Just like there are rich aesthetic histories for film, art, design, animation and nearly every other creative medium, gaming carries a wonderfully varied visual legacy. Yet, unlike its high-brow cousins, the video game is often left sidelined for its artistic contributions. For all creatives that do plunge their digital depths for creative inspiration though, a world of possibilities – and memories of late-night Nintendo binges – await.
What makes the discipline particularly interesting is that each era and console holds a different aesthetic. Wading through the soft waters of World of Warcraft for visual inspiration looks decidedly different from traversing the cities of Neopets for your mood board. Each graphic style, then, poses a distinct challenge for those looking to recreate them. Here, you can see how five creatives are working in the likes of airbrushing, zine-making, 2D and 3D to do just that.
It’s impossible to deny that there has been an influx of artists evoking the awkward glitchiness of 90s games lately. Not to be confused with 80s 8-bit or Minecraft polygon rendering, this wave of art evokes the crude fade-edges you’ll find on early Playstation games like Tekken and SSX. Hang Gao is one creative who embodies this period wonderfully, harnessing impeccable technical know-how to pull it off.
The Houston-based artist’s work is full of blurriness that tech-based images from the turn of the century (particularly video game characters) are known for. According to Hang, it is his use of airbrushing and colour field painting that allows him to “give the sharpest/clearest images of blurry objects” possible. Look out for his unforgettable recreations of video game items, like a cube of meat or a stack of cash.
To dive into the work of Tokyo-based art collective Excalibur, we must jump a decade earlier, to the heart of video game pixelation and an era that saw the release of the Nintendo Entertainment System: the 80s. Growing up drawing sketches of the original Super Mario Bros., the collective’s founder Yoshinori Tanaka has always found large-scale pixel format to be enticing. “Over time, we have seen the process of those pixels piling up smaller and smaller, becoming more and more realistic,” he explained to us last year.
Excalibur, like Hang, creates richly vivid work that works with pixelation, delivering both 2D animation and static works. In their pixel art, the collective sticks to strict rules, like using no more than 16 RGB colours per work. Overlapping game iconography with tradition and myth, Excalibur produces immersive critiques of modern Japanese society.
A more recent period of gaming history, online RPG games are beginning to crop up as a source of creative inspiration. For example, designer Elise Rose’s work for queer club night Pxssy Palace’s Cosplay takes root in this world. Though for Pxssy Palace, Elise uses 3D animation to fuse the fantasy of RPG games like LOTR online and Skyrim with vibrant rave aesthetics.
In Elise’s work, you can expect idyllic woodland settings, fairies and toadstools alongside glassy, neon textures and rave imagery. Her winged fairy, for example, is fitted out in VR-style sunglasses. Through her output, Elise addresses a lack of diversity in the gaming industry, creating work that is empowering as it is imaginative.
Pixel art, though perfect for delivering a flat, techy feel, rarely conjures thoughts of warmth or dimensionality. Digital artist Shin Oh is disrupting both those assumptions. Via her series, 126³ Tiny Voxel Shops, Shin recreates traditional local shops and places in Malaysia – like Emporium Makan Klang, a 50-year-old food court in Shin’s hometown of Klang – rendered entirely in 3D pixels. Often bathed in a warm evening glow, her work brings the heartwarmingly personal to techniques known for Minecraft and Teardown.
Though she produces aesthetics related to the world of pixelation, Shin, in fact works with voxels, which she describes as “technically pixels in 3D – pixels are square, voxels are cubes”. Supporting small businesses along the way, Shin proves that video game aesthetics can be lovingly detailed as well as lively.
Tech evolves fast, meaning the once-beloved games of your childhood are soon to be, if not already, extinct. This devastating thought is what inspired Nichole Shinn to release Flash Player Graveyard. Documenting all our favourite 00s mini-games with lo-fi, scrapbook perfection, the zine is “part eulogy and part nostalgic memory dump” to all the online games no longer available following the death of the Flash player engine in 2020.
Fear not though, as a creative inspired by all things video games, Nichole evokes all manner of similar aesthetics within their own work. Follow Nichole’s practice for digital and hand-drawn illustrations sure to fill the Flash Player-shaped hole in your heart.
About the Author
Liz (she/they) joined It’s Nice That as news writer in December 2021. After graduating from the University of Bristol, they worked freelance, writing for independent publications such as Little White Lies, Indie magazine and design studio Evermade.