Posted by: bracehare | August 26, 2011

The retro aesthetic in modern games

As games have progressed from their earliest iterations, graphics have substantially changed.  This has largely occurred in tandem with the march of technological progress.  The distinctive style of early 8-bit and 16-bit games was originally a consequence not of any deliberate artistic choice, but of the hardware limitations faced by developers.  It is therefore quite interesting to see this style, or other similar retro-throwbacks, adopted as a conscious decision.  This often gives retro aesthetics a significance they did not originally possess.  While it is true that early game designers, like all game designers, made conscious aesthetic decisions for their games, it is worth noting that the use of a retro aesthetic in a modern game rarely serves as a throwback to a specific game.  Instead, it is overwhelmingly a reference to a generation of games or a genre of games in the abstract.  It reifies what was formally a collection of discrete styles into a singular conceptual mass.

There are a variety of reasons for the adoption of a retro aesthetic in modern games.  A few noteworthy ones include the desire to evoke nostalgia, the selective use of the aesthetic to make a statement or create an association in the players mind (similar to a switch to Sepia in film, perhaps), or even the desire to make the player conscious of the progression which games have made over time.  Another, less deliberate use pertains to independent developers, who have constraints which make game creation in two dimensions into their only practical option.  Cave Story might be a good example of this last category; however, it could just as easily stand as an example of the first, of the desire to evoke nostalgia, and Daisuke Amaya has indicated as much in past statements.  An example which meets the first and third categories simultaneously is the juxtaposition of gameplay from the original Metal Gear Solid in the middle of Metal Gear Solid 4.  The nostalgia evoked by this technique, in conjunction with that evoked by the section of the game in which it occurs,  is often cited as a reason why Act 4 resonates strongly with players.  However, by contrasting the graphics of the original Metal Gear Solid with those of Metal Gear Solid 4, the game is also able to make a point about the protagonist’s (Solid Snake’s) old and battle weary nature; a point which ties into one of the larger themes of the game.  This makes it a clear example of the third function of retro gaming aesthetic, as well as something of a meta-statement.  It is understood that it is not just Snake who is old, but the series; and the player has aged alongside both.

Finally, a very noteworthy example of the second function of the retro aesthetic can be found in the game No More Heroes.  The protagonist of this game is possessed of a very puerile masculinity, which manifests itself with no degree of subtlety throughout the course of the game.  He is narcissistic, short-sighted, and irresponsible, and his hobbies and interests (wrestling and anime, to give two examples) are of the sort which are looked down upon by general society.  In short, the protagonist (Travis Touchdown) is the quintessential example described by that ever-so-brilliant neologism; he is a manchild.  The heavy use of a retro aesthetic by No More Heroes is, in this context, a statement on the immature outlook of the protagonist.

All of these represent significant uses of the retro aesthetic, and most of them involve its use as a tool which adds additional meaning to the game, or which encourages the gamer to interact with the game in a novel and significant fashion.  Therefore, the use of the retro aesthetic is an interesting case study in how games are learning how to effect tone through framing decisions, and how these decisions contribute to the ability of games as a medium to impart information.

– Jessica Evans



  1. Whoa sweet you actually did this! Great job {ZTC}.

    [Editor’s note: I don’t actually like the ZTC part of my nickname, and also I am going to respond to people inside of brackets inside of their posts instead of posting response posts because it is funny]

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