With a vast array of games on offer, it’s no surprise that players judge titles by their metaphorical covers. The availability of gameplay trailers and lets plays makes it very easy for potential players to get a quick snapshot of what they might be in for. As a result, a sizeable factor in deciding to purchase a game is going to be what it looks like. This can be in terms of fundamental things, like genre or mechanics, but in all cases, buyers are going to be considering graphics.
The logical assumption, then, is that the better a game looks, the more likely players are to buy it. Visual technology has improved immeasurably in the last few decades to such a point that some modern titles can be hard to distinguish from actual, real-life footage. There’s certainly value in this; a huge amount of time and work goes into building incredibly intricate, beautiful gaming experiences. Some of the most interesting and enjoyable games ever made have been supported by such a framework.
At the same time, it can still be very difficult to create a game that looks good. This is particularly true for small development teams. What happens, then, if a developer chooses to go in entirely the opposite direction? In some games, is it perhaps better to aim for a graphical style that some might term ‘bad’?
The Power of Imagination
Whenever anyone thinks of old games, one of the first things they’re going to remember is pixels. Early games were defined by their lack of curves and their sharp, blocky imagery. The limits of older technology meant it was impossible to produce anything like the level of detail we see now. As something of a by-product of this, players were often left to do a lot of the heavy lifting when it came to imagining the fantastical worlds they were exploring.
For most genres, this was a burden that typically had to be compensated for by other aspects of the game. The primary exception to this rule was horror. As Steven Spielberg said of one of the most well-known thriller films of all time, “Jaws is scary because of what you don’t see, not because of what you do.”
The human imagination has tremendous power. With a base to build on, it can do a lot more to inspire fear than any carefully crafted visuals. This is true in films too, but it’s even more relevant to games, where a player has to make the active choice to keep moving forwards and to keep staring down the thing that scares them. Every moment spent creeping through the dark is one in which something could be waiting just out of sight to get you; every moment that it doesn’t is just another way of tightening the noose.
In this regard, poor visual clarity was something of a blessing. Where the technology failed to properly resolve horrific monsters, player imagination could paper over the cracks in a way that isn’t possible if graphical fidelity gets too high. Nowhere is this power more apparent than in slow-burn, indie horror game, No One Lives Under the Lighthouse.
The Monster Under the Lighthouse
No One Lives Under the Lighthouse is a short horror game released last year. Alongside its interesting story and subtly changing gameplay loop, it is perhaps most notable for its dedication to traditional retro graphics. Unlike other modern pixel art games that tidy up beautifully on HD screens, it fully commits to a visual style that is in a lot of ways very difficult to parse and, in doing so, it creates a horror experience well beyond its technical means.
The monster in No One Lives Under the Lighthouse, when it appears, is ugly, poorly rendered, and has a movement animation that looks as though it’s missing a few frames with every step. It also appears to change skin colour and pattern based on whether or not you’re viewing it from a first or third-person perspective. If players were to stumble across it in a high-definition, beautifully rendered hellscape, they would likely meet it with nothing more than a bemused laugh of derision.
Very, very fortunately, the game’s creators knew that.
Instead, anyone who picks up this title will only come face to face with the creature two hours in as it emerges, indistinct and hazy, from the murky edge of their twenty feet of draw distance. In any other situation, the monster couldn’t be less scary; as it is, it’s left to the players’ imagination to fill in all the blanks that the blocky, pixelated graphics provide to create something uniquely horrifying. Rather than focusing on all the imperfections that they can see, players are going to end up scared of all the things they can’t. Put in a situation where their only option is to run away as fast as possible, further dissuading anyone from trying to take a closer look, the game’s monster is left to become something altogether different.
No two players who make their way through No One Lives Under the Lighthouse will face the same monster. Moreover, if the game’s build-up has done its job in creating tension, each one is going to be staring down something that scares them on a personal level. Depending on the strength of your own imagination – and perhaps willingness to be frightened – it’s hard to suggest a more targeted horror experience than that.
Is It Worth It?
There are plenty of games that can be considered scarier than No One Lives Under the Lighthouse. Its slow build of tension, simplistic framing, and oftentimes predictable scares aren’t going to work for everyone. They might not even work for most. But for a title developed by three indie developers from the Ukraine, it packs a surprising punch thanks to all the things it doesn’t show you. Such a thing simply wouldn’t be possible if more time had gone into making the game look prettier or more refined.
Playing this game on a modern screen is not an easy sell. The first few minutes are actually a little painful on the eye if you’re using pixel dithering. But, if you can get past your initial reaction to its ‘ugliness’, that very art style can be used to craft a deeply compelling horror story.
It’s obviously a worthy endeavour making sure all games look their best, but it’s also worth considering that in some cases, a game’s ‘best’ might not necessarily mean ‘good’.