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A Documentary Traces the History of Video Game Graphics

Screencap from the "Pixel Pioneers" video series (via Stuart Brown)
Screencap from the “Pixel Pioneers” video series (via Stuart Brown)

“Game visuals are the most obvious indicator of their technology,” Stuart Brown says in his Pixel Pioneers short documentary series on the graphic history of video games. Last month he released the last of the five-part series on YouTube, concluding with contemporary hyperrealistic graphics that feel light years away from the monochromatic pixels of Pong in 1972.

Pixel Pioneers is a series of short videos, each between eight and nine minutes long, that looks not just at the graphics themselves, but how the technology and design behind them guided gameplay. Brown starts with the emergence of arcade games, where sometimes color was added by a physical translucent overlay on the screen, and early breakthroughs like the 1979 Galaxian, which was basically an update of Space Invaders from the year before, but with multiple colors and the beginnings of dimensions.

By the time Brown reaches Crytek’s 2007 game Far Cry in the series’ fifth installment, graphics are edging into the photorealistic. As he says, the visual effects of recent games are often “designed to sell the illusion of reality.” However, he adds that “the true value of visuals is not in their realism. A game’s aesthetic does far more to establish its character than its polygon count.”

Brown, under the username Ahoy, is a prolific producer of YouTube video game content, mostly with weapon guides, but also “A Brief History of Piracy” (actual swashbuckling pirates, not the kind that steal content) and “Easter Eggs in Video Games.” The Pixel Pioneers series is his most thorough work and, though it is dripping with nostalgia, can be engaging for an audience beyond the gaming community. Along with other projects out there examining video game history from alternate angles like its development of sound, the relatively recent history of gaming deserves such in-depth analysis as an important component of the broader history of technology and design.

View all of the Pixel Pioneers documentary series on YouTube.

h/t Kottke, AV Club

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