Fez and the death of the pixel

Posted in Games on April 3, 2012

“Gomez is a 2D creature on a voyage of discovery into the mysterious 3rd dimension.”

Polytron’s official description of Fez, released today for Xbox Live Arcade, succinctly explains the game’s core conceit. But it also points to a larger truth about the game: that this is a 2D platformer released into a medium where, in the mainstream at least, 2D graphics and sprites are ostensibly out-dated and where 3D reigns.

It’s a nonsense, of course, and one that independent game developers have upturned in recent years. 3D polygons have no more replaced 2D sprites than photography has replaced watercolour painting: each offers a stylistic choice for the artist, one with its own character and tone.

Where blockbuster game development has suggested polygons are the future of video games, so a generation of indie game makers has driven back into the aesthetics of games from their childhood, a movement against the march towards realism, a retreat from the orchestra back to the chip tune.

More than that, the most recent indie blockbusters – Braid, Bit Trip Beat, Fez and Retro City Rampage – draw not only upon the aesthetics but also the systems of the games with which their makers grew up.

Each of these titles simultaneously acts as a homage to and subversion of some of video gaming’s seminal titles, demonstrating their creator’s fondness of these formative experiences, but also their determination to build upon them. Just maybe, these games hope to demonstrate to the wider industry that the 8 and 16-bit era game designs, just like the visuals used to paint them, have not been superseded, and there is still gold in the cliché.

Nevertheless, Fez feels like something of a full stop to the pixel art homage movement. What started out as a rebellion has become a cliché and, while Fez is too smart and assured in its own identity to slip into cliché, it feels as though this default fashion has run its course.

As new generation of indie game makers rises, one born in the 90s whose formative game experiences were found on PlayStation, Sega Saturn and Nintendo 64, one wonders where the next underground aesthetic in games is headed.

Into the waxy arms of Donkey Kong Country, the jagged awkwardness of early Lara? Or something else entirely. There is a simplicity, clarity and relative straightforwardness to 2D art and, by association, 2D game design making it so perfect for appropriation by young game designers in the 2010s.

But predictability is poison to any independent creative movement, even if its inspired by technical constraints.

The only question is: where next?

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