December 25, 2006

A Pixel is You!

by Nick Montfort · , 10:00 am
Discussed in this post:
Adventure, Warren Robinett, Atari, Atari VCS, 1978
Qix, Randy Pfeiffer and Sandy Pfeiffer, Taito, Arcade coin-op, 1981
dotstream, Nintendo, Game Boy Advance, 2006

Video games sometimes take the minimalist approach of providing the player with an avatar, ship, or “man” that has as its visual representation a single pixel. As I briefly discuss in this post, several games in this category are totally sweet.

Guiding a single point of light seems most suitable in a highly abstract game, and the pixel has shined in several of these. The driving real-time puzzle game Qix, a coin-op game from the 1980s, is a notable one. (Admittedly, the player’s pixel is highlighted with a surrounding diamond, but it’s still reasonably considered a dressed-up pixel.) The choice of avatar clearly didn’t come about because the programmers were too lazy to punch up a spaceship bitmap or something – the pixel makes sense within the scheme of Qix. The point naturally is moved to draw a line, which is naturally connected to another line to shade a region.

Racing game dotstream, one of seven recent retrolicious cartridges in the bit Generations series for the trailing-edge Game Boy Advance, looks like it has the player control a line rather than dot, as in the Tron light-cycle games and the classic computer and video game Snake. But the lines in dotstream, while they can shove a trailing player off course, mostly exist to point to the all-important pixel, which is the only thing that the player steers and which is the only thing threatened by obstacles. dotstream is highly abstract throughout, from its techno sound track to its minimal title screen. It’s a compelling, challenging game, too. The difficulty of distinguishing one’s pixel from the opposing, computer-controlled racers is quite effectively made into part of the challenge, and doesn’t prevent enjoyable high-speed play.

Of this lot, the Atari VCS Adventure is the most representational, even if the sprite signifying the dragon does seem to be representing a duck. The one-pixel avatar – an immense one-pixel avatar – is a bit wacky in this context. (The player controls a scaled-up ball sprite, the same sprite that is pongged about in Video Olympics.) Perhaps the yellow pixel is the ultimate abstraction of the inviting smiley-face, allowing any player to identify with it. The textual Adventure from which the game was adopted really doesn’t sketch the adventurer at all, so the minimal representation makes sense not only technically but also considering Adventure‘s roots. Whatever the justification, a detailed graphical representation of the avatar clearly isn’t needed here for the play experience to be effective. It’s even possible that an attempt at a more elaborate representation (even if this were technically feasible) would simply have provided more opportunities for mockery rather than more enjoyable play – for instance, the adventurer might have ended up looking like a chicken.

Admittedly, a pixel is not always enough. If more information than simply position needs to be conveyed – a ship’s attitude, for instance – a single pixel can’t manage the job. If part of the ship spews lethal fire and the rest of it is just there as a target (as in Space Invaders), these need to be distinguished so the player can see the part that is firing and aim properly. The capabilities and conventions of a platform also suggest a multi-pixel avatar to those who want to be conventional: if sprites are a certain size, players will be looking for something of that size to control. Game designers may also want the avatar to participate visually in the fictional world of the game, or they may want it to evoke previous games, or they may want it to have large breasts, a ponytail, and a pair of pistols.

Nevertheless, the dot is hot. It can be extravagant to use an entire commercial at sign to portray the player’s virtual being. Player, gamemaker: when the five thousand polygon avatar begins to disappoint, consider that the best answer may be the sound of one pixel firing.

4 Responses to “A Pixel is You!”

  1. Ian Bogost Says:

    Fantastic little post.

    Just to clarify Nick’s passing mention of technical feasibility, It’s worth pointing out that one reason the player character in adventure is a scaled up ball sprite is so the other two sprites the VCS provides could be freed up for more representational objects: a dragon and an item (sword, key). This decision does not discount Nick’s nice argument about the ball-dot as adaptation of the text adventure player character, but rather supports it by showing that Robinett was dealing with an economics of more elaborate representation, and thus explicitly decided that the less representational ball would apply to the player.

  2. andrew Says:

    There was another game from my youth, that I’ve been going dotty trying to remember, in which you man a pixel…

    Then I remembered it: Etch-a-Sketch. One of the finest non-digital pixel men, period.

  3. Free Pixel » code and surface Says:

    […] too many video games.


    code and surface First there was Nick’s post (about the hero-pixel and then this example of a game recording by some Charles B […]

  4. Rob Christensen Says:

    I sure wish I knew more about the Pfeiffers who developed the Qix arcade game. This game is truly the Best game ever developed and I would love to have them personally sign the original upright classic Qix arcade game I have in my gameroom.

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