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An Excellent History of Graphics in Videogames

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Pixel Pioneers: A Brief History of Graphics is a 5-part documentary by Stuart Brown about the evolution of graphics in videogames. The playlist below will let you watch the entire thing:

Something that stood out to me is how the development of game graphics roughly parallels the development of animation earlier in the 20th century, from black-and-white to color, and then rotoscoping, multiplane (in games, it’s called a parallax effect), and then, increasing complexity of characters and realistic effects.

Games, however, also boast their own unique graphic language that extends beyond traditional cinema. Whereas in its early development, gaming borrowed a lot from cinema, the roles have reversed now.

Today the visual approaches that were pioneered in games have been adopted by films, from the consciously lo-fi CG aesthetic of many recent animated shorts to the visual chaos of effects-driven live-action blockbusters. Pixel Pioneers provides an excellent overview of visual style development in games, and serves as an inspiring sourcebook for any designer, especially those who may not work in games.

[via Kottke]

  • Googamp32

    [Comment removed by editors. Per our commenting guidelines, “Stay on-topic. Comments are not a place to discuss ideas not directly related to the post.”]

  • GW

    I saw this through a link from one of the articles on The Animation Anomaly’s animation news roundup. Very interesting. I have been interested for a while in how 2D games attempted to look like 3D games before actual 3D games became feasible with good graphics. Maybe they could make another series of videos on the gameplay aspect of video games.

  • Paul M

    I remember watching this historical evolution happening as a kid. When ‘Popeye’ came out in ’82 it blew everyone away with how cartoon-like the graphics had become, my mind was awakened to the possibilities of game animation at that moment. It’s fun to reminisce about the glory days of arcade yore, but makes me feel like a geezer. Damn it, I’m not even into my fifties yet!

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W5Z6PuH4kLQ

    • Don’t feel bad, I remember those days too and I’m almost 40.

  • Chris

    A lot of early video games were produced in Japan and sort of helped to introduce the anime/manga style to Western audiences-mostly via the cutscenes-and later more colorful and powerful 16-bit systems featured anime-style sprites. The original Ninja Gaiden series for the NES is an interesting example of this. Although the packaging of the games often was more westernized-The Mega Man series for instance was *very” manga-style, but you couldn’t tell it by looking at the game box for at least the first two games.

    • Too often you had to look beyond the cardboard boxes these games came in to see their inner-beauty through design and aesthetic. Often the way games were presented back then always had mixed results based on presentation/promotion.

  • BurntToShreds

    I strongly suggest looking at the games that were created through funding on Kickstarter. Many of them fall into older forgotten genres or use said genres as inspiration. There is the resurrection of tactical RPGs such as Shadowrun and Wasteland. Broken Age is supposedly a satisfying take on point and click adventure games. Shovel Knight is an utterly amazing platformer. Hyperlight Drifter is an adventure game that looks to be in the same vein as A Link To The Past, albeit at a faster pace and with a sci-fi setting.

    There are game developers making well-written games with compelling gameplay whose concepts bridge the old and the new. The Witcher series, for example, is excellent in this regard. The Souls series of games takes the difficulty of older titles to the modern day and it uses an effective minimalistic approach to storytelling. It’s plenty wordy, though; fragments of lore and story are discovered through descriptions of items and objects you find in the world.

    • Ryoku240

      “Many of them fall into older forgotten genres or use said genres as inspiration.”

      Thats the issue I have with retro games, for $15 I can play a modern forgery of a classic, or drop $15 (or less) for the genuine article and an actual game in my hands.

      I’ve looked into a few games like Fez, and Shovel Knight but Cave Storys the only one that held my interest.

      What I like about older games is that if or when I get bored I can give them away to friends, or sell them. You can’t do that with newer titles.

      ” It’s plenty wordy, though; fragments of lore and story are discovered through descriptions of items and objects you find in the world.”

      Almost every game does that these days, the best one I ever played with anything like that was the original Deus Ex and that games quite old.

  • Honest_Miss

    The difference is that video games have moved almost exclusively *away* from children. The overwhelming majority of games are targeted toward teens, 20-somethings, and older.

    That being said, I think we’re bound to see a real change in the future. There are *a lot* of beloved animated television shows among that same crowd (teens/20s). Cartoon Network and Adult Swim have been a HUGE factor in that, I think. It’s helped to reintroduce people to animation as a new medium. Think of the fanatic following behind shows like Archer, Futurama, or even Adventure Time. Adult followings that appreciate the adult storylines.

    • Sometimes moving away from one audience to another doesn’t always equal good product I noticed (at least in the years I had been into games myself, these days I just can’t take it).

  • gutty

    tldr: games are cooler than cartoons