Pre-rendered Ephemera: The Missing Tenebrism in 2.5D
[This essay was funded through Patreon under the ZEAL project. ZEAL aims to provide high quality criticism of rarely discussed games and comics, and showcase the talents of exciting new writers and artists. For details and information on how to donate, please check out our Patreon, where you can also get exclusive video content for $5+!]
There’s something very particular about the aesthetic quality of certain mid-to-late 90’s promotional videogame art — one that lies hazily between half-watched ReBoot episodes, Windows 95 screensavers and VeggieTales on VHS. These renderings came about at a time where game developers were still devising strategies for incorporating 3D visuals into their work, while elsewhere in films, commercials and on the World Wide Web computer generated imagery had become near-ubiquitous. Obscurities blogs like Supper Mario Broth and Sonic the Hedgeblog are treasure troves for this sort of thing; uploading scans of defunct magazines as cultivating relics of the bygone era where digital technology served mass print media before subsuming it. Now that readily available tools like Unity have made “low-poly” and “2.5D” not only more achievable but desirable in their own right, I believe it’s worth looking back to when the inevitability of 3D butting against hardware limitations created unprecedented artistic diversity — to determine the authenticity of these fashionable design trends and what they may glean from faded old box art in the present day.
Before wholly polygonal environments and character models became the norm there were myriad techniques for bridging the 2D-to-3D gap, many using pre-rendered graphics. “Billboarding” was a common one, whereby 2D textures within a 3D environment are rotated so as to always face the rendering camera, made famous by Doom, Super Mario 64, Mario Kart 64 and possibly serving as some inspiration for Paper Mario. The inverse of this was pre-rendered backgrounds, the kind which comprised the entirety of Myst and served as backdrops for some of the most revered games of the decade (incidentally this inherent tension between character and gameworld is just one reason why a Final Fantasy VII remake will never quite work). For even earlier examples of combined 2D and 3D via pre-rendering we can look back to lesser-known laserdisc shoot ’em ups of the mid-80’s, like the Japan-only MSX title Starfighters or the never-completed Cube Quest. But when it comes to pre-rendered sprites in the 90’s, there’s always been one giant gorilla in the room.
Donkey Kong Country and its sequels are as influential as they are controversial, stemming from an alleged Miyamoto quote paraphrased by American journalist Steven L. Kent in a footnote of his 2001 book The Ultimate History of Video Games; later gaining traction after he embellished it with a region-specific insult for a G4 TV documentary (nearly 10 years after the initial interview). Regardless of any supposed misgivings, the pre-rendering technology developed by Rare for DKC and Killer Instinct in the 16-bit era became firmly planted in the visual identity of 3D-focused Nintendo 64. The pixelated character sprites of Team Star Fox on the SNES became pre-rendered stills in the 1997 remake Star Fox 64, and for as much due praise the divergent art style of Yoshi’s Island receives, it often goes unmentioned that the N64 follow-up Yoshi’s Story leaned heavily on pre-rendered characters and environments. Naturally Mario himself became a 3D render, appearing on innumerable covers and advertisements throughout the system’s lifetime; the de facto mascot of videogames for an entire generation.
However as a child coming from the Super Mario Land series, I remember this shiny new version of the Italian plumber feeling somewhat different from the “real” Mario, the polygonal one I could actually control in the games. While categorically more realistic in terms of fidelity, there always seemed to be an unshakable sense of artifice in his fixed gaze. He looks almost plastic — like those weird statues of Ronald McDonald seated on a bench some McDonald’s restaurants used to have — a candy-coated shellac effect only enhanced by the glossy paper of the posters and manuals he frequently graced. This dissonance was perhaps less pronounced in Square’s earlier Super Mario RPG, where the in-game version of Mario looked more-or-less the same as the one on the box, albeit fuzzier around the edges.
But on N64, I got the sense that while Plastic Mario was the lead actor it’s Polygonal Mario who does all his stunts, and if Plastic Mario tried to long-jump through Bob-omb Battlefield he would either shatter into pieces or flop around weightlessly like an inflatable pool toy. Mario 64 even provides a sort of intermediary in the form of Mario’s disembodied head on the game’s start screen, whose presence not only forms a gradated continuum of realness between pre-render and polygons but of interactability — allowing the player to pull and prod with the system’s newfangled analog stick. Star Fox 64 did something similarly toyetic with its title screen, establishing a pattern by which we may play with Fox and Mario before playing as them.
My plastic figurine analogy is mirrored by both past and future depictions. In the summer of 1988 the first issue of Nintendo Power landed in mailboxes across North America, featuring a clay art interpretation of Mario bounding across the hills of Subcon from Super Mario Bros. 2. The ad agency responsible for the cover was reportedly influenced by the California Raisins campaign, though personally I believe a closer parallel to the flattened-3D effect they achieved would be the work of Canadian children’s book illustrator Barbara Reid (specifically her ‘84 debut The New Baby Calf). Nintendo and others would further explore this modelling clay aesthetic, with notable examples being the EarthBound strategy guide, Secret of Mana instruction booklet and Interplay’s ClayFighter series. While the relative ease of 3D rendering would eventually supplant the stop motion micro-craze of the early 90’s, some carryover can definitely be observed, especially in the Nintendo Power Vol. 18 Dr. Mario diorama, which attains the same “yellowiness” that so defined late 90’s CGI.
These pre-rendered pieces which I refer to, be they in-game or on packaging, often relied on intense contrast and saturation to give form, as if Pixar’s Luxo Jr. Lamp were leering somewhere just out of frame. Whether intentional or a quirk of the software available at the time, it’s this quality of pre-rendered art that I would most liken to Baroque-era tenebrism. Certainly parallels to 16th/17th century still life painting can be drawn as well; due to Phong shading, stark directional lighting and alpha transparencies both tend to focus upon highly reflective objects against neutral black backgrounds.
I’m not quite the first to make this observation: in a 20-year retrospective of DKC for USgamer Jeremy Parish uses the term “chiaroscuro” to refer to the game’s level design. Without delving too much into the semantic vagary of these terms I concede with Parish’s choice of words, as he is referring to how the composition of 2D elements creates an illusion of three dimensional space, whereas what I am referencing is more so the notion of “dramatic illumination.” In this context tenebrism refers to when figures are poised at the absolute height of intrigue, made supremely obvious by the use of theatrical spotlight effects.
Scenes as portrayed are simultaneously apotheotic and non-narrative, insofar as they are largely disconnected from the fiction and geography of the canonical gameworld. Mario is shown flying aimlessly over a nondescript planetoid, or holding a golf club mid-swing, presumably hitting an unseen ball. Other examples are even more impressionistic and under-designed in their choice of character arrangements, less like movie posters and more like virtual maquettes distilled in a single snapshot. While comparable intertextualities present themselves in earlier adaptive media (cartoons, comics, etc.), it is specifically pre-rendered 3D which I feel was able to provide these games with their own baked-in extended universes, ones which do not contain additional lore or stories but rather hallucinations of gameplay — made accessible even with the console turned off, as they are printed directly on a given game cartridge or CD-ROM insert.
But this digi-tenebrism was to be short-lived. In the cinematic intro of Super Smash Bros. Melee we see a trophy of Mario brought to life through the magic of the GameCube’s upgraded graphics processor, a more sophisticated take on the Gepetto-esque place-setting of Master Hand in the first installment and a foreshadowing to the launch of the amiibo product line. In this very instant the façade of Plastic Mario — the one who had convinced me for years that he was the real deal — is metamorphosed from mere trinket into yet another realer incarnation, one who wears actual denim instead of blue spandex. And once Nintendo standardized the high-poly character models of Mario et al for Super Mario Sunshine, it effectively put an end to the multifaceted and idiosyncratic nature of former appearances. While pre-rendering would continue to be used in Nintendo’s pipeline, more often than not it became a signifier of cheapness relegated to GBA or DS games; a shortcut rather than cutting edge. Nothing crystallizes this devaluation more than the sale of Rare to Microsoft in 2002.
However there is at least one hugely successful contemporary trafficking in the gloomy tones of pre-rendered art: Scott Cawthon’s viral horror game series Five Nights at Freddy’s. Though I’ve personally never played, what I find more interesting about these games than the cult of YouTube personality surrounding them is how they use pre-rendered character art in a novel way. While Mario and co. were always highly refined so as to stay firmly to the left of the uncanny valley, Five Nights at Freddy’s co-opts the same aesthetic through further exaggeration and dives right in, a stylistic approach borne from criticisms of Cawthon’s kid-friendly Chipper and Sons Lumber Co. The use of pre-rendering imbues the Five Nights franchise with a disquieting, gut-churning atmosphere which is equal parts Resident Evil and Banjo-Kazooie.
While Cawthon has stated in interviews that his art direction is largely derived from his choice of tools, I suspect there’s more to it than that. Even in his pre-Freddy creations he tends to use pre-rendered art as a sort of unconscious pop-cultural touchstone that’s able to resonate across multiple age brackets. The target audience for Five Nights may well have never encountered the actual animatronic Chuck E. Cheese band (I never did), but they probably absorbed something on the same emotional wavelength of “nightmare fuel” at some point during a childhood’s worth of media consumption. Cawthon’s work evokes the creepy puppetry of 80’s movies like The Dark Crystal, The NeverEnding Story or The Adventures of Mark Twain as much as it does the experience of playing something like Oddworld or Ocarina of Time ever so slightly too young.
Yet I also think this exploitation of pre-rendered art is somewhat unfaithful to the source, emphasizing the moment of transition from dim to bright via jump-scares rather than a more subtle interplay of light and shadow. To me pre-rendered art has the capacity to be hauntingly beautiful (or at the very least charming in its crudity), whereas games like Five Nights at Freddy’s, Tattletail and derivatives are just haunting for the sake of it. They’re the interactive equivalent of a creepypasta about how all your favorite wholesome cartoon characters are actually dead or in purgatory.
Often in videogames darkness is a blank canvas onto which we are meant to project our fears, but it can also represent the hidden potential of the yet-to-be-discovered. In both tech culture and the broader media landscape, the 90’s were a decade defined by the notion of limitless untapped possibility. Though game devs were far more hampered compared to the gargantuan strides made by filmmakers, their in-house pre-rendered art gives a window into the worlds they could imagine but not yet conceive. Now that game engines have reached parity with and/or surpassed what could only be achieved by a render farm 20 years ago, it seems some within the industry feel the medium has finally “arrived.” But I wonder if more than anything this is indicative of a lack of imagination — not in the abstract sense of clever inventiveness or “being a Creative” or spawning of new IP — but a literal inability to envision a fleshed-out three-dimensional gameworld beyond the photo-real or hyper-stylized (think of the post-hoc lifelikeness of the idealized Cloud Strife versus Yusuke Nakano’s quite literally iconic Link).
Moreover there seems to be a genuine distrust when companies show trailers containing anything pre-rendered, much of which is entirely founded, as AAA development has become a fractured ordeal with entire subcontracted studios dedicated solely to cinematics, second-screen content and willfully-deceptive vertical slices. However the same banner of consumer advocacy has also been used as a means of gate-keeping and controlling the dialogue in and around the gaming sphere — to delimit what is “legitimate” (gameplay and graphics approaching simulatory realism) and what is “fakery” (anything which contravenes this, whether through poor execution or pared-down design). This reciprocally feeds back into production-side compartmentalization and the thematic de-unification of game and world. Late-90’s game art transports me back into the head-space of playing a game, while such supplementary transmedia is meant to pull me out and away from the “core” experience.
In a recent essay, Zolani Stewart posed the question “Are videogames bad at images?” by using photography’s long history of making imagery meaningful as a counterpoint to current game production processes. At first blush this may seem entirely antithetical to my appraisal of pre-rendered art, as detractors might call them the ultimate “bad images”, but in my opinion it’s their chimerical computerized-yet-static nature that places them further from games (or game art as Games as Art) and closer to the practices Stewart touches upon. They may not have the humanizing touch of analog photos, but even when viewed on an LCD they are still very much a tactile affair — there’s an unctuousness or a chewiness or a general vibrational aura that is hard to articulate in purely visual terms, try as I might. The sublime hyper-realness of pre-rendered CG may be nothing more than digital artifact, but I think it’s one worth preserving and reinvestigating, not just as something to look back upon or draw from but to strive towards.
Of course I’m not naïve enough to advocate for a wholehearted return to pre-renders to the same extent that “8-bit” pixel art has been ingrained in the iconography of 80’s retro-revivalism. However I reckon their tenebrous quality is partially absent from discussions around the potential appeal of 90’s throwback games, which are usually situated around polygon counts, draw distances, flat shading and/or ultra-low-res textures; a vocabulary that frames itself as counter-cultural yet like the mainstream is equally fixated upon technical jargon over emotional resonances. Furthermore while many modern “low-poly” games in the wake of Minecraft are sleek in their minimalism and extol a sense of bloom-lit elegance, I also personally find them wanting in nuance and presentationally safe and samey — as if expertly calibrated to blend amongst the pastiche of pastels that is the App Store. There’s some precedent to be sure, as with Sega’s pioneering arcade titles Virtua Fighter and Virtua Racing, but for the most part early 3D games simply didn’t look like this newly-established geometric aesthetic.
And now even Mario has thrown his hat back into the low-poly ring with Super Mario Odyssey’s Luncheon Kingdom (ironic given how foundational SM64 is to the game on the whole). Although it’s a fresh take on the perennial lava level, had the rest of game adopted that style it would have been much worse off for it. I also must say on the subject of the Switch that there are fleeting moments in Odyssey’s Lost Kingdom and in the turn-based spin-off Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle which give me incredibly strong SMRPG flashbacks. So maybe Nintendo’s brand of digitenebrism is not quite as dead and forgotten as I had previously thought.
With that being said, I still think there is tremendous value in games that are rougher around the edges than we recall — which unreservedly show their age — and I appreciate 90’s promo art for similar reasons. Not only because it is intrinsically linked to a specific range of time in history and in my own life, but also because it recaptures something missing from the original context of play that I can’t get through an emulator or digital re-release. The materiality and socioeconomics of videogames informs our nostalgic memories of them just as much as the actual business of pressing buttons and staring at screens. But even if you don’t share the same Mario-centric memories as me, you can still find something special or unremarked upon in old game art to take away for yourself, all you have to do is look.