Category: Game Development

The Two Pixel Fish

This is a re-issue of an article originally published on Medium in 2020. Minor edits have been made for clarity and context.

This is a fish:

A two pixel fish.

Can you see it? Let’s zoom out a bit:

Many fish in a calm lake, animated.

While you would be hard pressed to tell what you are looking at in the first image, I’m betting that every single person looking at the second picture would instantly see a school of fish in a tranquil lake. The game is Odd Realm, and it uses abstraction as storytelling every bit as masterfully as the legendary Dwarf Fortress.

Obviously art that leaves things up for interpretation is nothing new - if anything, that describes the majority of art – but in these particular games, it is a huge part of what makes them so appealing.

Speaking of, this is Dwarf Fortress:

A small fortress next to a grass meadow.

And this is how it displays a fish:

α

Dwarf Fortress takes things even further and draws out the game world purely with letters and symbols – a α becomes a fish, a becomes a mountain, a $ is a coin, and so on.

Although – as is often the case – this sort of representation started out due to technical constraints, today these games deliberately use a minimalist art style to bridge the gap between visual storytelling and the written word. Through extremely simple representations, you paint in the gaps yourself and imagine the game world in front of you in a way that is much more like reading a book than it is looking at a piece of art or watching a movie.

In Dwarf Fortress and Odd Realm, the game world that you see is merely a starting point for you to tell your own stories. Emergent gameplay is a huge part of it – you are presented with a number of characters living out their lives, and a rich and interesting world they inhabit - and through subtle means the games hint at what they are experiencing. In Dwarf Fortress you might see a few sentences describing a Dwarf accidentally awakening an ancient beast and through a series of events manage to drag the entire settlement into ruin – and this is accompanied with merely a few letters drawn onto a grid. Yet it inspires stories such as these:

Bronzemurder – Tim Denee

All through ASCII art and a few narrative sentences. It is not great despite the limited graphics, but because of them. Just like any book, you paint in the gaps and tell your own story, and the balance is just right for it to still feel like an engaging game where you have agency over what happens.

I won’t get too deep into the merits of Dwarf Fortress as the game has been around for a very long time and others have described it much better than I ever could. I will say that I’ve gotten hundreds of hours of enjoyment out of it, however! It’s a fantastic game, it’s free, and I strongly recommend anyone looking at it if you’re not intimidated by the text-only appearance.

For the rest of you, and for those who have already experienced all that Dwarf Fortress has to offer… there’s Odd Realm.

A screenshot of Odd Realm.

This is a game that looks at Dwarf Fortress, takes all the great parts of it, manages to somehow keep that abstract, story-driving aesthetic and make it more approachable to a greater audience, and also have it be uniquely distinct and feel like its very own thing.

Every component of this game is a masterclass in using minimalism to enhance a game world rather than detract from it. The vast majority of art is drawn at 5×5 pixels, and the constraint this puts on representing objects in the world results in the same great balance between clarity and imagination that makes Dwarf Fortress so compelling.

Rimworld, another great game in the same genre, puts a very low emphasis on the art since it’s focusing on purely the narrative and doesn’t want the visuals to get in the way. It is an approach that works well for that game in particular, but here we have a case where the art is deliberately used to enhance the narrative and atmosphere, and not just stay subdued in the background.

It took me some time initially to truly appreciate the super-low resolution aesthetic of Odd Realm - throughout my first few hours I felt like although it was a great game, it would have been even better if it had just a little bit more fidelity, a little higher resolution pixel art. But then I noticed the fish.

This is a perfect encapsulation of what makes the art of this game so brilliant. A school of fish at 2 pixels each, yet through context and fantastic animation instantly recognizable as fish and making me experience exactly what Dwarf Fortress did for all these years. You paint your own image in your head of what this lake looks like, you imagine the temperature of the water, the gentle breeze shown through the 2×1 pixel reflections on the water surface… it may sound like hyperbole but in the context of the entire experience, it really is that good.

A screenshot of Odd Realm.

Pixel art is extremely common among indie games these days, but here’s an example of a game that doesn’t just use it for a “retro look” in the most basic sense. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with that, but Odd Realm genuinely explores why pixel art has an intrinsic artistic and narrative merit and employs it to the fullest extent. Even if you do not normally play games in this genre I thoroughly recommend giving this game a look as a case study of how to employ pixel art in a meaningful way.

My settlements breathe life through my own imagination in a way that is normally reserved for the realm of literature, and if there is a better measure of a game such as this, I have yet to see it.


Meaningful Experiences

A mindset that I see quite often today, in particular among people who have been playing games for a significant part of their lives, is that the main goal of any game should be to be fun, and that gameplay is always the end-all priority.

This can absolutely be a great way to go about making great games, but by applying this mentality to the game medium as a whole it is not only limiting the ambition of games yet to be made, it also fails to understand how many people presently enjoy and appreciate many games. If the idea that games should always strive to be fun sounds like an obvious truth, I would like to try to change your mind.

Interactivity and self-reflection

Why is Planescape: Torment considered to be one of the greatest games of all time?

The iconic role-playing game from 1999 frequently gets brought up when discussing the most impactful games ever made, and for good reason – it covered nuanced and profound ideas, portrayed a deeply engaging and interesting setting, and above all understood how to do truly meaningful interactive storytelling.

An early dialogue scene within Planescape: Torment.
An early dialogue scene from Planescape: Torment.

Today it is common to define good narrative interactivity in a game as “the game reacts as much as possible to your choices” – as in, the world, characters and rest of the story is influenced by what you say and do, the more branching paths the better. Obvious examples of games focusing on this include Mass Effect, the Telltale brand of adventure games, or even things like the Elder Scrolls series. I want to stress that these are excellent games and this sort of interactivity can be very compelling, but this priority also have a tendency to hollow out the world by putting a near-comical degree of agency in the hands of the player.

Planescape: Torment takes a different approach. Yes, you absolutely can affect the world and characters around you based on your choices, but this is not really the point. You are one small part of a much larger world, and the true value of your choices lies not in how it changes the game’s story, but in how it makes you think about your own ideas and values. About halfway through the game, you are asked a question:

“What can change the nature of a man?”

You are presented with about a dozen dialogue options which you can choose from to respond. Here’s the thing though – despite being presented with so many options, your actual answer has absolutely no bearing on what happens in the game’s story or even how characters react to you. The purpose of this question and these answers is making you ask yourself what you actually think is the best answer.

Much later in the game, you are presented with the same question, and the same answers. As you have made other choices throughout the game, interacted with more people and understood their viewpoints, and gained a greater understanding of the themes the game tries to portray, this second time you may have a very different answer. And therein lies the true beauty of Planescape: Torment.

When people speak of this game, they rarely mention its more traditional RPG gameplay mechanics – things like combat, item management, character building and so on – and when they do, it’s generally in the context of “It’s not great, but don’t let that deter you from playing the game”. And that’s just the thing – for such an iconic masterpiece, the core gameplay mechanics really are serviceable at their best, and distracting from the greatest appeal of the game at their worst.

Disco Elysium is almost entirely reading – and absolutely incredible.

Incidentally, another game recently came along that looked at Planescape: Torment and said, “Let’s focus on all the things the game does so well, and do it confidently enough that we can outright skip all the other parts.” That game is Disco Elysium, and it too has been regarded as one of the greatest games of its generation. It features no combat or other traditional RPG mechanics – the game consists entirely of talking to people, and it does it in a way that leverages the game medium in every bit as good a way Planescape: Torment does.

Could you describe these games as “fun”? Sure, to some degree – but it somewhat misses the point, and at this point we’re talking more about semantics than anything else. Both these games are often praised for being thought-provoking, emotionally moving, and genuinely profound – qualities that are somewhat rare among games – and they do so precisely because they embrace the narrative potential of games wholeheartedly and passionately.

Positive escapism

What draws so many people to enjoy Stardew Valley?

Stardew Valley features gameplay mechanics that lots of people find really enjoyable, and most people who enjoy it would absolutely describe it as fun – so at a first glance, this might seem like a poor example. However, I would like to highlight not necessarily what makes it a competent game, but what makes it special.

A screenshot of Stardew Valley.
Starting out in Stardew Valley.

What makes Stardew Valley so memorable and meaningful to people is not the core gameplay loop, even though it’s perfectly enjoyable to fans of the genre. The greatest appeal of Stardew Valley is its sense of carefree escapism – through its setting, characters, music and art it evokes a feeling of a long lost idyll, a sense of nostalgia you didn’t even know you had. The game is comforting, and spending hours in its world brings a sense of serene happiness.

Unlike Planescape: Torment, the gameplay is not at odds with this – it supports it – but nonetheless it takes the back stage to the atmosphere and immersion of the experience. It’s not unimportant, but it is also not the most crucial part to get perfect. Stardew Valley, and games like it, have mastered the art of setting a tone and mood to put you in a mindspace of joy.

Games as social spaces

What was the true staying power of World of Warcraft?

World of Warcraft is arguably an excellent MMO from a gameplay standpoint. Yes, some may disagree with that – especially WoW players! – but (and I say this as someone who has worked on live MMOs) making and evolving an MMO is incredibly hard. You have to manage a thousand things all at once, and all things considered, WoW has managed to stay engaging to a lot of people.

A screenshot of Dalaran in World of Warcraft.
One of the social hubs of World of Warcraft.

However, much like Stardew Valley, even in such a systems-driven genre the gameplay mechanics are really just there to facilitate the other big aspect of the game – in this case, a game world as a social space. People who fondly remember years of World of Warcraft don’t generally remember it for its combat mechanics, but rather how it gave them a canvas to make their own adventures with their friends.

Making meaningful experiences

The above examples are just a few among many cases where the appeal of a game has less to do with its mechanical aspects. My point here is that what makes people play and appreciate games can be a huge range of different experiences – some facilitated through engaging gameplay mechanics, some through narrative or audiovisuals. And most often through a combination of many things, that become greater than the sum of their parts.

Therefore when thinking about games as a medium, it makes more sense to view the end goal as creating meaningful experiences. Often this does directly relates to gameplay mechanics, but by allowing a broader mindset it becomes a lot easier to let the game be what it can be without putting artificial limitations on it.

Gameplay as a means, not an end

A common counterpoint to these kind of arguments is the idea that unless the gameplay is engaging, it doesn’t matter how profound the story is, how atmospheric the setting is, or how otherwise enriching the game might be.

The issue with this is that it assumes a zero-sum game. It is perfectly reasonable to have mechanics that are just adequate for the rest of the experience the game tries to achieve – and then put most of the effort to on other aspects of the game. The gameplay might have been uninteresting in a vacuum, but complementing other parts it can lift them up and let them be the focus.

Rain World blurs the lines between conventions to incredible effect.

This is the problem with seeing games as a dichotomy of “gameplay” and “not gameplay”. Looking at a game as a whole gives a much better idea of how well all the pieces fit together, rather than trying to analyze how enjoying the mechanics are in a self-contained sense. I still refer to gameplay mechanics as a distinct aspect of a game in various places here, but this is mostly for the sake of presenting an argument – in reality, I think that the lines blur a lot more than this, and it can often be hard to tell where the “gameplay” ends and other parts begin.

Besides, sometimes the adequate mechanics to support the other aspects of the game is to have almost none!

“Couldn’t this just be a movie?”

I would like to touch upon this idea briefly, since it is also something that is frequently brought up in this context. Some games are so light on gameplay mechanics that it’s easy to imagine them being just as compelling as a movie or a book.

A screenshot of SOMA.
SOMA is almost entirely focused on story and atmosphere.

I think those games are rarer than they are made out to be – even games often labelled “walking simulators” get some meaning from the feeling of being the one to explore their setting at your own direction and pace – but this is besides the point. At the end of the day, yes, some games could as well have been made as movies. This particular studio or person felt like instead making it as a game. Is this in any way a negative thing? It may not always move the potential of the game medium forward, but it can still result in a piece of art that is engaging, interesting and moving. No one would criticize a movie by saying “Well this movie could as well have been staged as a play”. Let’s embrace the mindset of just letting people make things with the tools they want to use!

And speaking of just letting people make what they wish…

Fun is meaningful, too

Titanfall 2 is pure unadulterated fun, and it’s amazing.

I want to wrap this up by emphasizing – games absolutely can be made with the main goal of being fun, and always putting gameplay first. Amazing games have been created with this mindset! My point is only that we shouldn’t let this be the sole arbiter of what can make a game good or meaningful, and not let it needlessly constrain how we play or make games. The game medium is still young, we are still exploring all it can be, and the sky is the limit.