The future of pixel art with The Last Night

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Thimbleweed Park isn’t the only game that requires a shot-by-shot breakdown of its trailer in this magazine.

Today at Microsoft’s Xbox presentation at E3, The Last Night was finally fully revealed to the public.

The game started back in 2014 as a short, moody, cyberpunk adventure game in the spirit of Flashback and Blade Runner. It was a small flash game made in just 6 days for the #cyberpunkjam.

The Last Night (original #cyperpunkjam entry), Tim & Adrian Soret, 2014

Following the great reception (it won the event), the brothers Soret, operating under the name Odd Tales, started crafting The Last Night into a full fledged game.

It’s been on my radar ever since, mainly for the spectacular vision set by director Tim Soret who blends pixel art with his background in high profile motion design.

If “directed by” doesn’t bring a cinematic experience to your mind, the super-wide aspect ratio definitely should.

The trailer opens up in destroyed Paris and immediately shows-off dynamic lighting and 3D nature of its environments.

Pixel art feels strangely at home in The Last Night’s hybrid 3D/billboard approach. Maybe it’s because by now we’re used to both parallax and, in recent years, lighting effects achieved with normal maps atop 2D sprites. But we’ve never seen it done together at this level of HD effects.

The parallax crowds in city streets.

High definition—especially 4K—definitely plays a role in making this art style possible. Whereas most of us developing pixel art games stick to emulating low resolutions (from 320×240 to 640×480 and their widescreen extensions), The Last Night leaves the confines of perfect grid alignment and tilts the camera at angles that would lead to distorted sprites in the past. We’ve seen this ‘big pixel’ style before (which I talk about in my overview of pixel and voxel art), but nobody’s embraced it at the 3D camera level.

Take a look at this gorgeous scene from the trailer:

If we look at the skyscraper …

This skyscraper …

… we can see how each of the sprite pixels (the ones the artists drew at low resolution) is actually tilted and represented by dozens of display pixels.

I don’t have the source file, but in a perfectly pixel-aligned world, the skyscraper would render to about 50x50 pixels:

If we rotate this at its source low resolution, we get what I call retro style. Compare it to big pixel style which can only happen when the whole game is rendered in HD:

Retro style pixel art (left) vs big pixel style (right).

The angled edges of the skyscraper on the right actually consist of diagonal ‘jaggies’ just like the ones on the left, but at a microscopic level and with use of anti-aliasing which further hides the hardware, display pixels.

Of course I’m also showing this image super blown up, so when we’re looking back at the full scene, you simply see the skyscraper sprite set as a billboard in a 3D world, and we perceive it as one unchangeable sprite even when the camera pans and tilts in a movie-like fashion.

On top of this, Tim puts depth of field that blurs things in the foreground and background …

… and doesn’t hold back with reflective surfaces. The two of them together create these beautiful bokeh highlights.

Bokeh effect can be seen in bottom right where the overexposed lights get reflected out of focus, creating beautiful circular spots.

Reflections are possible because only the vertical surfaces are billboards. Unlike normal pixel art games where the ground is also just a part of a 2D image, floors in The Last Night are actual 3D geometry.

The boxes on the ground are also 3D objects so that they are properly shaded by lights and even bounced around with the physics engine.

To further put depth into the world, volumetric lights shine their artificial god rays through conveniently foggy atmosphere.

To close it off, window glass and raindrops refract the background …

… taxis fly away in 3D …

… and bad-ass pixel art dudes stare from pixel art balconies.

Yeah. I’m excited about what the future of pixel art will bring.

Oh, I almost forgot.

If you haven’t seen the actual trailer yet, what are you waiting for, Christmas?

No. Christmas came early.

Yeah, I just couldn’t pass on writing about this trailer right now. I didn’t expect to see it at E3, let alone in its own feature at the Xbox presentation (unlike dozens of indie games thrown together for a montage of ID@Xbox). I’ve seen in-game footage before at GDC (behind closed doors of my favorite unpublisher Raw Fury) and I could hardly hold my excitement to share this with you one day. I’m glad the wait is over. Well, now the real wait begins. 2018.