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  • Retro Games As A Revivalist Movement

    - John Nelson Rose
  • We love making and playing "retro" games - those titles that harken back to an earlier, simpler time full of chunky pixels and chiptune audio. While video games have evolved at a lightning pace since their inception in the late 50's, the past decade has revealed a desire to linger in another era. I think we can all agree that it's worth exploring why developers continue to build these games, and why players still love them.

    You know these games. Many of us have lived the pure flow state of Geometry Wars, the brutal simplicity of Nidhogg, and the infinite exploration of Terraria. They can have many things in common, including trends in art style and game mechanics, but most of all they feel like old souls. These games take us back to a special time, even if we weren't around to experience it then. There's no particular platform or year attached to these original games; they're just from back then. So why do they work so well, and how can we harness this power?

    Luckily, games are not the first medium to look back for inspiration. The rest of the art world is constantly recycling, and we as developers should take some cues. While movements like Modernism radically revolted from the past, plenty of others were consciously founded on top of it. The Renaissance was a giant leap in humanist thought, yet it was specifically based on classical teachings. The "Retro Game Renaissance" is often used to describe our current climate of old-school inspiration, but I believe we can unlock more truth by thinking of it as a Revivalist movement instead.

    Since architecture is a such a blend of art and utility, it's often compared to video games. Both disciplines are expressive and functional at the same time, and so lend each other powerful lessons in design. Revivalist movements - those philosophies that reinvigorate earlier styles - have an important history in architecture and can teach us about games. In particular, I'd like to look two revivals that affect us greatly in the 21st century: Neoclassicism and Gothic Revival.


    In the 18th century the world was busy pushing its boundaries in the Age of Enlightenment. The era was all about reason, and concerned itself with grand ideas like liberty, science, and progress. Art mirrors life, and it wasn't long before leaders longed for an architecture that embodied the new rationality. Europe had long valued the cultural contributions of ancient Greece and Rome (so-called "classical" civilization) for these very reasons, and recent archeological discoveries reignited interest in their philosophies. Great thinkers like Vitruvius and Palladio praised the perfection of classical building for centuries, elevating it to the top of Western design philosophy.

    Classical: Parthenon and Pantheon

    This was also an era full of revolution and democracy. If democracy was founded in the great halls of Athens, what better heritage would serve the free men of this new world? Leaders like Napoleon and Thomas Jefferson latched onto this dream, returning to classical styles for public building. An architectural style was thus revived as a powerful tool for propaganda.

    Neoclassical: Cathedral of Vilnius and the US Capitol

    Neoclassical buildings became the new standard for political and institutional projects. Similar to their ancient predecessors, structures of the revived style focused on impressive columns, blank walls, and simple geometric shapes. Neoclassicism still conveys logic, just as it did in the Enlightenment. These buildings exude an air of confidence and importance - we continue to design them for government buildings, banks, libraries, and more.


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