Retro Looking Forward

“I’ve always thought that creativity is best bred through limitations. When you work within a set of limitations, it’s much easier to find creative and innovative ways to break those rules and expand the creative horizons,” says Andy Schatz.

“Any game experiment needs to be fun with nameless blocks and spheres first, then you can focus on making it look and sound amazing.”

Schatz, owner of Pocketwatch Games and lead designer on Monaco, is building something new from the old. He describes his top-down co-op heist game as “Pac-Man meets Hitman.” This description is more descriptive than he knows. He, along with several other developers, is going back to their retro roots to explore what makes videogames compelling. Like the pioneers of jazz, they’re exploring the building blocks of their medium in order to create something new and unique.

Brian Provinciano, sole developer of the Grand Theft Auto parody Retro City Rampage, is doing exactly that. What started as an 8-bit demake of Grand Theft Auto III has evolved into a full, original game of Provinciano’s own creation. Within his game, he’s not only taking influence from the Grand Theft Auto games, he’s included “water levels or some sidescrolling stuff, rhythm stuff, stealth stuff. There’s even missions that play like old 80s coinop games.”

There’s no reason why any of that would work. There’s really no guarantee that a break in the GTA action for a “Burger Time or a Root Beer Tapper” level would be any fun, much less congruous with the rest of the work. Rather than relying on a formula that he knows will be successful, Provinciano’s looking for that metaphorical blue note, the small change in that established formula, that has the capability to change the medium forever, or at least push it forward.

Okay, that sounds a bit heavy for a game that’s ostensibly a silly parody of a series known for its tendency to push the envelope. But it’s indicative of a design mentality that pervades many developer teams looking to create retro-style games. “You have to keep moving, keep playing so you can keep iterating,” Danny Day of QCF Design, the minds behind Desktop Dungeons says. “Any game experiment needs to be fun with nameless blocks and spheres first, then you can focus on making it look and sound amazing.”

At first, Desktop Dungeons may look like a simplified version of a roguelike, a genre typically known for its incredible difficulty, permanent deaths, and immense complexity; it quickly becomes clear that it’s really a puzzle game in disguise. Regaining the necessary health to take down the various monsters in each single screen dungeon requires revealing unexplored squares, and each level has a finite number of said squares. QCF Designs has taken two old genres (roguelikes can be traced back to Beneath Apple Manor 1978, while puzzle games predate the medium itself) and combined them to create something new and compelling.

Of course, the design success of Desktop Dungeons does not imply that any slapped together mishmash of two retro genres is a guaranteed way to further the medium as a whole. These gameplay experiments are just that; they’re deconstructions of established formulas that serve to explore the realm of gameplay possibilities.

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And then there are those who are utilizing the inherent abstract visuals that come with 8-bit inspired visuals to toy with new narrative techniques.

If the player doesn’t understand BIT.TRIP, then the responsibility is with them, not with Gaijin Games.

“I think what we’re trying to present is the base feelings of human life,” said Alex Neuse, founder of Gaijin Games and lead designer on the BIT.TRIP series. Indeed, the BIT.TRIP games embrace the idea of looking back in order to look forward like few others. The first game in the series, BIT.TRIP Beat, hearkens all the way back to the very origins of home videogames. Essentially “music Pong” as Gaijin co-founder Mike Roush describes it, Beat is a simple paddle game set to a heavy techno-inspired chiptune beat.

On its surface, it doesn’t look like much more than an old-school throwback with rhythm game influences. But when players start to take it in context with the rest of the series, they begin to realize that they’re all part of a greater narrative. Each game is a part of Commander Video’s life, “from pre-birth to post-death.” And by utilizing 8-bit and abstract visuals, the games allow players to find meaning within them, to “fill that in gaps with experiences from your own life, or your imagination,” as Neuse puts it.

While the developers of contemporary big-budget games are attempting to give players as much agency as possible, the creators of BIT.TRIP simply lay out their artistic vision and allow players to find meaning within it.

“It gets back into the retro thing with Atari [inspired visuals]. Because [Atari games were] so simplistic, you were forced to make your own story. You had no other choice. You’d make your story from the box art. You’d be sitting there playing Breakout and the only thing you’d know is the awesome astronaut,” says Mike Roush, Neuse’s partner in crime at Gaijin Games. While Roush and Neuse have a certain meaning that they lay out for the player to discover, they certainly hope players will find their own meanings.

If the player doesn’t understand BIT.TRIP, then the responsibility is with them, not with Gaijin Games. “I think one of the reasons we can get away with our very rigid ‘go f*ck yourself’ gameplay is because everything else about the games are so interpretive and open for interpretation. They’re completely ambiguous … My favorite type of storytelling is something that leaves vagueness. I want to formulate my own thoughts, but I want to be guided along my own story,” says Neuse.

That ambiguity is a result of harsh limitations on the creative process. By making their games look and play like old school games, Gaijin Games are subverting the expectations they’ve established by utilizing those genres. If the player realizes that there’s something deeper underneath the simplistic graphics, they’re often compelled to attempt to understand exactly what’s going on, whether it’s in a narrative or gameplay sense. And that’s the moment in which these experiments pay off.

In a medium obsessed with pushing the limits, developers often don’t look any further back than the most recent successful iteration of the game they’re currently working on. They operate on a “more is more” mentality, adding more and more features to formulas they already know to work. In contrast, these retro-inspired indie developers look back to the formation of the medium itself. They break the classics apart and put them back together in was that are always experimental, and occasionally groundbreaking.

Taylor Cocke is a freelance writer and critic based out of Oakland, California. You can see his work at many fine publications such as Official Xbox Magazine, GamesRadar, and Joystiq. Follow him on Twitter at where he promises not to tweet too much about bands you don’t care about.

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