Start Press: Not Just Another Pretty Pixel

Games Features

Before leaving San Francisco after the conclusion of the Game Developers Conference, I carved out some time to visit Dog Eared Books. It’s one of those exceedingly rare bookstores where the clerks are so genial and eager to help, you’re almost disappointed when you realize there’s no tip jar by the register. Some men dream about Megan Fox; I fantasize about being rich enough to walk around Dog Eared with a grocery cart, filling it to the top with any titles that seem remotely interesting. Considering how heavy books are, it’s astounding how helium-balloon light they make you feel as you turn them over in your hands, consider their covers, relish their opening sentences and attempt to decode the author’s expression on the back-inner sleeve.

After countless lingering laps around the store, I eventually snapped up a signed first-edition copy of Michael Chabon’s newest book, Manhood For Amateurs—a collection of personal essays on “the pleasures and regrets of a husband, father and son.” In his essay “To The Legoland Station,” Chabon charts the evolution of Lego blocks from more generalized, utilitarian shapes to the highly—sometimes awkwardly—tailored blocks required to build contemporary models such as the Star Wars TIE fighter. He also ponders the increasingly detailed minifigs (a.k.a Lego people) that come with each set. He explains why, in his estimation, this march toward enhanced realism undermines Lego’s usefulness as a truly creative play context:

“Like all realisms, Lego realism was doomed. In part, this was an inevitable result of the quirks and limitations inherent in the Lego System, with the distortions that its various techniques of interlocking create. The addition of painted faces and elaborately modeled headgear, weapons, and accoutrements ultimately did little to diminish the fundamental silliness of the minifigs; as with CGI animation, the technology falls down at the human form. In depicting people, it makes compromises that weaken the intended realism of the whole. But the technical limitations are only part of the greater failure of realism—defined as accuracy, precision, faithfulness to experience—to live up to the disorder, the unlikeliness, and the recombinant impulse of imagined experience.”

It’s easy to consider this argument in the context of the videogames we play. Walking the showfloor at GDC, I can’t tell you how many booths I encountered for software developers intent on modeling every pore and follicle and crease and skin texture of the human face. The concept of the Uncanny Valley has been discussed to death in blogs, but I’d like to consider a slightly different potential impact of the quest for absolute photorealism, beyond simply giving us the willies. The more realistic-looking games become, the less they require us to enlist our imagination in filling out the details.

Many of the pixelated titles I played at GDC’s Indie Games Festival pavilion whipped up my emotional curiosity in the same way impressionistic paintings do. The pixely mermaid figure in Daniel Benmergui’s Today I Die invited me to project my own Venusian ideal onto her inchoate form. Anybody who’s looked through Claude Monet’s eyes across the River Thames toward the silhouetted Houses of Parliament knows not just what he saw that evening at dusk, but, more importantly, how he felt in that moment. Turning their technical limitations into a strength, many indie developers suggest form and environment without tracing its every countour. There’s a confounding magnitude of expression that can be achieved when you visually describe how something feels as opposed to how it actually appears.

I have this weird neurosis when work travel peels me away from my wife Summer for several days. I felt it last week in San Francisco during my time at GDC—this unnerving sensation that I’m, little by little, forgetting precisely what she looks like. The vision in my head grows increasingly fluid and impressionistic the longer I’m away. I still have the general form but the details are milky and indistinct, as though I’ve removed my glasses and can’t quite make out a person’s face in the middle distance. Gradually I start to see Summer in terms of how she makes me feel. I feel the weightlessness that her grin evokes. I feel the warmth of her face. I feel the dark outline of her glasses and the way they frame in her hazel-green eyes like circular picture frames. She crumbles to pixels, in other words, and my heart eagerly scoops up the pieces and snaps them together like brightly-colored Lego blocks.

Jason Killingsworth is Paste’s games editor. He is based in Dublin, Ireland, and writes about music, film, tech and games for a variety of outlets. You can reach him online at jason [at]

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