Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

10 August, 2016

“There’s a philistine and an aesthete in all of us”
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 7:16 PM

My friend Jay Gischer shared a link on Google plus entitled A Pixel Artist Renounces Pixel Art. An artist who just spent a few years creating lovingly hand-crafted pixel art gives up hope and accepts people are cultural philistines while bending over backwards to forgive them.

Now, I’m a fan of pixel art, so I have a few things to say on this. Buckle in…

Bad art exists

Memory is a funny thing. We tend not to remember the past as it actually was, but through a certain set of filters. Most of these filters are the same for everyone. For example, we tend to remember the good things and diminish the negatives. Take someone who claims that the 70s had the best music and then point them to The Captain and Tennille; they probably forgot about them as they were mentally rocking out to Led Zepplin or Black Sabbath.

Same thing happens with games. Look at the article, near the beginning, where the author compares the two NES games Mighty Final Fight and Rambo. Obviously one of these has better art, although pixel art fans might remember the better art and not the other.

So, let’s not fool ourselves and think that pixel art was the height of art. There was good art and there was bad art then and now.


Where I start to have a problem is when the author starts to dismiss aesthetic choices. He advocates that artists are always using the “highest definition” available to them. But, this isn’t always the case.

Consider a writer. The writer could write prose or could write poetry. If the writer decides to write poetry, they could do free verse, or much more highly structured forms such as sonnets. So, why would a writer ever write sonnets if they could have the unrestrained expressiveness of prose, or at least the loose restrictions of free verse? Because sometimes the structure and restrictions are part of the art form, and part of what makes one appreciate it. A sonnet takes skill and mastery of the craft to do well.

Now, this isn’t to say that if you want to make your living as a writer, than sonnets are the form one would advise to pursue. Poetry tends to be a less appreciated form by the masses, which usually causes some level of consternation to the aesthetes.

I think part of the problem is that professionals look at things differently than others do. A professional can look at a complex work, like a sonnet or a lush 2D sprite and see the work that went into it. A consumer’s tastes aren’t necessarily influenced by craft or mastery. Sometimes the masses like pretty dumb things.

Viewers aren’t responsible

The author then tries to justify the tastes of the masses. “Pixelated” is a perfectly acceptable critique, and people more easily appreciate higher levels of display technology. Players aren’t responsible for appreciating good art, rather it’s the artists responsibility to communicate properly with the audience.

But, I think this is a fair amount of self-deprecation. Imagine if we weren’t talking about low-brow games, but about some other accepted medium. Take painting vs. photography. Imagine if some painter wrote about how hard it is to get a good photo-realistic result from trying to paint, and cameras are just so much better. How we shouldn’t criticize people for being bored with paintings when we have cameras around that do a much better job displaying images.

Or imagine the theater director dismissing live performance. “We can’t expect people to learn the nuance to appreciate live performances. We need to give them the experience they expect: car chases and explosions which are just impractical to do in plays and opera and only really possible with modern camera, editing, and post-production techniques. Therefore I’m going to stop directing theater and only direct movies.”

Monocles would pop out of eyes faster than you could lament “O fortuna!” Of course, it helps that theater has had centuries of history behind it, whereas pixel art was available for a much shorter time thanks to the more rapid development of computing technology. But, the sentiment is the same: discarding the old because nobody cares and the new stuff is better by virtue of being better technology.

Although, in a way he is right. Part of the problem didn’t come from the audience, rather it came from the way video games were marketed. When Sony released the original PlayStation they could do better 3D than any other console, so they spent a lot of marketing convincing people that 3D was the new hotness, and 2D was old and busted. Unfortunately, a lot of this marketing took hold in a group of people during their formative years, and the attitude has persisted.

Art vs. commerce

We come back around to a recurring theme in my writing, art vs. commerce. Writing sonnets is harder work and takes a lot of skill, but you’re probably not going to put food on the table being a professional sonnet writer. Likewise, pixel art isn’t going to bring the adoration of the masses, even if it does take real talent and skill to do well.

Although I don’t think being a professional pixel artist is necessarily as hopeless as being a professional sonnet writer. There are some people who do appreciate good pixel art.

The shame is that there are a lot of legitimate complaints to be made about pixel art. For example, it is often a lazy, shorthand way to tickle nostalgia. A brutal “Nintendo hard” platformer game probably gets more acceptance if it has NES-era graphics than if it had sharp, modern forms. Some people also do pixel art really poorly, passing off a pixel mess as “retro” when it really should just be called bad. Cases like these are what really hurt appreciation for a pixel art aesthetic.

Pixels don’t need to go

While I can respect the author’s decision to turn away from pixel art, I disagree that this should be anything but a personal decision. Trying to justify this because players don’t “get” a pixel art aesthetic seems like a cop out. Perhaps the author is trying to justify his own lack of interest in this type of aesthetic, or trying to justify going to a different style that is faster and easier to work with.

So, what do you think? Do you appreciate a pixel art aesthetic? Or do you simply prefer higher definition art?


  1. I like lots of different aesthetics and can at least respect the intentions of the ones I don’t like (Duchamp has a lot to answer for). In the end though, for me, it’s about how the work holds together as an artistic whole. World of Warcraft was cartoony even for the time, but that comic book superheroic style was both appropriate and has aged much less badly than the attempts to do leading edge realistic graphics in many of its contemporaries.

    The thing I think Jay Gischer missed is that part of the conversation he may need to be having is the old art of “educating the customers”. My ex is an art jeweler, and many of her early customer interactions were about explaining why her jewelery was more expensive than the costume jewelry pieces three stalls down. It’s a bit tricky, you can’t be either condescending or self-serving, but in her case it paid off when she had built a customer base that let her be a jeweler full time. For his games (which I’ve never played) maybe he needs to think about what stylings would make the game more coherent or entertaining, and communicate those decisions clearly.

    Comment by John Dougan — 10 August, 2016 @ 9:30 PM

  2. ” Imagine if some painter wrote about how hard it is to get a good photo-realistic result from trying to paint, and cameras are just so much better.” That, in essence, is what happened to art in the 19th and 20th century. Photography did replace painting as a means of recording exactly what the eye sees. Even portraiture moved away from photo-realistic reflection of the subject towards the kind of psychological interpretation that saw Sutherland’s portrait of Churchill go to the fire. Photo-realism in fine art has been seen as a circus trick at best for most of my lifetime although it has had a much different history in gaming.

    Comment by bhagpuss — 10 August, 2016 @ 11:40 PM

  3. John Dougan wrote:
    The thing I think Jay Gischer missed…

    To be clear, the author of that piece isn’t Jay. Jay just shared the link to that piece on Google+.

    …part of the conversation he may need to be having is the old art of “educating the customers”.

    The article explicitly tackles this issue. The author argues that it’s not the job of the customer to understand, rather the job of the artist to deliver what they customer wants.

    bhagpuss wrote:
    That, in essence, is what happened to art in the 19th and 20th century.

    Yes, I chose that example for a reason. :) And while painting isn’t quite as popular, especially professionally, I think people would be dismayed if there were a campaign to replace all painting with photography. There are some things you just can’t do with photography, although photo editing programs have come a long way. :)

    Comment by Psychochild — 11 August, 2016 @ 12:32 AM

  4. My sense is that what the author of the piece is really renouncing is hating on people who don’t get it. Do you guys remember “colorizing” old black and white movies? The reason Ted Turner did that is because people would change the channel if they saw a black and white movie. You can hate them and throw rocks at them and call them philistines, or you can colorize movies and then perhaps some will watch things and appreciate how good they were in spite of being black-and-white.

    You’re never going to bludgeon people into enlightenment.

    Comment by Toldain — 12 August, 2016 @ 8:29 AM

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