Saturday, July 18, 2009

On pixels

Warning: this post contains no deep insight. (It does provide my recommended weekly allowance of grump. If you like, you can read half a letter per minute, to stretch it out for a week. I wouldn't want anybody overdosing.)

There's a movement on the move in the game world, and it is pixels. I'm talking about Today I Die, I'm talking Don't Look Back, I'm talking The Majesty of Colors and I Wish I Were the Moon. The theme of these games is, if you can see pixels the size of postage stamps, it's art.

I have no problem with the games. I liked Today I Die a lot. (Don't Look Back turned into too much of a pain in the ass.) I just don't get the pixels. They're ugly, and they've been done. Yes, I had an Apple 2. Screens are better now.

I've heard it suggested that the pixels are a counterreaction to Flash -- especially in Flash games. Flash makes vectors easy. You know what? That's good. I like vectors. They're pretty, and they'll still be pretty in ten years when monitor resolution comes out of faucets. Go play Windosill for a while, for polygons' sake. Go play Gray; it's stylized art, it's got pixels; but it uses them as elements of a language, not a pretense that it's 1990.

There's a whole conversation to be had about the artistic value of retro. Go have it somewhere else. I'm changing the subject, and contradicting myself, because I've found something I hate worse than pixels: fake smoothing of pixels.

I just played through Loom -- speaking of 1990. It's just been re-released on Steam. Here, go play it now. It's four bucks, and it's a short game.

Loom at 320x240 Now, Loom was released on several platforms, with slightly different artwork to match their graphics hardware. Some were better than others -- fine. I played the Mac version, and I remember it as pretty. The re-release uses the nicest graphics available, unsurprisingly. But they can all be described, roughly, as a base set of 320x240 artwork -- maybe squashed down to a fixed color palette -- and then pixel-doubled. Here you see an example. Notice that it's gorgeous.

Here's that scene as it appeared in 1992:

Loom at 640x480

And here's how it appears, by default, today:

Loom at 640x480, smoothed

(These images are cut off on the right side to fit the Gameshelf's layout. Click for a complete image at the same resolution.)

Same thing? Except that something horrible has happened to the font -- look at those letters. And the lines around them. And the branch above them -- it's gone all... runny.

It's a pixel-smoothing algorithm, of course -- not a very bright one. Take a look at the bush in the lower left. Or the trees in the background. A delicate dithering has turned into a blotchy, gummy mass. It looks like it's been chewed.

(In the Steam version, you can hit Alt-S to switch the smoothing algorithm on and off. That's how I got these screenshots.)

In point of fact, this "smoothing" job has made the art look less smooth. The original artwork plays off the meaningful, low-frequency attributes of the scenery against the high-frequency noise of the pixel grid. Your eye actually sees through the pixels to the shading underneath -- a shading job that the hardware of the time could not convey. You see more resolution than exists.

I'm serious here: that's what dithering is. Look at the figure's grey robe (in the full-size version -- he's over on the right). It's made of pixels, in no more than eight discrete colors. But it looks smoothly blended. Whereas on the "smoothed" side, the same eight colors are flat puddles of pigment. The illusion is gone.

That's all I've got. Pixels: bad. Pixels: good. If you want a moral, go with beauty.

Comments imported from Gameshelf

Jason McIntosh (Dec 13, 2009 at 11:17 AM):

I just picked up Loom for Steam, barfed at the blobby graphics, and remembered this post. Delighted to find that, yes, you included an invocation to make the pixels come back!

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