The present we inhabit is certainly odd. In the context of games and digital art, it might feel as though we’re headed in a direction other than directly, technologically forwards. Undoubtedly, leaps in hardware, monitors, animation, and polygonal counts have given way to attempts at realism increasingly convincing — not to mention the advent and development of augmented and virtual realities.
In spite of this — and perhaps, with a certain amount of spite — the blockiness of 8 and 16-bit style pixel art has been unprecedentedly popular for the better part of a decade. This has been much to the surprise of veteran game developers who, in as late as the early 2000s, weren’t necessarily creating with the same aesthetic in mind.
“It doesn’t do it justice when you see it all pixelated, because on our television of the day, this was all very smooth, and the palettes really matched the beautiful work that it is.”
Louis Castle, co-founder of Westwood Studios, laments during Double Fine Productions’ Devs Play series — while playing The Lion King (1994) — about the way pixel art of the past is sometimes underappreciated, but simultaneously celebrated in an unusual fashion. While game artists of the past sought ways to subvert the fuzziness of CRT screens, blending together shades and softening the roughness of edges… the current pixel aficionado takes glee in cute minimalism, and gestural characters made from as few pixels as possible — yet, still, uniquely recognizable.
And, in fairness to the modern artist and developer, is the style, at least, not more accessible? While Louis Castle’s team was given the guidance of Disney animators and seasoned game artists to complete their product, many projects, now, require far less than a fully-funded studio.
So, in the following list, I’ve compiled four short games (30 min to an hour in length), available from itch.io — a growing client and marketplace for indie games. Each features what I found to be compelling examples of modern pixel art, and are entirely free to download. All should run adequately on low spec computers, and are best enjoyed where you have the quietness to enjoy their respective soundtracks.
“Traverse a vivid interpretation of Bardo, the Tibetan word for limbo. Learn what experiences brought you there and what forces pull you through…”
MANDAGON presents an ambient and ancient-feeling landscape of platforms, its roots planted in mythology. The game’s music and sound design are intended to be meditative in nature, and spirits — whom you encounter — speak in short, rhyming verses.
A comparison made, perhaps too commonly with other games, is MANDAGON’s likeness to FEZ (2012). Not just for its graphic style, but way in which players are tasked with collecting artifacts that open large and ominous doors… it’s clear some amount of inspiration was taken, here. However, lacking the ambitious mechanics, and somewhat huge scope of a game like FEZ, MANDAGON is limited to being a brief, but calming experience.
- A pleasure to wander aimlessly in
- Appropriate in length and scope
- Could benefit from stronger visual language/conventions (e.g. it is not always clear what objects can’t be jumped onto)
- Gamepad/joystick controls sometimes had poor response, d-pad & keyboard will be preferable to many players
“Liz’s temple and safe place is threatened by the unknown, by ghosts from her own darkest dreams. She must go investigate. She’s the Librarian, after all.”
The Librarian is a short point and click experience by Octavi Navarro beginning by means of ‘dark and story night’. As for what lurks in that night… it requires a bravery different than the kind needed to see through a whole cart of material being shelved properly. An arcane library is a different sort of library, with different sorts of books, and different sorts of patrons who lurk about. Even if material does need shelving from time to time.
- Pleasing animations & movement
- Distinct atmosphere — sound design surprisingly convincing for having relied on free resources
- Puzzles could do with being much more challenging — a very concise game for experienced point and click players
- Lacks replayability due to nature of puzzles
“Developed and published by Toge Productions, the game was inspired by the calm feelings of drinking warm drinks in the middle of a cold rainy night, alone or accompanied by friends. The game features visual aesthetics that are inspired by 90s anime, classic pixel art adventure games, and the chill imageries often associated with lo-fi chillhop music.”
Set in a Seattle-of-simpler-times, Coffee Talk is an interactive visual novel whereby orcs, humans, and elves patronize your late night espresso bar. Not unlike VA-11 Hall-A (2014), gameplay functions by following dialogue and preparing beverages. Regardless of the setting’s appeal to players, it should be noted that Coffee Talk’s careful combination of bean-brewing and chillhop tracks are gratifying enough to stand on their own.
- Dialogue should be entertaining enough to keep player’s attentions
- Beverage mechanics are surprisingly gratifying for as simple as they are
- Game doesn’t specify til end that it’s a demo for a more complete product (to be released at a later date)
- In spite of no online features, application may trigger Windows firewall/security settings (I contacted one of the game’s programmers on Twitter, but he didn’t have advice for this issue)
“You play as a student going on their first date in a long, long time. Only problem is your apartment is trying to kill you with your own clutter!”
AL is another piece of interactive fiction, this time, marked by a neon palette, aggressive furniture, and possessed household appliances. The premise is simple: demons run the show in your apartment — but tonight, that will not stand.
- Impressive, drawn animation and use of limited color palette
- Variation in choice/direction despite short length
- It would have been nice to see more than one outcome for the story, some ‘better’ than others
Final note: if you have an interest in pixel art, there’s many pieces of freeware available for PC like GraphicsGale or Piskel. As for Android devices, however, I’d highly recommend dotpict. It’s not intended for professional use, or to assist with animation, but it uses both of your hands in a surprisingly intuitive way (some examples of user’s work here). I often use this app when I’ve got nothing else to do, and you can export your work in fairly high resolution.