This is a re-issue of an article originally published in 2020. Minor edits have been made for clarity and context.
This is a fish:
Can you see it? Let’s zoom out a bit:
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:
And this is how it displays a fish:
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:
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.
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.
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.