There’s a trending account on Twitter©. I know, I know, what the fuck. This account, CRTPixelDoctor or whatever. I refuse to look anything up or make any visual arguments myself because then I’ll become the nerd and lose my high ground. Videogames are only appealing when they’re loose materials in your brain, barely remembered and still barely imagined.
Anyway, this account spread fast because it seems to be making a visual argument about how much is “lost” in the transition between CRT to LCD (which is really just a metaphor for our childhood innocence being degraded by the aesthetic of an encroaching faux-utilitarian, surveillance technocracy (joke (?) )). But this argument isn’t exactly backed up by the account itself! Rather, it’s the consequence of the tweet and twitter itself, we’re all conditioned, or even forced, to have a Pavlovian reaction to 4 images posted from the camera roll. “One must go!” This is a joke please don’t read this and think I’m seriously saying that we all have meme poisoning and that explains everything, but it also does.
I can’t get through a full thought here because this topic (PIXELS MUST BE VIEWED ON A CRT LIKE THE ARTIST INTENDED)is suuuch a fucking wastoid and I can’t believe how much it’s been/is getting egged on.
Back to what I was trying to say: the argument isn’t quite backed up by the account itself. The account rather shows off the diversity of displays and how a display itself augments and interfaces with a videogame. This /should/ be videogame 101, as it’s a practical thing to be considering. The material conditions the social even in arts—how you play, view, encounter, absorb videogames cannot really be decoupled from the experience playing them, although it is often convenient to try to do so. We can cosplay as 00s ludologists and say there’s some pure essence of game that is visually agnostic and would preserve though any kind of art style or visual component, but that has /always/ been some kind of bullshit concocted to imagine videogames as separate from art history, when they can’t possibly be. So it’s worthwhile to think about how technology changes what we see and textures the works we encounter.
Now to then sit from the perch of the most nerdy, and either slightly rich or slightly depressed, and say Hmm, obviously, these pixels look the best on a fucking sony BVM outputting RGB, you can’t be /wrong/ but you also aren’t going to be /right/ and you sound like one of my professors adamantly declaring that you can’t possibly really enjoy a book on your phone because it perverts the experience away from the original and adds distractions. (That last point is somewhat valid). That’s completely missing the point and uh it’s basic of basics that what is best for you might not be best for everyone.
Here’s the part where I say, look, I’m one of you, an expert just like you, and I’m betraying my self-interest. Look, I’ve fallen into an expensive and detrimental hobby of playing games on my own childhood CRT. This is not because it’s BETTER or even more hilariously WHAT THE ARTIST INTENDED FOR ME TO EXPERIENCE, but it’s partially out of urgency because the tech is dying and I do want to have certain kind of a historical perspective when I write about game history, and it’s also partially that I enjoy the physicality of holding a certain kind of controller, having the videogame framed by the television, navigating the different quirks of degrading consoles or clone consoles, navigating the different quirks degrading and different displays…
It is in fact the modularity and imprecise nature of playing from a cartridge that has become extremely stimulating. If I play a game on snes9x, it will generally look the exact same on a plethora of devices (though having a standardized reference is arguably a good thing), barring the slight modulations between modern LCD displays. If I play a game from a snes cartridge from a single console, I cannot and will not reproduce that “sameness” within my own controls. It is going to look different on every single one of my CRTs because they were made decades apart from each other. On top of that difference, it’s going to look even more differenter whether I opt for RF, composite, or RGB output from the console. And I do play in RF sometimes, because fuck any weirdo hi-fi purist reading this. This can be demonstrated by the trending CRTGamerProfessor account as a whole, but rather instead each of the tweets are taken as singular abstract arguments against someone daring to play to an old game on their PC or modern game console.
My sudden interest in retro gaming has been fueled by figuring out new and fun ways to create distorted and inauthentic ways of playing (that won’t fry the equipment anyway). Someone is probably going to get mad reading this paragraph and I invite you to get mad at me. My point of view with this is that analog technology is exciting and personalized because it has more ways to fuck up and go wrong, rather than stumbling on some made up unicorn perfect way of playing the same fucking games. My nes emits a buzzing sound sometimes, my game boy color has a distorted and blurry display, and my mega drive garbles graphics, sometimes. Probably bad, but I have spares. The chance of technological failure and the ways that failure audiovisually expresses itself continues to be a fascinating vector of expression that emulation can only sort of replicate, but not as easily or randomly. Like glitches but isolated to the hardware level, so it has less artistic implications, and like I alluded to earlier, feels like it interfaces with the technocratic side of videogame expression…
Not even getting into my wretched interest in clone consoles that do all of this and more. To sum it up, some of the interesting qualities about analog gaming is that you can modify your devices to do weird shit and buy bootlegs that create entirely new experiences from already familiar material. A kind of very fine, low-level idea of remixing and reinterpretation. Though like, sure, you can download old versions of emulators or fuck around with filters on ZSNES and ruin games that way, but the issue I have there is that older emulators either run at unplayable speeds or don’t have full game compatibility. I can weigh these pros and cons on demand because I’m a full on freak and have been doing this for awhile.
So yeah, analog or retro gaming does not at all need or have to be about chasing the unicorn display set up that looks the best. There’s all kind of inbetweens that I promise you can learn to love, if you ever have some weird drive to. The core truth is that there is no control display for pretty much any game at all period, which I’ll be getting into in a moment, but even for LCDs it’s not really a true statement. People be playing on oddball devices like GPD Win handhelds, hacked game & watches, tablets, random linux hd machines with crappy screens, tiny laptops, those stupid little arcade machines I’d never buy but someone on the atariage forums definitely already has every single one, those awful small hdtvs that display bleed if you look slightly askew, a wide array of phones, and who knows what else. These all change how the game is going to be experienced. But it’s 100% better for the culture that anyone can play beautiful games from now and then on whatever is laying around, right now, with a low barrier to access. Like, uh, the games come first, many of which that are still good and worth playing, and I would recommend playing them on any set up that will encourage or give you the ability to actually finish the game.
Is this hobby about your personal enrichment or about appeasing some outside ideal checklist of things you should be doing? (Okay yeah, that’s a false dichotomy). All this should be obvious, but now with my strange and weird hobby of ruining retro games disclosed, which almost feels more embarrassing to disclose than like a normal kink (I play them with “good” displays too okay! I’m not an extremely weird weirdo I swear!)… ah whatever the fuck this joke isn’t funny and is taking too long.
Unfortunately, I’m not done. The last thing I want to address is the pernicious “how the devs intended” meme. Like I partially touched on before, the material and paratextual conditions that exist around art objects aren’t really possible to decouple from an experiential theory of uhh… art liking. It all happens at once in a thick block of meaning and we filter and siphon out the stuff that’s relevant to our social organizations. Okay, so first, it’s completely fair to extend that conception of material conditions to historical-material conditions, and so you gotta deal with this sometime: There is no possible way to play these old games again under the same conditions that produced them.
Okay though, probably everyone has some conscious or unconscious awareness of this facet. Education in arts history has legit claim toward both understanding and approximating those conditions (if it is possible to approximate), and this helps someone accurately decipher that “thick block of meaning” and come to more accurate and relevant conclusions about the historical record. When treading this line, it’s very useful to be going back and studying and rediscovering the quirks of analog and CRT technology, to try to understand “how the games used to look” and “what developers did to ensure games looked a certain way.”
Accuracy is only one way to approach the historical record. It’s also enriching to engage with history and arts history in a solidly modern and contemporary context, sorting through things that can be applied currently. This kind of interaction doesn’t really require true accuracy because it’ll be more personalized and abstract anyway. More importantly, just playing games doesn’t require a faux-academic interest in game history, and like… there isn’t really any other reason to care about “what the devs intended.” Another dramatic and goofy proclamation: is arts history a cudgel to condition the present or a knowledge we can use toward our own ends?
I intend to continue playing pokemon on the toilet and now I’m going to troll a bit. No artists intend for art to be used in the ways they are inevitably used, because we have ways to project, display, and play with games (and art) basically anywhere and in a mind boggling amount of formats. You can imagine the wide array of misuse of videogames without difficulty, but just for a quick array 1. When I make games I don’t really intend the ideal shitting conditions while playing 2. When I make games I don’t really intend for people half paying attention while playing gacha games, or while browsing twitter, or while watching the latest made for netflix smash 3. When I make games I don’t really intend for people mocking them or coming to negative conclusions, however…
Artist intention is interesting to reconstruct when considering art history and absolutely irritating, pointless, and maybe a little bit dangerously deferential in pretty much any other context. Artists are just people and art are just things people make. Right? It can be awe-inspiring to see what humans are capable of, individually and collectively, but they’re not superhumans or more than human for that ability, and when I keep that in mind, I don’t feel any compulsion to deify their work. This is sort of related to a confidence in my own artistic process. I already know what nothings I want the world to hold, and I’m not really interested in getting any closer to my influences. Personally, I want to extricate a lot of my influences, though I also think it’s reasonable to say that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach toward a game design education. Get as close to your influences as you want, but that is never going to be the only way to make a game.
For the coup de grâce, here are some more plainer gotchas. LCD televisions have been around since the 80s, LCD displays became somewhat common for high end pc nerds in the late 90s (even before the flatscreen TV boom), and somewhat relatedly, black and white displays were still being used during the mid-80s (and probably later, like, I had a crt forever, it’s called being poor). There were also those dorky portable televisions… anyway how much a display $$$’d made a huge difference on what and how it was going to display (I know because I have one of those small tvs Lol). This is on top of the divergence between different types of display signals, it’s really hard to convincingly say that there was one singular ideal correct way people were playing games, if we’re talking about “how people played games” when the games were released. If we’re not talking about that then… uhhhh.
Let’s think about this seriously. I’ve seen pictures of Sega’s mega drive artist stations, anyways, and those were pretty fucking high end displays. They probably had some test displays, for sure, but like… if these games weren’t worked on with consumer grade televisions (because it would be hard or inaccurate to do work on them!), yet the images were meant for consumer grade televisions, isn’t there are already a disconnect? Were the developers super omniscient artists that anticipated all the different weirdo configurations everyone was doing and is doing, or is it more believable that they were working under pressure for tight deadlines and made something that looked pretty good on the test displays they had on hand? The latter, I think, gets closer to some “artist intention,” but that doesn’t quite map up some absolute sense of “pixel art is meant to display on a crt” because we rarely or don’t have access to those test displays. We’re just looking at these nice displays that create some kind of neato effect and retroactively declaring the artist’s intention for them, without consulting any fucking primary sources! Some historical record! (I will admit that these reconstructions are probably right, but it’s a fact that we don’t /know/ or have any confirmation still).
I want to consider the videogame historical record for a little bit, because display technology /purposefully/ diverged as far back as (goes to google the game boy release date) as 1989 — though might be worthwhile to say that this divergence occurred even earlier considering all the dedicated handhelds that existed before the game boy. Now, it is plainly obvious that graphics on the game boy and other retro handhelds were crafted with their original LCD displays in mind, which is half of the crt nerd argument (that is to say, the graphics were made with crt displays in mind), though ironically these devices that have a standardized display and CAN ACCURATELY BE CLAIMED TO MATCH THE ARTIST’S INTENTION aren’t ever in these discussions, and there isn’t really a cadre of Game Boy Pocket purists, because the screens cause eye strain in the first place and you can’t spend thousands of dollars chasing some fictional unicorn of the most accurate GBP. (Actually, I’d bet money that the average crt memer would be one of the first to install a LCD mod in their GBP Lmao).
This gets even sillier though. The original dot matrix game boy, the game boy pocket, and the game boy player all coexisted at the same time, and one single game boy game would look completely different in each device. In my opinion, the gb pixel art was usually meant for the LCD displays, but, some of the same pixel techniques, such as dithering, that are being claimed as some kind of particular CRT magic, were also used in game boy games that would display the pixels solidly on a matrix with no blurring. (Check out any original Konami game boy game). Someone could claim that the developers were anticipating all the different ways to display game boy games, but I’m calling bullshit, because dithering just looks good even on a game boy LCD!
Okay now I’m done. Y’all are free to be weirdo audiophiles toward old nintendo games but I strongly recommend not making it into some urgent moral/taste thing where people are wrong or idiots for enjoying their smooth pixels. Goodass CRT filters (the one on higan fucks) and FPGA hardware solutions seem to be enthusiastically being worked on regardless if the normie is made to feel like a dweeb for wanting to play final fantasy on their nintendo switch. It seems very likely that we will have both (like we /already do/) and then this zeal will look even more insular and goofy.