missing the mark on 8-bit inspiration

im really sad that indie culture, the entire wave of ‘nostalgia’ and retro throwback, has more often than not completely missed the mark on revitalizing the philosophy of that era into a contemporary design renaissance. most of it, as the word “throwback” would entail, is more superficial than earnest, a business decision or a bandwagoning more than a deep reflection on our priorities and value systems in games, and where they’ve gone. the 8-bit era offers many lessons to us that are, ironically, perhaps more important today than they were in their own time, a prescience that we shouldn’t allow to be reappropriated by videogames blood-sucking AAA corporate culture.

the first and most glaring misstep to me is the misinterpretation of 8-bit graphics. the first fault is the presumption that they were ugly, and from that follows a cascade of errors which funnel into revisionist stances on pixel art. pixel art is ‘cheap’, so it goes, so you must glamorize it to compensate and thus finally imbue it with value. this is fallacious. this is feeding back into the most vampiric, cynical elements of contemporary game design, that superficial technical prowess is what matters above all else. it is what has given us this wave of retro throwback games that by their own accord should be gorgeous and superior, but instead bleed of shallow lifelessness.

to correct this, we can look at the art of maré odomo, as but one example. if you apply the contemporary wisdom of videogames onto maré’s art, you might come to the puzzled conclusion that it’s “awful”, but somehow has an alluring aspect to it. maré’s art is very much about expression, but expression and technique are not opposed. rather, what videogames consider as “technique” is an incredibly narrow thing steeped in the overwhelming focus on sensationalism championed by product culture. maré’s art has a very exquisitely honed technique to produce that kind of expression (which I’ll avoid trying to distill into a sentence), and it is a technique entirely separate from the priority system of videogame product culture.

so then it is tragic to me, that when we look at the art of the 8-bit era and call it “bad” rather than recognizing the unique ideas they expressed. we mire ourselves in aspiring to the blockbuster value system when the blockbuster value system is made to fit the needs of excessively large productions and corporate interests. why do we discard the achievements in art & play and apologize for them when not only are they far more relevant to the artistic priorities of the individual or small team, but are also responsible for building games as we know them? perhaps we look back on the 8-bit era with ‘nostalgia’ not because of fancy, but because we know something substantial has been lost and eroded.

i didn’t grow up with 8-bit games, or 16-bit games for the most part. if that’s the case then how am i so passionate for these things? by the logic of throwback culture, the feelings I and many, many others have make no sense. the demand for superficiality and cuckolding to the narrative of technological superiority by product-driven mainstream videogame culture threatens to whitewash the substantial and still-important philosophies of generations of videogame creation.

if games of the 8-bit and 16-bit era are allowed to have merits, it is almost solely through the discussion of technological “limitations”, a kind of discussion that invariably winds up resulting in apologism and regression to the fallacious idea of the more superior contemporary videogame hardware. in 1983, the Famicom wasn’t “limited” any more than your computer today is. it provided a set of tools to programmers and artists to make things happen on a computer, and they used them to make games. while games can now be more grandiose and made with greater ease, that doesn’t necessarily make them more valuable when detached from the priorities of product culture–THAT is the crux of this.

so if games require less technical skill today, with the merits of 8-bit design no less potent, then why not learn something from them? rather than letting the pedantry of hardware specifications distract us, we can instead look at the creative philosophies those structures produced to inform us.

8-bit games were, first and foremost, singular. rather than trying to have a little something for everyone, they did one thing really great, and the promise of that was how people were drawn to them. already this is incredibly compatible with individuals and small teams making games, who cannot hope to produce as much quantity as AAA productions, which are themselves are often mediocre anyway–Consider the dichotomy between a supermarket to a local bakery. It’s wasteful to dilute your energy like that. Yet, it’s easy to go down a problematic path by interpreting singularity too literally, in the sense that games must be about a single action or system. Rather, it can be reinterpreted more abstractly in a way that makes more sense to us now, since programming a plurality of systems is much more accessible today. What in the 8-bit era may have been “a game about skiing” can today be “a game about exploring the house you grew up in.” The lynchpin here is that contemporary culture demands grandiosity, while past eras prove to us that novelty remains in smallness.

Retro games were simple in other senses too. The visuals, audio, and mechanisms were all constructed to express their idea as effectively as possible for the labor they put out. This lent to the quality of 8-bit games often feeling more like impressionist paintings that carry off our imaginations in ways much akin to good literature. In the hyper-detailed sensory overload pursuits of AAA game design, there is no room for your imagination. Your are spoon-fed what to feel and think at every moment with no room to wander, as any room to wander might produce an emotion not in the interests of the publisher. This is why the obsession towards ‘polish’ in indie comes off so regressive to me, it is an apology for games not prioritizing characterless sensationalism.

In much the same way, games of the 8-bit era were important for never telling you how to play them. this is not to service celebrating “difficulty”, but rather for the ways that facilitated stimulating, self-actualizing experiences. One of the greatest forms of play in life is learning, growing, experimenting and adapting, and games early on recognized they could create spaces to facilitate this. Contemporary games misunderstand this human process by conflating learning as the reductive and draconian processes of elementary education, and they do it, of course, because much like the education system there can be no deviation from you doing and thinking exactly as they want you to do. And there is no reason to restrict ourselves to this hyper-conservative, draconian way of conceptualizing games, and the world! Learning is a continuous process we engage in throughout our whole lives, and thus our whole time playing a videogame–Not an inconvenience that must be endured so it may be out of the way. Consider Dark Souls, an excellent example of reinterpreting 8-bit era philosophies into a contemporary context, which never posits a correct or wrong way to play it. It puts forth an unfamiliar structure, and you adapt and grow into it as you move along. You are constantly learning, re-evaluating your conceptions and expanding your perspective. In this form learning is liberating and self-actualizing, a fundamental component of how we experience the world, and harnessing games as fictions to learn and grow inside of is perhaps one of the most virtuous uses of the medium one could conceive of.

So… With all of this, with all I still feel I have only scratched the surface, why do we reject the lessons our past offers us for the dull enslaving megalith of AAA games? The hopeful answer is that we don’t, that we are always fighting it, but often just barely under-equipped. There’s so much beauty to be had in videogames, and it’s constantly expanding. I see so much hope in games like Firewatch, the Souls series, Strawberry Cubes, and so many more. And alongside that, I see how necessary it is for us to be rhetorically equipped to pave ahead a more beautiful future for videogames.


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