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What is Considered Pixel Art?

Updated: Nov 22, 2020

How can you define pixel art since modern pixel art games have pushed the medium beyond its limits?


Before getting into this, let’s define a pixel and a bit.


What is a Pixel?


A pixel is the smallest, controllable, visual, digital element represented on a screen.


It appears as a two-dimensional square and can only contain one color at a time.


It’s also known as a pixel element or pel.


What is a Bit?


A bit is the smallest unit of stored data in computing and digital communications.


This one is going to take a little more explaining to understand for non-technical people like you and me.


But, stick with me.


Think of a bit as a very simple digital container.


A bit can only contain a 1 or a 0.


The 1 and 0 each represent a polar meaning.


For example true or false, on or off, positive or negative, yes or no.


In the case of 1 Bit Art, the 1 and 0 would each represent an opposite color.


Most often it was used to dictate whether a pixel would be black or white.


The Difference Between a Pixel and a Bit


A pixel is the smallest thing on a screen we can see and interact with.


A bit, in this case, is the data that dictates what color a pixel will look like.


What is Pixel Art?


Pixel artist AdamCYounis believed the Wikipedia page described it accurately as:


“Pixel art is a form of digital art, created through the use of software, where images are edited on the pixel level.”

What Other Characteristics Define Pixel Art?


The artist AdamCYounis also added three other key features when describing pixel art and how they’re used in games.


  1. In pixel art, every single pixel is purposefully placed.

  2. Each pixel is clearly defined. They don’t become muddied or blur into each other.

  3. Key, important information in a scene is designed to stick out to the audience.


By doing these things, pixel art focuses on establishing a clear, visual communication with the audience.


What is Bit Art?


Most bit art terms you’ll probably be familiar with such as 8 bit, 16 bit and 32 bit.


These terms typically refer to how many colors a pixel art piece can have.


Remember how I said a bit is the smallest container of digital data that can only contain one of two polarizing values?


The bits dictate how many colors and what kind of colors a pixel art piece can have.


For instance, 1 bit can only contain one of two polarizing colors.


A 2 bit can contain a total of four colors.


But, the colors must be polarizing.


For instance, a bit can be black or white while another bit is orange or blue.


The Influence of Modern Pixel Art Games


Modern pixel art games, however, aren’t restricted like games on older consoles.


Games like Owlboy and Octopath Traveler have been able to push the limitations and beg the question:


What is pixel art now?


What is High Bit?


Simon Anderson, the creator of Owlboy, has coined the term High Bit to describe modern pixel art games.


High Bit games operate beyond the limitations of 8, 16 and 32 bit consoles.


Each console had its own limitations, but in general High Bit games contain and display more data.


An example is the ability for modern pixel art games to be designed to fit modern screen sizes.


They also have the capability to accommodate more modern screen resolutions.


Ever try playing old school NES games on a large flat screen tv?


Not pretty.


Part of the reason is because the NES games were designed for a smaller screen.


The other reason is because NES games depended on the blur effect of the tvs from the era in order to appear more aesthetically pleasing.


Speaking of which, High Bit games tend to focus on being aesthetically pleasing.


It’s one of the things that critics who played Owlboy tend to rave about.


But, there are a couple more things that can help define High Bit games and that I think game developers should focus on.


One of them is using environmental effects to compliment the aesthetic appeal of the game.


Environmental effects can include things like an emphasis on the glistening water effect found in Kingdom: New Lands.


Another key element that I think game devs should laser focus on is the use of lighting effects.


Just look at a game like Acid Knife where the lighting effect follows the playable character and helps the game look more distinct.


The reason I believe game developers should focus on these effects is because they help to make the games stand out and can give them a distinct appearance.


What is HD2D?


Then there’s this genre of game which is what really made me ask, “What is considered pixel art?”


HD2D is hard to define succinctly because it involves a combination of specific elements to make it a distinct genre.


And, there’s only one example of this type of game, Octopath Traveler.


HD2D games use 2D sprites with a 3D, polygon based environment that have been painted over with tile sets to appear like pixel art.


It also uses point lights to create shadows of the 2D character sprites and lighting effects in the environment.


HD2D accentuates modern visuals without constraining itself to the use of pixels.


These effects can include falling snow, fog, heat shimmering, swaying trees and grass.


HD2D was the creator’s way of paying homage to the old school JRPG genre while trying to push the pixel art medium forward into the HD Age.


What is Pixel Art Now?


Pixel art is no longer one encompassing term for all art that uses pixels as a medium.


Because modern technologies have pushed the medium beyond its expected limitations.


And, pixel art was birthed from necessity and refined by the limitations that defined it.


Therefore, I argue that pixel art now contains three sub-genres: Classical Pixel Art, Limited Pixel Art and Modern Pixel Art.


What is Classical Pixel Art?


Classical pixel art is defined by the limitations of the retro consoles that originally used it.


For example, we’ll take a look at the NES.


The NES only allowed a palette of 54 colors.


But, only 25 colors could be displayed on the screen at any one time.


One background color.


Four sets of three tile color.


And four sets of three sprite color.


What is Limited Pixel Art?


Limited pixel art is a more common pixel art style.


It sets in place self-imposed limitations inspired by retro consoles.


The artist decides how many bits the art will be inspired by such as 8 bit or 32 bit.


But, the artist isn’t hindered by the hardware of the old consoles.


For instance, the artist doesn’t have to take into account how many colors are in a line, like some of the consoles in the past because it would produce a flickering effect across the screen.


Artists can also use more modern pixel art techniques that weren’t discovered or available in the time of the old consoles.


What is Modern Pixel Art?


Due to the recent addition of High Bit and HD-2D games, I believe that we need to broaden the definition while still keeping the medium’s integrity intact.


The reason I think this is because we must allow for the medium to evolve with the technological times, or risk pixel art becoming outdated.


Therefore, we can define modern pixel art as:


A form of digital art created through the use of software where key elements are designed on a pixel level.


These key elements must stick out and every pixel must appear to be purposefully placed.


Conclusion


We need to broaden the definition of pixel art in order to keep up with technological advancements.


Otherwise, we risk the medium becoming outdated and thus obsolete.


However, to lump all of pixel art under one definition is disrespectful not only to the artists, but to the medium.


Therefore, I believe that we need to create three categories under the term pixel art: modern pixel art, limited pixel art and classical pixel art.


Because the most valuable things we can learn from pixel art, as artists and consumers, is understanding the limitations found in classical pixel art pieces.


And the value limitations give.


But, we must allow for the medium to keep up with technological advancements, so it doesn’t get left behind.


If you want to learn the specific differences between pixel art and pixel art used in games watch AdamCYounis videos here.

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