. But of course, even those who speak videogame fluently should watch the film, as it is sure to enrich your gaming vocabulary in one way or another.
You can watch the entire video above or on Cotteen’s YouTube page.