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  • Retro Games As A Revivalist Movement

    [08.02.18]
    - John Nelson Rose

  • Perspective takes time. Art is constantly evolving. How can we distinguish the good design from bad without the benefit of hindsight? One great benefit of revival movements is that they reveal what we find important. By returning to past work, artists acknowledge its quality and therefore improve the state of art going forward. Retro games are, among other things, an acknowledgement that particular approaches make good designs. They remind us that successful ideas can make us feel and experience great moments.

    Revivals also maintain continuity. As time creates distance between games old and new, developers and players want to feel a part of a tradition. They find that connection by revisiting and evolving past games. Just as architects praised a return to "pure" building methods and the public lauded the resurgence of "true" style, games too feel this pull to be part of a long heritage. This constant search for meaning is inherent to all art forms.


    Classic: Robotron and The Legend of Zelda

    Nostalgia is real. Both styles, especially Gothic Revival, were notable for a collective longing for times gone by. Nostalgia is a word often applied to retro games, and it's a hallmark of revival movements.

    However, it's important to note that Revivalists were not nostalgic for childhoods of gothic architecture - those centuries were already long dead. Their nostalgia was generalized to a romanticized idea of the past. Retro game nostalgia is often confused for a literal return to our younger days, but aiming for that particular feeling is unpredictable for each player. It's also more unrealistic with every passing year, as fewer gamers experience the original games growing up. So while nostalgia is important, it needs to guide us at a high level instead of letting us replicate individual titles or our own unique experience. We should always aim to revive the essence of what made them great at that time.

    Revival is both form and function. The retro game revival is multifaceted, including many aspects of older games. I believe the above architectural movements reveal this in a way we can appreciate. While one illustrates the resurgence of how things work, the other is more about how they feel.

    Neoclassicism was logical and functional. Classical buildings were based on columns and simple walls, which created places of simple elegance and beautiful proportions. In reviving this style, architects were returning to rational and approachable structures that were easily understood by the viewer. Retro game design follows this principle with an emphasis on simplicity: straightforward mechanics, intuitive gameplay, and short sessions are common features of this revival. Buildings and games need to satisfy functional requirements, and this return to basics is cyclical to both.

    The Gothic Revival was driven more by aesthetic reasons. Because the Romantics were entranced by fantasy and drama of the middle ages, this revival was more emotional. The movement's towers, battlements, and stained glass all served this desire. Likewise, retro games are usually dripping with style, and you can see the parallels in their presentation. Today's technology has breathed new life into pixel art, traditional flip book animation, low-poly 3D modeling, and more. Chip tunes and retro sound design are bigger than ever. These "artistic" developments make sure that retro games feel genuine, and keep the movement satisfying as a whole.

    Going Forward

    Neoclassicism and Gothic Revival declined toward the beginning of the 20th century. Newer movements like Modernism became more relevant as the Machine Age took over. But even Modernism died down with time. Games have had many many such sub-movements, often defined by hardware. The early era of the challenging arcade game like (Pac-Man, Donkey Kong), the much-loved LucasArts PC adventure game (The Secret of Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle), and the low-poly 3D action game (GoldenEye, Metal Gear Solid 2) all evoke a particular set of feelings. We game developers should try to understand our current work in the context of movements, as all artists must.


    Retro: Geometry Wars and Hotline Miami

    Over time our revived works tend to merge with their originals. Consider Paris' Notre Dame cathedral and London's much later Houses of Parliament. Many people would consider them simply gothic, despite their major stylistic departures. And that's okay - they elicit similar feelings, and they succeed as gothic structures in general. Retro games are already doing this, blurring the line between what was old and what is new. I think this is a final victory for any revival movement, as it proves our understanding of underlying quality for any art. The classic format of today's Killer Queen is still amazing in an arcade environment. The portable perfection of Tetris on Gameboy is still alive and kicking on mobile. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and revival movements like this give credit to the supreme achievements that came before.

    So let's drive onward. Federalist and Carpenter Gothic architecture evolved as further changes to Neoclassicism and Gothic Revival. Let's follow this example, using history for inspiration, but always changing. Who knows when we'll see the game development version of Modernism, and how it will take us to the next level. Until then, the past is a great key to the future.

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