Back to the Future

As Wong also noted, the technical limitations of games in the 1980s drove a lot of the decision making. The Commodore 64 displayed 16 colours. “They went out of their way to choose really ugly ones,” Falstein believed.

Falstein shared a video of a presentation the games team had made in the very early days of LucasArts. It contained all of those 16 ugly colours, and games that were later abandoned.

He talked about a game that involved David Bowie as a character. Bowie’s people were particularly keen that his eyes (which were famously different colours) would be faithfully represented, and supplied Falstein with Pantone colour references for each eye. On the Commodore 64, Falstein explained, anybody’s eye was a single black pixel.


Growing Up
Recently returned to his native Australia to found a new studio, Mountains, Ken Wong has also worked in China, the UK and the US. He was lead designer on ustwo’s mobile hit Monument Valley, which was named Apple’s 2014 iPad Game of the Year and won a BAFTA for Best Mobile and Handheld Game. The game also featured in an episode of Netflix’sHouse of Cards, which did its prospects no harm.

At NZGDC16 Wong discussed the changes that increased processing power and capacity had had on game art over the years. From the 8-bit eye as a single pixel (in any one of 16 colours so long as it was black) it took a while before 2D representations of perspective were possible.

“The front-on side-scrolling representation is a uniquely video game artform,” he claimed. A decade later came basic 3D capability, layering, a broader palette of colours and more mature aesthetic. When full-motion video arrived – albeit with a resolution that looks horrible now – the limitations were no longer much of a constraint on what could be done.

Monument Valley

Monument Valley

While many creators acknowledge that a blank sheet of paper is a terrifying place to start a journey, the limitations on what games can do are becoming few. Soft surfaces such as grass, cloth, water, still aren’t photo-realistic. Although lighting and shaders have improved dramatically, creating shadows that behave as they should in real time is still difficult.

But with greater processing capability and more complex modelling come greater amounts of time required to create assets and, therefore, greater costs.

For some games, the aesthetic is the most important thing about them, Wong suggested. In the sometimes perjoratively-named “walking simulators” such as Abzu or Dear Esther, the gameplay is limited and often only serves to allow players to experience the full effect of the environment.