A year ago, Marcus Dewdney, an artist in Toronto, started a project inspired by Pokémon, the beloved series of monster-collecting video games that launched on Game Boy in the United States in 1998. He pulled up images from the 2001 games Pokémon Gold and Silver and, using the image editor paint.net, copied them in his own style, illuminating the rudimentary, decades-old pixelated landscapes with richer colors and patterns. Scant grids of symbolic leaves from the original game became swirls of gnarled trees; straight lines meant to suggest cliffs became craggy, precipitous rock faces. This past March, Dewdney and several other artists completed the entire map of Gold and Silver—which can be explored screen by screen on a dedicated Web site. Now the group is working on overhauling the original Pokémon games, Red and Blue. Viewers of Dewdney’s images often comment, “This is how I saw it in my head as a kid,” he told me. “That’s the feeling I want to evoke. It’s when I look back and get that fuzzy, nostalgic feeling.” (He first played Pokémon Red at the age of five, choosing Charmander.)
Pixel art is an intentionally rudimentary graphic style based on the capabilities of vintage computing. The visuals of the original Nintendo Entertainment System, from 1985, consisted of a 256-by-240 grid of tiny squares of color. There were fifty-four hues altogether; each character was limited to three colors at a time. The density of detail grew over the decades, as technology improved, but the early restrictions established the visual vocabulary for a generation of video games: an evocative simplicity. I first noticed Dewdney’s work on Twitter, where he is part of a growing contingent of pixel artists who have moved away from platforms like Tumblr and Instagram, the former being moribund and the latter soul-suckingly algorithmic. Looking at his intricately redrawn maps, I felt my own pangs of nostalgia—they brought me back to playing Pokémon on a Game Boy in the back seat of my parents’ car, during road trips around the turn of the millennium. I would start a new game each time and see how far I could get. At a time before hyperrealistic 3-D graphics and screen overexposure, the desaturated pixels were innocently entrancing, an immersive other world.
Pokémon has never really gone away. Nintendo has maintained a steady stream of re-releases, including, in November, a version of Pokémon Diamond and Pearl, from 2006. But the original games, with their telegraphic pixel art, are right on time for what the writer Carl Wilson once called the “20-year cycle of resuscitation” of popular culture—a generational revival of bygone styles and ideas. By that calculation, we have reached the first wave of nostalgia for early digital life, a longing for our first digital worlds, onscreen spaces in which we could act, create, and communicate.
Yet, as I talked to other artists, designers, and trend forecasters about the burgeoning appeal of these lo-fi digital aesthetics, another motivation emerged. Nostalgia is partly a response to disappointment with the present. For many people, the earlier era of the Internet represents a time when they still had power over their digital lives, before they became dependent upon the repetitive templates, inhuman scale, and turbocharged content feeds offered by the likes of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok. The company formerly known as Facebook is now pitching a new vision in the form of the metaverse, a virtual-reality space in which we are supposed to live our lives. But the cartoonish, 3-D-rendered avatars that Mark Zuckerberg showcased in a recent video presentation are a far cry from those charming early Pokémon sprites. The revival of pixel art may be a quest for the kind of variety and texture that massive social-media networks have gradually banished, a harkening back to a messier, more human moment in our digital lives.
Pay attention, and you’ll start noticing signs of digital nostalgia everywhere. A clone of the Web site for MySpace, the early-aughts social-networking service, recently drew three hundred thousand subscribers. (“No algorithms,” it promises.) Neopets (c. 1999), an early online game featuring cartoon fantasy creatures in a storybook world, is being kept alive by a band of devotees. Some of the most popular recent independent video games, such as the farming role-playing game Stardew Valley and the adventure game Celeste, are entirely pixel art, despite the sophisticated capabilities of modern computing. Pixel art also dominates within the booming N.F.T. market: CryptoPunks, ten thousand 24-by-24-pixel images of sci-fi faces, now sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars each as ready-made digital identities.
With all of the gazing backward, the new digital era, which is often labelled Web3, may end up looking a bit like the older, pre-Facebook Internet. (Web2 was the rise of mass social media.) Robin Sloan, a novelist and technology commentator, recently published an essay titled “Notes on Web3,” in which he compared this moment to “the ferment of the late 2000s, a new social network flaring up every week.” According to Sloan, today’s excitement is all about rediscovering a sense of online ownership and creativity that has been gone since the era of blogs and browser games. “Feeling like something is yours is important,” Sloan told me.
Gather, a startup launched in 2020, is one of a new wave of social-networking platforms drawing upon the aesthetic of that older era. Whereas Zuckerberg’s metaverse embraces photorealistic graphics, Gather is built on pixel art in a style most familiar from nineties-era Super Nintendo role-playing games like EarthBound. I met the company’s twenty-three-year-old C.E.O. and co-founder, Phillip Wang, in Gather’s online “office,” which is its only workspace. The app places users—there have been ten million in the past year—in a pixelated building interior, with repeating tiles of hardwood on the floor, white desks (like any startup), and colorful indoor topiaries. Each visitor designs an avatar from a selection of elements and walks around the space with arrow keys. Video chat is limited to a small square showing your face in one corner of the window.
As I followed Wang’s avatar around (he wore a yellow beanie and a parrot on his shoulder), past pixel couches and conference rooms, he explained how Gather augments online chat with a “metaphor” of physical space: your avatar has to be close to someone else’s in order to talk, and if you walk away the audio fades out. Casual conversations gravitate toward couch areas; a work discussion might be initiated by walking to a colleague’s digital desk. Housewarmings, weddings, and corporate conferences from the likes of Coca-Cola and Magic: The Gathering have all been held using Gather, in spaces that many users designed themselves from an archive of pixel-art assets. It’s a more passive, less obtrusive way of simulating presence, without requiring a V.R. helmet. Wang led me up to the office building’s roof, where it’s always dusk and a pink-and-purple cityscape extends to the horizon, fragmenting into geometric abstraction. “I do a bunch of my meetings up here,” Wang said. “All of the investor calls.”
I asked Wang where the decision to embrace pixel art had come from. He said that it was his own fond memories of an online role-playing game from his childhood called MapleStory. MapleStory débuted in South Korea, in 2003; it had lush pixelated maps and intricately customizable avatars, with chat bubbles to talk to other players. Through the game, “I would have very meaningful relationships with people who I never met in person,” Wang said. “There was a visceral sense of community with everyone who was also playing M.M.O.R.P.G.s [massively multiplayer online role-playing games] that would persist. A lot of people who work here had similar experiences; they found their sense of belonging in online communities.” The impetus for Gather emerged from Wang and his friends’ desire to stay in touch online after graduating college, a function once served by Facebook.
Using Gather induced some cognitive dissonance for me. I didn’t want my own fuzzy feelings toward adolescent gaming obsessions (mine was a Korean M.M.O.R.P.G. called Ragnarok Online) to be co-opted by companies to make online office work more comfortable or efficient—and thus profitable. The vintage video games were about play. “These earlier worlds, it was escapism from the rat race and capitalism: you don’t have to think about work,” Maria Vorobjova, a London-based artist who builds her own microcosmic digital environments, told me. With the corporatized metaverse, she continued, “it’s less of an escape.”
Vorobjova’s art work imagines utopian digital spaces. Her piece “Wood Wide Web,” from 2021, is a simulated video game of a biological office space, presented in glitching, imprecise polygon models with pixelated, supersaturated textures. The graphics are intentionally messy. Vorobjova, who recalls playing games on her father’s desktop computer as a young girl, uses the rendering software Blender and then films walk-throughs of her creations in low-resolution 320-by-265 pixels, mimicking the capacity of the original 1994 PlayStation. Upsizing the videos for modern platforms only exaggerates the graininess. The work is an attempt to evoke what the Internet used to be, Vorobjova said: “A continuous rabbit hole, leading to unpredictable, mystical destinations.” When she adds small details to the worlds she builds, she added, “I’m trying to make that old aesthetic new again.”
The least predictable, and perhaps most mystical, section of the Internet right now is the world of blockchain technology. Fuelled by rising prices and crypto-native investment vehicles, the appetite for cryptocurrencies and N.F.T.s often feels uncontainable, unable to be absorbed by the incumbent tech giants. The crypto aesthetic is also fittingly chaotic. On the whole, N.F.T. art embraces the retrograde, childish, and lowbrow, forged from the digital visual vocabulary of the nineties. Think of Beeple’s zombified political figures, which have been shown at Christie’s, or Bored Ape Yacht Club’s stoned monkeys, which have popped up in physical public murals in Brooklyn. N.F.T.s are often compared to Pokémon, and not only because the Nintendo game is a common reference point within the millennial and male-dominated demographic of crypto wealth. N.F.T.s offer another chance to “catch ’em all,” as Pokémon demanded—except, this time around, breathtaking amounts of money are at stake. Taylan McRae-Yu, the director of a nonprofit in Ottawa and an N.F.T. collector, told me, “None of us can justify the cost of these N.F.T.s, really. Chalking it up to vibes feels like it’s the most honest approach.”
This September, McRae-Yu picked up two N.F.T.s from a collection called CrypToadz, by an artist with the pseudonym Gremplin. The Toadz comprise nearly seven thousand reptilian images, most of them pixel art in blocky 36-by-36-pixel squares, many including references to other bits of crypto culture: Shiba Inu dogs, hoodies, and 3-D glasses. They sell in the secondary market for as much as half a million dollars in Ethereum. “I work from my subconscious, which is built on a foundation of Nintendo Entertainment System pixels with a muted palette,” Gremplin told me. He cited games such as Super Mario Bros., Bubble Bobble, and Super Off Road. Another N.F.T. collector, the pseudonymous Punk4156, who owns more than a hundred CrypToadz and thirty-five CryptoPunks, offered a lofty art-historical explanation for pixel art’s appeal: “It’s almost like Impressionism or Cubism. The pixelation kind of leaves room for interpretation from the viewer,” he said, during a phone call. “It makes it a lot more timeless.”
The true innovation of N.F.T.s is that they function as ownership tags on digital artifacts, a way of indicating that something online has value, at least in the eyes of its collector. The high prices also serve, in part, as a way of anointing childhood obsessions as integral parts of contemporary culture. Some N.F.T. pieces are described as being “on-chain,” which means that not only the ownership information but the imagery itself can be reconstituted from the bits of code stored on the blockchain. In on-chain N.F.T.s, our aesthetic past dovetails in yet another way with our technological future: simple pixel art is a popular style because it’s the easiest kind to encode. The retro gridded squares thus represent a cutting-edge realm in which digital culture can be possessed, held in the grip of the user once more.
Succumbing to my own digital nostalgia, I recently bought the newly rebooted Pokémon Brilliant Diamond for the Nintendo Switch console—which has a convenient mobile mode so that I can play it while prone on the couch, as I once did on school nights. The pixel art of the original has been upgraded into smooth polygons with bright, saturated colors and intricate backgrounds, from sunlit flower meadows to dank caves. The game still exists, for the most part, in two dimensions, like a moving diorama, though it lacks the handmade, organic quality of Marcus Dewdney’s redrawings—the redesigned forests are still just grids of trees.
It has been a comfort to immerse myself in a digital environment that doesn’t update or change every minute, as social media does, with its thousands of blips of new content. I thought that it might be boring, too slow or simplistic, but playing Pokémon is easily more satisfying than an hour spent checking Twitter. My decisions have actual consequences, at least within the game; instead of shouting into the public void, I am performing for myself alone. Social media promised to facilitate self-expression, but in practice it hasn’t always delivered. In the decades since I last played Pokémon, I’d forgotten that slowly assembling a team of little monsters and meandering through a lo-fi world was also a way of creating a digital self—a private, parallel identity that could be whatever you wanted it to be.
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