Some of my deepest memories are from low-res games. I remember playing SkiFree and feeling my heart race when the yeti would come into my peripheral vision, the inevitable dread of knowing no matter what I did, he would eat me (I didn’t know about the F key yet). A couple years ago, I saw a SkiFree yeti cosplay at Magfest and felt a moment of deep panic. I remember playing Legend of Zelda Oracle of the Ages and Oracle of the Seasons and having longing for what was on the other side of a wall or body of water. I remember my cousin getting a used copy of Pokemon Blue that had Missingno on it, and having a sense of wonder at the seemingly inexplicable bugs it created, like a Rhydon that knew two water gun moves and a sky attack, or the unlimited money and rare candies he suddenly had in his inventory. There wasn’t as strong of an internet presence then, so the only source of information about games I had was on the blacktop at recess, exchanging theories with my peers about how to find Mew or Mewtwo, or where Missingno came from.
Because of these deep-rooted feelings associated with low-res games, I’ve found that new games delivering the “retro aesthetic” have emotionally moved me in surprising ways. There are lots of reasons these games have moved me, the most obvious being their good design and writing, but I want to focus on how these games utilize the retro aesthetic and harness our memories of this aesthetic to make us as players even more emotionally invested and engaged.
Retro aesthetics can remind us of being kids. This might be because we associate the properties with the games we played as kids. It can also be because the lack of details can create an unsettling sense of uncertainty. This uncertainty can make us feel powerless and small, like children. It can make us open up our imagination in a way that is childlike.
This pull back to childhood can be used very powerfully, especially in horror games. For example, Five Nights at Freddy’s carefully use Atari-esque graphics for interspersed “mini-games” that inform the player about lore not provided by the gam’s typical gameplay. I find these mini games particularly compelling because of the Atari graphics. Since the lore is obtuse and not explicitly told to us, there is an act of searching and deciphering. The graphics reinforce this with their limited details, and troublingly dark imagery. The absence of details in explanation and graphical portrayal haunt the player even after they finish the game--what does it all mean? It allows the player to be an even more active participant in the story, mentally coming to their own conclusions and filling in the gaps with their own experiences and knowledge. The FNAF theory communities testify to the incredible fan engagement this series had with its players. The way these games implement the retro aesthetic, supplemented with the worldbuilding and lore in the rest of the franchise, allows for a whole new level of mental gameplay.
Games like Lone Survivor also use this absence of detail to make us imagine the monsters chasing us and what they really look like, instead of spelling it out in hyper-realistic graphics. There has been some pushback from hyper-realistic graphics in the indie community, and part of this is perhaps because of the role imagination can take, allowing us to participate even more when we only see pieces of what is happening. This room for imagination allows for unreliable narration: not only narratively but visually, making us question what we’re actually seeing.
Abstraction can also be used to create emotional distance. Beat Cop for example has a gritty subject matter--violence, prostitution, crime--the grime perspective of a beat cop from the 80s. Not only does the pixel art reinforce our sense of place in time, but it also helps the content be more digestible. If this game had been in Call of Duty hyperrealism, the constant barrage of reality might distract the player from the mechanics, or become too difficult to swallow. It also might fight against the game’s theme of becoming desensitized to the constant crime and brokenness a beat cop has to face. The abstraction allows for distance. It allows us as players to focus on what’s happening more than what we’re visually seeing. In the case of Beat Cop, that means we’re able to think about the role of a beat cop abstractly without being distracted by visual graphics and gore.
Games like Undertale use 8-bit graphics to give it a “timeless” quality, recreating the magic of old games and reinforcing the surprising mechanics and subverted tropes. Playing Undertale makes me feel like a kid again, and this is largely because of the surprise it invokes in me as the player, playing it. As a kid, games were this sort of magical, incomprehensible thing. I was still learning the rules in which games operated, as well as the tropes of player learning within games, and always found myself in awe of what I played and saw. Undertale invoked this same magical feeling. Every trope or expectation I had entering the game was turned on its head. It left me questioning my expectations, and never knowing what I’d see next. Every time I thought I understood the mechanics for a battle, they changed. Even the 8-bit graphics suddenly shift for one of the fights, preventing us as players to take anything for granted, losing our visual footing.
The retro aesthetic allows for a range of creative purposes for a game developer. The ones I’ve explored here are just the tip of the iceberg. They can use nostalgia to make us feel the highs we felt, playing our favorite games in the past (like Shovel Knight) or to make us feel uncertain and fearful (like Lone Survivor). Games like Owl Boy use the retro aesthetic as an art form. Others use it to make us focus on the meat of the story, and fill in the emotional gaps and expressions ourselves (like Papers Please). As time progresses and our definition of what constitutes “retro” changes, developers will have even more tools in their toolbox to play with. But even so, the 8-bit look we currently consider “retro” doesn’t seem like it’ll be going away anytime soon.
Meg Eden teaches creative writing at Anne Arundel Community College. She has five poetry chapbooks, and her novel "Post-High School Reality Quest" is about a girl whose life is narrated as a text adventure game. Find her online at www.megedenbooks.com or on Twitter at @ConfusedNarwhal.