Deformed polygons, wiggly texture maps! Blurry mipmapping, chunky geometry! Why yes, it’s RETRO 90s GRAPHICS.
How come we find these crunchy, glitchy outdated artistic modes so endearing? I’m no ontologist, and as much as I would love to write out a treatise on hauntology to explain this fascination, instead we’ll focus on how we got stuck in this creative mobius strip and how to get out of it.
In game production back in the ever-present 1990s, we often found ourselves confined rather than empowered by the rapid pace of technological change.
Imagine you’re making a mobile game under the constraints of hardware made 5 years ago: you’d find yourself clenching your fists in frustration today with our ever expanding pool of RAM and heightened resolutions that by prior standards seemed excessive. This is exactly what developers had to contend with in the past, so we can rule out rapid technological progress interfering with artistic intent as the primary catalyst of this milieu of repetition in our modern era.
If anything we are in fact in the midst of a rare plateauing of capacity, thanks to glacial-pace hardware cycles and a terrifying misapplication of resource-hungry middleware. Our phones and PCs increase in power but improvements feel more ephemeral than substantial, SSDs went from a surplus of performance to a soon-to-be requirement. The silver lining to this optimization crunch is that hardware upgrades become spartan, replacing the rapid-fire once-every-three-months momentum of the 90s. In contrast, console hardware seems like it’s wrapped up in a rally race, rapid fire refactoring of performance once every few months.
As a design trend Retro 3D has found its way to audiences as a perceived unified artistic styling when in reality it’s a focal misinterpretation of many artistic styles born of platform limitations and behind-the-scenes production methodology that cross-pollinated visuals across the board.
The warping, bending qualities of Playstation graphics were a result of an inability to accurately estimate floating-point values, forcing graphics to distort and snap to an invisible grid that constrained geometry to the primitive rendering engine. Muddy textures forced many early PC shooters down a path of grimy sewers and abstract gieger-esque sci-fi grunge which happened to line up with the cultural and inspirational zeitgeist. Endless nostalgia re-iteration is hardly a modern problem, we’re simply unfamiliar with the core source material that was popular among previous eras.
The atemporality of modern retro visual imitations flings us down the corridor of a strange visual language, a cargo cult of misunderstanding the technological and cultural trends that informed context for those techniques. With our ever accessible production pipelines and wealth of computing power, we find ourselves needlessly repeating mistakes of the past instead of alchemically transforming those weaknesses into strengths. Technical oddities like floating point rounding errors can now be wielded like a paint brush to create experiences dripping with mysterious atmosphere and otherworldly qualities. Games like Silent Hill found themselves resplendent with trademark visuals such as render-fog which enriched the atmosphere, however these visuals were largely an accident, a serendipitous cascade of limitations that brought forth unique and interesting work-arounds.
Instead of only trying to recreate the limitations of our artistic forebears, we should expand our visual quiver and reach heights even they couldn’t dream of. With high production values comes a strangling of the auteur’s vision held up by small teams and quick iterations, a valuable flexibility far easier for micro-indies to utilize than the gigantic undertakings of manpower available only to gargantuan companies.
With many indies unburdened by such logistical restrictions, we’re free to create imaginative interactivity that can assume risk in design with relative ease, and not find itself cordoned off by a lack of memory or a need to rapidly launch to the market to keep a studio afloat. Thief 3: Deadly Shadows found itself hamstrung by the low hardware ceiling of the original Xbox causing the expansive game worlds in Thief 2 to be truncated into smaller levels. This, in turn, left PC players alienated from what they had become accustomed to, snowballing into a cold reception that no doubt contributed to the downfall of Ion Storm.
Now, a game on the same graphical level as numerous cult-classics like Deadly Shadows could be created with relative impunity, and gracefully sidestep the failures in execution that it faced. However, with this comes a new threat: with no natural production factors to predate on our listless urge to create, many developers often fail to recognize their own artistic boundaries. It’s important that we study the visual language of past attempts to artificially restrict ourselves to pleasing palettes of design, and render games that feel holistically authentic to the retro vibe.
As long as we keep hoping shallow graphical imitations will imbue our endeavors with meaning, we will find ourselves lost in the ever-twisting maze of hauntology, succumbing like our predecessors to the ghosts of yesteryear’s unrealized ambitions.
Emily Rose is an indie developer who writes for rebind.io and resides in the pacific northwest. She’s often seen in the local VR arcade and developer community participating in pushing the medium’s horizons. You can find her on twitter @caravanmalice