Style is Substance: The PS1 Aesthetic

Image: Reddit user ckosmic

Welcome to Style Is Substance: The PS1 aesthetic; a pitch for the critical analysis of the low-poly (PS1) aesthetic, and its sudden rise in popularity on modern hardware. This critical analysis exists to help newcomers in game development gain an understanding of how the PS1 aesthetic came to be and give practical knowledge to replicate it in Unity. My DA will involve a video essay and game dev tutorial/journal exploring the subject. This will be supported by a playable (albeit very short) demo based on the information I have acquired through my textual analysis.

To best understand the way this critical analysis will be structured and how it will cover such a broad topic, here is the proposed analytical framework I’m using, covering three topics that I feel are essential to understanding the aesthetic and replicating it:

  1. The Formal (Structuralist) aesthetic elements of PS1 games: specifically, how graphics and atmosphere created through the hardware limitations of the PS1 have informed the style, and how it is replicated in modern hardware.
  2. Cultural Capital: Developing an understanding of this style (and how it is replicated) through a series of interviews and a 1 on 1 tutorial with people I have deemed to have strong cultural capital (or expertise in this field), and how I and others make sense of the aesthetic and its value in the modern gaming world. These interviews are essential in further informing my autoethnographic view of the aesthetic and allow me to develop my skills in recreating the graphical style, which I hope will be passed on to the audience. The format of these interviews are to be decided and will be up to the interviewee’s preference.
  3. Paratext: I will primary be engaging with the paratextual elements of a PS1 game, including demakes of other games and the elements that inform how a player receives a game in the PS1 style, whether that be heavy fog and low draw distance like in Silent Hill or the tank controls and fixed camera angles from Resident Evil. I will also cooperate with the communities surrounding this PS1 aesthetic (in this case, the text) in the form of actual developers and discord communities (Haunted PS1, Bandwidth and PS1 graphics on both discord and Reddit), using these communities as real-world feedback for my process and my own demo. This should help troubleshoot any issues or concerns that may arise during the documentation of this process and give me the best possible opportunity to faithfully recreate the PS1 aesthetic. Knowing how this community is aligned with the graphical style of the PS1 will provide a clear representation of how the PS1 aesthetic operates.

With these key concepts defined, I can now explain how they will inform my digital artefact in detail:

The structuralist account and review of formal elements in a given set of games, both on the original hardware (PS1) and on modern hardware will allow me to develop a greater understanding of the aesthetic and how best to replicate it, I will also use detailed research into the limitations of the PS1 (using sources) to support my findings and develop my own autoethnographic view of the aesthetic.

Research into the cultural capital of this aesthetic will also inform my DA, as I will interview three sources I believe have a valuable role and understanding of the aesthetic and have applied it to their own work, the interviews will largely be used to gain an insight into the process behind recreating the PS1 aesthetic on modern hardware, the first being with the mod of Haunted PS1, a seasoned veteran in this field. The second with Bandwidth, a YouTuber who has garnered a mass following thanks to PS1-related content, this will be particularly interesting as he uses original software to create the aesthetic using the same limitations as the PS1. And the final is with a digital artist by the name of ch4ch_ who makes digital art in blender using the ps1 aesthetic, he also provides 1 on 1 tutorial on making PS1 style models in blender, this information will be used directly in my DA to create models for my demo.

The paratextual element of the DA will be explored in a couple of ways, firstly understanding the paratextual elements of the Haunted PS1 demo disc, namely the ‘cover art’ and Start Screen made to replicate an original PS1 game, and how it (and the PS1 style) influence our perception of the game. Considering this when making my DA and combing that with interaction with communities that specifically engage with the PS1 aesthetic (creating another paratext), I will use these communities to get feedback on the demo as it progresses and use them to further develop my understanding of the process.

In the end, I will have a long-form video essay on the PS1 aesthetic and how a beginner game designer (my intended audience) may replicate my process (or improve upon it) to create their own game in this style. The video will also delve into the recent surge in popularity this aesthetic has had and why this may be, as well as document the process accurately of creating the demo using the information I have gained from the interviews and research I have conducted. As proof of understanding (and hopefully evidence of my own growth in cultural capital) the demo will be available to download and play to see if I have achieved my goal.

I am aiming to have both the video essay and demo out by the 15th of October; a more detailed outline of the key dates includes:

TaskDate
Conducting Background research: The essentials of the PS1 aesthetic, and refamiliarizing myself with 3D Unity essentials and Blender.28th of August
Continuing analysis of PS1 aesthetic, playing games on original hardware and modern hardware (PC), forming an autoethnographic view of the games. Schedule interview times with ch4h, Bandwidth and moderator of Haunted PS1.4th of September
With the analysis of formal elements complete, begin the script for the first part of the video essay.11th of September
Prep interview questions for interviewees, and begin development of demo.18th of September
Using any advice and information from interviews, refine the demo and continue demo creation.25th of September
With Demo in a semi-completed state, interact with discord and present WIP to a public space, engaging with feedback and applying it (whilst documenting the experience).2nd of October
Finalise Script and begin video production/editing, final additions to demo.9th of October
Publish a video essay and demo, and begin critically reflecting on the process using notes made while developing digital artefacts.15th of October
Finalise critical reflection21st of October

Below is a list of sources that I will be using to inform my digital artefact, made up of online sources, videos and academic papers:

Articles –

Exploring the resurgence of the low-fi 3D visual style of the PS1 era: https://www.gamesradar.com/exploring-the-resurgence-of-the-low-fi-3d-visual-style-of-the-ps1-era/

Designing a ‘demake’ in 2018: The making of PS1 love letter OK/NORMAL: https://www.gamedeveloper.com/art/designing-a-demake-in-2018-the-making-of-ps1-love-letter-i-ok-normal-i-

We’re in the beginning of a PS1 aesthetics renaissance: https://www.vice.com/en/article/3an385/were-in-the-beginning-of-a-ps1-aesthetics-renaissance

Social Media –

Gustaw Mackay on Twitter: https://twitter.com/NorthernGus

ch4ch on Instagram: https://instagram.com/ch4ch__?igshid=YmMyMTA2M2Y=

Bandwidth on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/bandwidth_ytb/

Haunted PS1 on Twitter: https://twitter.com/HauntedPs1

Academic/scholarly articles –

PlayStation Architecture: A practical analysis by Rodrigo Copetti: https://www.copetti.org/writings/consoles/playstation/

The Paratext of Video Games: http://www.firstpersonscholar.com/the-paratext-of-video-games/

Fiadotau, Mikhail, 2015. ‘Paratext and meaning-making in indie games’ Journal of Comparative Research in Anthropology and Sociology, vol. 6, no. 1, pp. 88. Available here.

Fernández-Vara, C 2019, Introduction to Game Analysis 2nd edn, Routledge, Milton. Available here.

Public Memory and Gamer Identity: Retrogaming as Nostalgia
by David S. Heineman: http://gamescriticism.org/articles/heineman-1-1

Other Sources:

The Haunted PS1: https://hauntedps1.itch.io/

PS1 Graphics subreddit: https://www.reddit.com/r/ps1graphics/

Bandwidth PS1: https://www.youtube.com/c/Bandwidth_ytb

PS1 Style game playlist: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jCZn2um_6No&list=PLPwIGGh-tc7ESgGAEMDBaVHFDx6IA8pPz

So I Learned To Make PS1 Graphics In Less Than 24 Hours: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vubxL52NlAY

How to make PS1-style graphics: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m3Wf-EegBgg

The SicklyWizard: https://www.youtube.com/c/TheSicklyWizard

Chaff Dev: https://www.youtube.com/c/ChaffDev

Low Poly Horror – Why were the aesthetics of the PS1 so unnerving?: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uhTOThsYZtQ

How the PlayStation Revolutionized Horror: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0y2esMm0lms

The Story of the Playstation (Complete Series) [feat. Drunk Metroid]: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=53yK3giVO1Y

7 responses to “Style is Substance: The PS1 Aesthetic”

  1. This idea is really cool. I like the idea of not only discussing the history of PS1 graphic style, but also providing a physical demo with regards to everything that you will discuss in your essay and journal. You also seem to have a good grasp on what to sources to research for analysis and explanation. Best of luck with your DA, Dylan.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Your DA pitch overall is really well executed, it really sounded like you did the research and digging on what you are going to do for your DA,. especially with all the sources and references you left in your blog post. I also really like how you are going to use an in-depth analysis framework which really goes hand-in-hand with researching and documenting the history of PS1 graphics. Also the inclusion of a well-detailed schedule – seems like you are well organized and know exactly what to do every step of the way. Good Job!

    Like

  3. Hi Dylan!

    First off, wow. This looks like an insane undertaking and looks like it will be an amazing project! You have a solid amount of sources and seem to be heavily invested in this field so I have no notes there. The project plan looks solid and the analytical frameworks all apply well! The structuralist approach looks good as breaking down the core elements of what makes the PS1 style so eerie is really important. Make sure to analyze how such a simple art style elicits such a complex reaction from people both now and when they would play the games back in the day. Instead of looking at it with an auto-ethnographic framework, you could even look at it with a post-structuralist framework. This is essentially looking at the context of the structure itself, and how our systems of knowledge produce the object.

    Sorry if that explanation is rather incoherent, you have a really solid game plan as is!

    Something this reminded me of is an ARG called Gemini Home Entertainment, it’s a horror YouTube Channel set in an alternate reality but they made an advertisement for an actual video game they made in this style for one of their videos. Just thought it might be interesting to you! 🙂

    Like

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