The abstract artist: retro styling and narrative

I’ve covered a lot of games recently that have used retro RPG graphics to tell entirely different kinds of stories. And, thanks to Rock, Paper, Shotgun’s coverage of Wither, they found this really interesting quote from the game’s developer about why that style was used:

The graphics are used to represent the protagonist’s detachment from the world, with the morbid themes being a representation of his own guilt. He can’t connect with the world because his issues are preventing him from it, so he sees the world distilled to one line NPC’s and Gameboy graphics.

Video games for decades were a march of time towards photorealism. Now that we’re here, we’ve got to ask ourselves what photorealism has to offer us over other forms.

As someone with slight color blindness, I’ve often wondered whether I experience the world the same way everyone else does. I don’t, of course. I’m aware of the colors I don’t see, the ones my brain fills in with different ones, and I realize I don’t see the world the same way that a person sitting to my left might. In a room of fifty people, we would all experience the world a slightly different way, even though it is the same place.

So who’s to say video game characters see the world in photorealism? Who’s to say they don’t see things in a more original way?

The first title that ever got me thinking about this was No More Heroes. Fellow reviewthinker Fern summed it up beautifully in his original review of the game : the game world is created by the character’s gaze. Things Travis loved were made more awesome, things he had no feelings about were left by the wayside. His gaze created the world we saw. It wasn’t about photorealism. Photorealism wasn’t the goal. The goal was to have the visuals tell their own story parallel to the story being told by the narrative.

Wither does this too. The game’s world is an establishment of character. The character sees the world as on the original Gameboy, so we are immediately told two things about him: one, he is (or was) a gamer, and two, he has retreated into the past because of his experiences. We directly experience his trauma from the visuals, and this provides us with an immediate, visceral understanding of his experience.

That’s important. That’s a thing that only video games can do. Movies, the other big visual medium, are necessarily set in reality. We are strictly viewers, unable to physically interact with the world, and thus our only interaction is observation. The world is what we are shown: we must (as filmgoers) assume this. Games, on the other hand, lend to no such assumption, and it’s incredible to me that more games haven’t taken advantage of this. We might not be experiencing the narrative through a first person viewpoint, but we come close. We’re in the shit with the character. What we see is what they see, and who’s to say they don’t see reality very differently from the average person?

There’s another way graphics can work, though, in a third person narrative: they can appeal to emotions. To the Moon is so successful because of its nostalgic feeling, and this feeling is 100% achieved through its graphics. The world is not what the player characters are seeing, but rather a tool to influence the opinions and ideas of the player. It’s a game that reminds us of games we played in our childhood, and it puts us into a proper mindset to really interact with and appreciate the spaces the characters are going to see. Were it photorealistic it would entirely be on the author to create a nostalgic feeling, but as it is the graphics carry that burden, the sound makes everything feel a little ominous and sentimental, and the narrative itself is allowed to chug forth free of burdens.

I see discussions about how the indie game culture is too aesthetically obsessed, but it’s not aesthetics we’re in love with: it’s the efficiency of gaming narratives. Even in retro games, the ones that have held up best are the ones which have their own individual aesthetics instead of the ones boldly proclaiming, “This is the best we can do!” It’s not all about graphics or gameplay but rather about graphics serving the interests of gameplay, of graphics putting us in a world where the story being told, the game being played is feasible and most appealing.