Years ago, through a coincidentally well-timed combination of ‘80s kid nostalgia and improved games dev accessibility, videogames went through the sort of retrograde renaissance of the pixel art pop trend. Dusting off the old but (by no means obsolete) visual techniques and conventions of the early digital era, it started a wave that helped support an indie games scene that was then still in its infancy, with titles like Fez and Terraria leading the way. Fast forward to now, and a new trend seems to be emerging, one that also relies on a bit on nostalgia and improved accessibility to development and design tools. Browse Itch.io any day of the week and you’ll see lots of “low poly art” games inspired by the look and feel of the N64 or the original PlayStation. I’ve written before about the appeal of using this as an art style in horror games, but, curious about what developers who use low poly art think about the growing number of games tapping into this unique loo, I reached out to makers of some of the best contemporary examples of the aesthetic to ask if there’s something to it.
“I think that as far as trends go,” says Paratopic co-creator Jessica Harvey, “you can map a broadly equivalent length of time between the wave of 8/16-bit indies and the recent emergence of low-fidelity 3D indies as you can the length of time between those two styles’ original predominence.” As a new generation of small development teams and solo games designers comes of age, it makes sense for them to gravitate towards an aesthetic that, resource-wise, is more accessible. The cultural touchstones of their formative years, she points out, are an ideal source of inspiration. “Stick with what you know, right?” For Harvey, however, the effort was actually to tap into an unease that existed outside of the player’s personal experiences. “Past the realities of resource-free small scale development, the main point of interest for me was playing with the medium and presentation. Using the resonance of how that era stands against modern fidelities and its inherent jankiness as a tool, as something analogous to say… modern cinema utilizing grainy filmstock or shooting in black or white. Nostalgia underpins things, but the conscious intent is to exploit a very specific, more low-level and primal emotive response independent of specific memories.”
Harvey isn’t the only developer who pursued the look for deliberate creative reasons. Power Drill Massacre developer Ben, who goes by PuppetCombo professionally, says, “For me, it just fit my skill set and lifestyle plus I like the way it looks.” The games he makes are largely inspired by slasher films, bearing names like Babysitter Bloodbath and Meat Cleaver Mutilator. While Ben pursued the low poly art look in part because he was, in his words, attempting to make the games he’d wanted to play as a kid, he also just likes it. “I feel like modern graphics are in an awkward period,” he says. “They get close but still miss 1:1 photorealism and that actually looks a lot worse to me than something stylized.” He also argues that low poly art or nostalgia alone can’t make a good horror game. “[For] a low poly game to be scary, I think I’d still find it scary with modern graphics or pixel art. That said, I think VHS and CRT effects make it scarier. Like watching a beat up rental tape and wondering about the people who made it and what sort of shocking things they have in store. Of course, the internet has exposed the mystery behind everything. Yes, nostalgia plays a big part in it but I also think it genuinely looks good (when done well of course).”
Tyler Allen, meanwhile, initially agreed to work on Concluse, a Resident Evil inspired title, because the aesthetic fulfilled a much-needed niche, which would give the game a leg-up on the indie scene. But to him, there’s a certain forbidden appeal to tapping back into the obsolete technology that time has all but forgotten. He says, “Games making use of PS1 era graphics are having success by not only inducing a feeling of nostalgia in our older audiences, but also by bringing something new to the table for younger players who never got a chance to experience them first hand. I think that the artistic choice for many indie developers likely lies with the [aforementioned] ...feeling of nostalgia, and novelty, and that it can be seen as quicker or even easier. As someone who has also worked on low poly assets and am trying to now work on creating more detailed works I can relate.”
His co-developer Jon Martin, citing game jams as a potential source for some of the low poly art style’s growing popularity, agrees, adding, “I think a lot of it has to do with both young and older gamers being able to appreciate the aesthetics for different reasons. For older gamers it reminds them of playing PS1 games and their childhood, for younger gamers, that period is mysterious, they weren’t alive then, so PS1/N64 games are a curiosity.” Like PuppetCombo, he also drew inspiration from some other vintage mediums, particularly film. “It’s like watching old VHS tapes, you don’t really know what to expect and they give off a creepy vibe because of how out-of-date everything is. For Concluse, the inspiration was old PS1 games, but I also wanted to take the aesthetic a step further and create the feeling you were watching someone’s found footage. So on top of being inspired by games like Silent Hill and King’s Field, Concluse also takes inspiration from films like The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity.”
98Demake, creator of OK/Normal, was actually inspired to combine low poly art and videogames through an internet contest combining the two, which led to him creating a series of “demake” videos depicting what certain modern titles would have looked like if produced in the PS1 era. “I think the PS1-esque graphics in part are making a comeback because…people have come to appreciate the power of those graphics,” he tells Paste. “In an era where 3D is so close to photorealism, these lo-fi graphics are fresh, and leave more to the imagination, which is especially powerful in horror.” Ultimately, it’s less about an aesthetic and more about the atmosphere as a whole. “OK/NORMAL attempts replicate that feeling of old PS1 games, where you weren’t sure what the game was capable of. A sudden fourth wall break for instance, ala Metal Gear Solid, was a big deal back then. The environments are unpredictable—everything looks innocent at first glance, but then the game starts breaking down and you’re not sure what you’re supposed to be afraid of.”
For Jessica Harvey, it goes even deeper. She points me to The Terminator: Future Shock, an old 1995 PC game that she says highlights the limitations of the era and how they can actually be used to an advantage. “The jagged, reduced colour depth geometry, sparse environments, the black void of a skybox and abrupt draw distance, lack of non-enemy NPCs… They’re pulled off in a way that perfectly gels the narrative & spatial considerations of the post-apocalyptic setting,” she says. “This grainy, desolate solitude that is quite uncomfortable to inhabit. Everything is dead and everything is rendered slightly wrong, liminal and isolated. In today’s context there is so much on offer that simply cannot be done with modern tech. Touching that again was revelatory.” It’s a design consideration that clearly informs the look and feel of Paratopic.
It’s evident from these developers that, while nostalgia plays a role in the rising popularity of games inspired by the look and feel of the ‘90s, it’s not solely responsible for the appeal. As development tools have become more accessible and technology more sophisticated, these games are springing up not out of necessity, but rather the newfound freedom to turn what was once a severe constraint into a valid artistic technique. Whether this will be achieved on the same level as the pixel art revival is uncertain, but with this added perspective from the folks who are making low poly art games, expect to see more in the years to come.
Holly Green is the assistant editor of Paste Games and a reporter and semiprofessional photographer living in Seattle, WA. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gamasutra, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.