Pixel Perfect

Like it or not, mobile gaming seems to be the space where the most interesting developments in terms of real-time graphics are happening at the moment.

One reason for this recent jump in quality is, in my mind, the success of the Apple’s iOS platform and the competitive pressure that has followed it. What, then, comes to the raw horsepower of mobile hardware, Apple has never played that game like, say, Sony with its upcoming super-performing PS Vita, but instead, concentrated making a compelling platform for third-party developers to express their ideas and in many cases make a living.

One of the finest pieces of such a self-expression in a true meaning of the word is Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP released first on iPad, and later on iPhone and iPod Touch.

As a game it’s an obvious throwback to the now-bygone point-and-click adventure games, and as such not even a particularly good one. But S:S&S EP should not be judged merely as a game in the ludus sense but rather as an experience like one gets from a movie or a book, as much of a tired cliché it may sound.

S:S&S EP employs visual artifacts (i.e. pixelation in this case) which positions it into a visual frame of reference that is obviously based on, like said, decades old adventure games. And it works beautifully, thanks to the visually consistent and imaginative art direction by Craig Adams, aka Superbrothers, who really is one half of the soul of S:S&S EP. The other half consists of, of course, Jim Guthrie who made the cool soundtrack for the game.

So, adhering to this kind of low-fidelity visual principle gives many benefits for a developer, especially an indie one.

For one, the amount of work can be (but not necessarily is) a fraction of what goes into a high-fidelity game, still managing to look appealing and cool. And if S:S&S EP is something, it’s hip and cool thorough.

Second, the visual effects don’t have to be that sophisticated, since our perception is calibrated to the low-fidelity frame of reference from the get-go. So just like with the “unnecessary polygons” I wrote about earlier, a technologically modest visual entity can look spectacular when encountered in a right retro-ish context, since the mind (of a long-time gamer, at least) is conditioned over the years to accept a certain level of technological sophistication from a certain visual look. In other words, a game with this kind of lo-fi visual principle can get away with a lot in terms of pure tech.

So, the times when S:S&S EP looks exceptionally good are exactly the moments when the game seemingly transcends the visual legacy it’s so cunningly mimicking. This is especially true in the epic boss battles in which the classic look is enhanced with modern effects such as color gradients, fluid vector-animations, and the completely synchronized soundtrack.

And that’s really one part of the magic of the visual landscape of S:S&S EP: setting the player’s expectations with a low-fidelity frame of reference, and then exceeding them using tricks and effects only made possible by modern technology.

Of course, it’s far from easy to pull this kind of visuals off right, and I believe it requires a skilled visual sense, like mr. Adams seems to have, to do so. But consider how hard it would be with a high-fidelity game, to transcend the visual frame of reference, that is?

Really, really hard.