The video game industry races to the bleeding edge of technology. We want bigger games, better graphics and more precise control over what we play, and most big-name games rush towards those goals with abandon. Budgets swell, teams grow and the whole thing gets unwieldy.
This may be why it's so attractive when pop culture and gaming looks back and tries to inject the essence of what we love into a more simplistic form of technology. Demakes and retro games have been dominating office discussion today, and I wanted to take a minute to discuss why this content is so fascinating.
The art of the de-make
This video of a re-edited version of Game of Thrones, complete with cheesy 80s-style synth music and tracking issues, is almost unfairly attractive to people in a certain age group.
It taps into one of the most popular television shows of our time, and then goes one step further by playing with our love and affection for the sort of cheesy genre programming many of us grew up watching. The video has been around for a while, but the latest version combines the new edits with the cheesy music that also became a viral hit online. The results are brilliant.
We've been passing it around the office, and there's something about how well it's edited that drives it all home. It's not just the tracking errors or the cheesy fonts, it's the tone of the cuts and the rhythm of the editing. It takes something popular and familiar and removes everything that makes it of our time while replacing it with the trappings of nostalgia. The video is comfortable about five different ways, and every time I watch it I want to cut its stomach open and crawl in for warmth.
Blood Dragon, the expansion for Far Cry 3 that made fun of the trappings of 80s movies, has the same quality. It played into the same feelings of nostalgia while delivering game play that was often repetitive and kind of bland. The presentation became the point, the medium is the message. It's fun to shoot things and pretend to be in the past, and the trailers also played up the limitations of 80s-era technology to drive that point home.
There are entire demakes of games that do the same thing, such as this version of Legend of Zelda that takes the visually distinctive elements of the original NES title and uses simple squares to get the same point across. It's a game of shapes and a striking color palette, but it's enough to convey the sense of exploration and fun of the original. We're so trained to see the game, and we're so familiar with its trappings, that there needs to be almost no visual information to give us the sense of playing it. Our brain fills in the rest.
The list of this sort of content goes on and on, and it almost feels like an unfair trick, a shortcut to going viral. Take something interesting, layer on a heaping helping of nostalgia, and give the viewer the sense that it's something they could have done. The 80s version of Game of Thrones looks like a high school play. Any of us could make a game out of blocks.
We would all like to star in a new version of Star Wars, if only for a few seconds in fan-made project.
Shovel Knight is out today, and it's a wonderful game. It's a title that benefits from what we've learned from modern game design, but still wants to look and feel like an artifact from our past. What's interesting is that the limitations of the NES itself were reflected in the game's design; working with the idea of technology from the 80s created a sort of aesthetic and sense of place that informed the game, even though those limitations no longer exist.
One of the game's developers discussed sprite flickering in a Gamasutra article. Sprite flickering is exactly what it sounds like, a flickering effect that happened on the NES when there were too many objects on the screen at once.
"This effect is nostalgic for some, but we felt it was detrimental, so we nixed it," he wrote. "However, we did make gameplay design decisions based on the idea of sprite flickering: we tried to avoid cluttering the screen with onscreen objects, and limited things like particle effects. Being aware of the rules in this case led to the game feeling clear and simple; one of the hallmarks of a great NES game."
Demakes are our attempts to make already comfortable things even more inviting, to take things we love and roll them like a Katamari ball through our past to see what detritus they pick up. To see how little polish or visual information we need to draw us back to something we're so familiar with.
It's a way to close our eyes and walk around a well-worn house, knowing where the furniture is. It's a mixture of the new and the comfortable, while benefiting from both. It's a trend that may have a short shelf life, but let's enjoy it while it lasts.