Mark Ferrari is widely admired for his pixel art, which appeared in the classic computer games Loom and The Secret of Monkey Island. He’s also created a popular series of color-cycling landscapes, and is working on the new Kickstarted adventure game Thimbleweed Park. But though pixel art has earned him many fans, he’s not optimistic that the form will remain popular with audiences.
“The popular market for pixel art will last as long as the generation who played those [old] games is still running the world,” Ferrari says in Episode 162 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “That is probably passing now. It’s probably good for another five or 10 years.”
Blake Reynolds agrees. He used pixel art for his game Auro: A Monster Bumping Adventure, and the level of confusion he encountered from younger gamers convinced him that pixel art is no longer commercially viable.
“It’s the same as poetry’s function in our society today, or jazz music’s function in our society, or opera,” he says. “It’s like an iron lung. You need eccentric benefactors to pump money into it to keep it alive.”
Michael B. Myers Jr. creates pixel art inspired by Sword & Sworcery, and was recently hired by Penguin Random House to illustrate book covers using 8-bit pixel art. He thinks pixel art may survive because of artists who choose to work in the form.
“It’s a way people work to express something,” he says. “Look at stippling and things like that, that are more tedious. I could see it living on as something that people like to work in.”
Ferrari notes that the dwindling market for pixel art may free artists to take the form to a whole new level, creating works that wouldn’t be possible in the commercial context.
“If great pixel artists are going to emerge, and do something with pixels that matters permanently for artistic reasons, now will be the time it’s likely to happen,” he says.
Reynolds thinks that process is already well underway.
“Having that time to reflect and think deeper about pixel art is already producing stuff that we didn’t see even in the golden days, even in the Metal Slug days,” he says. “There’s stuff happening now on Pixeljoint that’s like, I can’t even believe it.”
Listen to our complete interview with Mark Ferrari, Blake Reynolds, and Michael B. Myers Jr. in Episode 162 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
Mark Ferrari on EGA colors:
“Of course I wanted to work for Lucasfilm, but I felt that I needed to tell them that I was a dyed-in-the-wool technophobe who had never touched a computer, and I wasn’t sure I was the right guy for them. And the response was that they preferred to find artists and teach them to use computers to finding computer technicians and teaching them to be artists. … I was hired to work on the EGA version of Zack McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders. EGA, in case anyone doesn’t know, refers to a 16-color universal palette, which used to be the only colors that any game artist had to make artwork for any game. … Those colors were designed by programmers. In fact, they were the perfect example of why Gary preferred to hire artists, not technicians. They had simply moved the RGB numbers at even intervals to come up with two numerically rounded reds, yellows, greens, blues, whites, and greys, and they were acid, horrible, unusable colors, and they were all we had.”
Blake Reynolds on renouncing pixel art:
“It’s becoming less and less of a common language. There’s the retro gamer crowd, who understands, who’s in on what pixel art is, so the minute they see it they’ll just be like, ‘Oh, that’s like my old games from my childhood. I get it.’ But that’s actually a relatively small number. There are so, so, so many people who are young—they’re teenagers—and the earliest game they can remember is from like Playstation 2 or something. And so when they see pixel art, and they’re not plugged into the retro gaming movement, they’re confused, because they don’t speak the language. And so my thesis was, I think it’s the responsibility of the artist not to require their audience to acquire special knowledge to understand their work. … Write a really challenging Great American Novel that confronts the zeitgeist and all that stuff, just don’t write it in Ancient Greek.”
Mark Ferrari on adventure games vs. first-person shooters:
“The games that we made at Lucasfilm back in the late ’80s were about storytelling, and they were about character arc, and they were about interesting interactions between quirky characters. They were about puzzle solving, and humor, and exploration, and sometimes even a sense of wonder. That kind of game, what the game was about, what parts of your brain were involved in playing it, all that changed as that era’s adventure games were replaced by first-person shooters. … Games went from being about storytelling and character and humor and puzzle solving and exploration to being about running down a long hallway kicking, punching, shooting, and blowing up anything you encounter. I think that the way that games engaged people back in the late ’80s turned [instead] into a dopamine loop, with people who got into kind of a motor reflex thing, and they became an addictive twitch. And it has always astonished me how long that addictive twitch engaged a giant audience of people.”
Blake Reynolds on pixel art in Auro:
“A lot of strategy games have very dry theming, and a lot of the time the art is—to be frank—kind of ugly. A lot of those military war games and strategy games, there’s so many sub-menus and damage types and armor types, and it’s all very green and brown and dry, and the units are tiny—they look like ants. … And so what I wanted to do was bridge the gap. I wanted to get that Japanese, really polished look, and combine it with really solid core gameplay. One of the stumbling blocks of our development is that it kind of backfired. Strategy gamers see it and they think it’s like a kiddie game or something, because it looks like Zelda, and then console gamers and action RPG gamers who play it are like, ‘Wait a minute. Where’s the XP? Where’s the items? Where’s the leveling up? Where’s the stuff that I’m used to?’ So in a way it kind of backfired. But that was my goal.”