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Video game graphics vary wildly, from non-existent (i.e. text only) to photorealistic. With each generation of technical advances, the artistic possibilities grow.
Back in the 1970s, pixel art ruled the video game world. This was by necessity, not by choice (more on that later). Played on 8-bit systems, the earliest console games displayed very basic, 2D graphics. Each pixel required an 8-bit byte of data. By today's standards, the amount of data used in 1980s Nintendo games is microscopic. In order to bypass technical limitations, game art directors and programmers worked together to develop a unique solution: isometric 3D. Isometric graphics use a special point of view to make 2D images appear three-dimensional. This style, which originated in the early 1980s, has been used for over 30 years.
In the early 1990s, 16-bit consoles allowed for much more detailed graphics. Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo were a welcome upgrade from 8-bit systems, but looked ancient compared to their successors. Sony Playstation (32-bit) displayed 3D polygons, which ushered in new genres and long-lasting franchises, including Virtua Fighter and Resident Evil. Nintendo 64 (64-bit) single-handedly revolutionized platform games with the best-selling Super Mario 64. As graphics showed more detail, gaming became more immersive.
Graphically speaking, the majority of current console games are all about detail. Each new generation of Sony Playstation and Microsoft Xbox is more powerful than the last. Better hardware allows for better graphics. On the PC side, hardcore gamers spends thousands of dollars on top-of-the-line graphics cards and processors. An extremely powerful PC can handle modern games
with all of the settings "maxed." And that's what games like The Witcher 3, Crysis 3, and Arma 3 require: an extremely powerful computer. These titles feature meticulously detailed, large-scale environments that put the player in a seemingly real world.
Other games with jaw-dropping graphics (if your computer can handle them) include Project CARS and a modded version of Grand Theft Auto 5. Glossy paint, glimmering reflections, and highly detailed shadows help create an unmistakably modern world. This processor-heavy, texture-driven style is simply known as photorealism. But, not all developers want their games to look totally real...
Jet Set Radio, released on Sega Dreamcast in 2000, took the gaming world by storm. Based on graffiti-happy skaters, Jet Set Radio focused heavily on art. The game used cel shading, which makes truly 3D graphics look less three-dimensional. Also known as toon shading, this style can emulate the look of a comic book and sketch art. Nintendo used cel shading in The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker for Gamecube, and the most popular PC example is the Borderlands series.
Another uniquealbeit less successfulgaming art style is full motion video. Also known as FMVs, the videos were commonly used during cutscenes in 1990s PC games. The available storage space on CDs allowed developers to feature longer videos and in greater quantities. Night Trap, Voyeur, and Phantasmagoria are a few FMV games worth trying. The major downside to full motion video is the lack of interactivity. Gamers make a decision, and then a video plays. The transition isn't seamless, and each break for video hinders immersion. From the 2000s onward, most developers have chosen to avoid pre-filmed footage altogether.
Whether in video games or fashion, retro is hip. Minecraft, the 3D sandbox game with blocky graphics, has sold to roughly 23 million people. On its surface, Minecraft looks like an amalgam of the earliest arcade games and mobile titles for kids. It features low-resolution pixel art, but in a 3D world. When viewed from an isometric perspective, Minecraft looks like games from the 1980s. But it wasn't made last century. Minecraft debuted in 2009, and it has been consistently upgraded ever since. So, why does it look so old? Minecraft games exhibit retro graphics by choice. The art style is unique, simple, and efficient - you can clearly see it here
. Perhaps the catalyst of the resurgence in pixel art, Minecraft has been copied by many other developers. The extremely vast worlds of Minecraft are comprised entirely of blocks (i.e. cubes) that are colored to represent different materials. Grass, dirt, and water appear to vary only in color. Brick, stone, and sand simply vary by hue. However, each material is programmed to have different physical attributes. Thus, with only one basic shape, an infinite number of valleys, mountains, beaches, and buildings can be made.
Because of its simplicity, Minecraft graphics look the same for every user. Ideally, anyone with a basic computer or high-end gaming machine will share the same experience. Minecraft doesn't require 40 GB of free hard drive space, unlike Tom Clancy's The Division. Minecraft is lightweight, yet extremely in-depth. This efficiency is the secret to reaching a larger number of gamers. Not only is the art style unique, but it allows a much wider audience to play. And in the end, that's what developers want: more people playing their games.