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Substance is Style: The Contextual Report

Featured Image: © Sony PlayStation 25th Anniversary

Style is Substance: The PS1 Aesthetic is a Digital Artefact consisting of a critical analysis of the low-poly (PS1) aesthetic and its sudden rise in popularity on modern hardware. It’s accompanied by a demo showcasing the skills I have gained by applying an analytical framework when conducting my research into the topic. The critical analysis was created in mind to help newcomers in game development understand how the PS1 aesthetic came to be and give a real-world example of how one may implement a nostalgic art style in their own games with little to no experience.

To best understand how this critical analysis is structured and how it covers such a broad topic, I’m going to break down the analytical framework I’ve used to inform my textual analysis and how its implantation has shaped my project. Once that’s been established, I will explore the process of making a long-form critical analysis and functioning game demo.

The Analytical Framework:

A quick video summarising what each element is and how they apply to my project.

The Formal elements of PS1 games (Structuralism): Structuralism was a critical aspect of the early development of both my critical analysis and playable demo. I decided to compare games on both the original hardware (the PS1 itself) and modern games made in the same style to understand what are just some of the formal elements that make the aesthetic so appealing and immediately recognisable. This also involved a considerable amount of background research into each particular formal element. For example, I determined that the aesthetic grew from the limitations imposed by the hardware and that one of the most important things that defined the PS1’s style was a depth rendering error known as affine texture warping. I decided to use an excerpt from a video that explained the ‘problem’ better than I could articulate it myself. As mentioned before, a structuralist approach is taken when the formal elements are found through the comparison of similar texts, so I compared three games on the PS1 and talked about the unique aspects of each game (controls, specific techniques used by the developers, etc.) and, most importantly, the elements that made each game similar in terms of their aesthetic. These elements were:

  • Low Poly Models and Low-Res textures.
  • Polygon Jittering
  • Lack of z-buffer
  • Warped textures
  • Depth Cueing Fog
  • Third person controls

Using these formal elements found through the structuralist lens informed every aspect of my DA; they became the basis of my interview questions, assessment of modern interpretations of the style, and how I created my own demo.

Low poly modelling and rigging were some of the things I learnt to do during my time trying to recreate the PS1 aesthetic.

Cultural Capital: This aspect of my analytical framework had much more of an impact on my DA than I had initially anticipated. Essentially I wanted to be in contact with at least three respected figures in the PS1 graphics community and let them use their expertise in the field to guide my DA. I couldn’t be happier with the result. I originally wanted to discuss the logistics of using the PS1’s original hardware to make as faithful of a recreation of the aesthetic as possible. Still, due to scheduling issues, I could not talk at any length with Bandwidth, a YouTuber who had seen a rise in popularity since creating PS1-centred videos. What I did manage, however, was the chance to ask Sickly Wizard a few questions regarding his approach to the PS1 aesthetic. This was an excellent foundation for my own process in developing my demo. It gave me confidence knowing that the elements he considered essential to making a game look “PS1” aligned with the formal elements I had found through my structuralist approach to the games I interacted with. Sickly also played a crucial role in developing my own skills when it came to the production of my playable demo, partly due to his advice and his video series on recreating the PS1 aesthetic. Here is a link to the complete answers he gave to each of my questions.
In terms of cultural capital, Haunted PS1 and its mods were astoundingly generous with their advice and identifying formal elements in the PS1 style. Through their answers to questions, I gained a deeper insight into why the PS1 style has become so popular and why people are gravitating towards it in modern independent game dev communities, and I found a reoccurring answer to my question pertaining to why the PS1 style is becoming more popular, In essence, it’s because it is much easier for a solo, beginner game dev to make a game, so a massive influx of games in the style can be made by people with relatively low experience and still conform the formal elements of the aesthetic. My final Interaction with someone with a certain level of cultural capital was Ch4ch, an Instagram digital artist working in the PS1 – inspired aesthetic. Aaron (CH4ch) was super helpful in developing the skills I needed in order to realise the formal elements of the PS1 aesthetic I was trying to capture. In which he taught me everything from Blender basics to texture unwrapping. This proved especially useful as I faced issues implementing my own objects into Unity and nailing the aesthetic.

Blender lesson with Ch4ch

Paratext: Paratext was probably the most significant part of my research and informed my DA greatly because of the almost fluid interpretation I had of what a paratext is and the many forms it took throughout the development of my DA. I started by explaining the concept in layman’s terms, as it quickly became apparent to me that the PS1 aesthetic is informed by paratextual elements that instantly make it recognisable while also being a paratextual element in itself. I primarily drew from Steven Harvie’s blog post, in which he draws from Steven Edward Jones’ The Meaning of Video Games: Gaming and Textual Studies. This was particularly helpful as I was able to define what paratexts are in videogames and the distinction between formal ‘in-game’ paratexts, like game cases, loading screens, graphical styles, and the notion of the ‘Demake’; in which modern texts are reinterpreted with a PS1 aesthetic. I was also able to weave my own DA through the external paratexts of online communities that interact with and inform a text or paratext; in this case, this was interacting with the PS1 graphic community (including those with cultural capital) and receiving feedback from members of the community in order to develop my DA further and adhere to the paratexts definition of the formal elements of the PS1 aesthetic. Knowing how this community was aligned with the graphical style of the PS1 provided a clear representation of how the PS1 aesthetic operated and how well I had done in faithfully recreating it.

The game cover (paratext) I made, was inspired by the Lawnmower man (1992)

With my analytical framework established and how it informed my DA explored, I can now discuss some other properties of my DA, like my research surrounding nostalgia. In one of my questions to Sickly Wizard, I said that nostalgia may be a contributing reason as to why the PS1 aesthetic has become so popular recently, in which he said: while it does play a key role in why the style is widespread, the aesthetic is simply easy to make and allows for greater freedom for indie developers. While I did find myself agreeing with Sickly (of which the mods of Haunted PS1 also alluded to that being the reason), I found myself wanting to explore the topic further. So I decided to explore the ideas of restorative and reflective nostalgia as outlined by Christopher Moore. In his lecture, Christopher explained the differences between the two concepts. I found it incredibly useful in determining how I could define what the PS1 aesthetic is and what separates modern interpretations of it from playing games made for the hardware. I determined through Chris’ lecture that current game developers were much more likely to engage in reflective nostalgia, as opposed to restorative nostalgia as a way of combining modern game mechanics with a familiar and easy-to-create style. In the case of Haunted PS1, the style evokes a sense of the uncanny as well as nostalgia, making a case for the best application of the aesthetic.

Another aspect of my DA I found interesting was the short feedback loops I could engage in if I ever got stuck in developing a playable prototype. For example, as pictured above, I could simply ask the PS1 graphics discord what they thought of the work that I was doing, and I (almost) instantly received feedback that could help me refine my skills and adhere to the PS1 aesthetic.

With all the elements that comprised my DA discussed, I feel it’s necessary to discuss what went wrong with my DA and the parts that I had to take out of both my video and demo.

Perhaps the biggest issue with my DA (specifically my demo) is my lack of skills in game development. This directly impacted both the schedule outlined in my pitch and the scope of my project as I created it, pushing my project overdue by about a week, and causing me to adapt to my own limitations as a game designer. The three elements I feel would have improved my DA include the following:

  • A more traditional-styled PS1 project: I originally intended to make the opening of a Silent Hill-inspired horror game, getting as far as to create the scene in Unity primarily using assets. The problem was my lack of control and far too ambitious goals. I figured through FIST design principles, the DA would benefit by having three iterations of the demo (the spinning cube, the fixed camera and the playable demo [in first person]) rather than relying on one extensive demo that may or may not have captured the aesthetic. Overall, I feel I could have done more, but I am still proud of the work I accomplished.
A Failed prototype of the game more inspired by Silent Hill.
  • I would have also liked to explore a few more elements that essentially defined the PS1 style, the first two being the Playstation’s unique sound design and how early CGI was implemented in the games. While I was able to touch on the concepts, I didn’t explore them thoroughly and do wish that I could have incorporated them into my DA. I also think I could have pushed for these elements to be informed by my research into paratext, as they inform the style and create meaning for players.
  • Finally, I think I would have included tutorials if I had the chance. It would have conformed with my original intention to cater to an audience of beginner game developers in recreating the PS1 aesthetic, giving them a contextualised tutorial on replicating the style rather than providing a general history and analysis of it.

Style is Substance taught me a lot about textual analysis and game development; it was through an analytical framework that I was able to create a well-rounded view of the PS1 aesthetic. Its modern interpretations, in turn, develop my confidence as a solo game developer. I feel that my originally intended audience may not find as much value in the textual analysis as they could have (provided everything went smoothly and time/resources were abundant). Overall, I am satisfied with my DA and proud of how far I was able to come in such a short amount of time.

So please, don’t forget to check out the video at the top of this post and try out the demo. If I could do it, you certainly could too!

DOWNLOAD THE GAME DEMO HERE: I have tried this out on some computers, and a bug has caused the camera to have a strobe light effect. Please do not download if you suffer from epilepsy or are sensitive to bright, flashing lights. I will try to amend this in the coming weeks.

Here is a link to all of Sickly Wizard’s answers to my questions!

Sources & Further Reading:

My original Pitch – Style is Substance: The PS1 Aesthetic: https://dylanbgameexperience.wordpress.com/2022/08/19/style-is-substance-the-ps1-aesthetic/

A brief analysis of my framework – The Bones of Style is Substance: Explaining My Analytical Framework: https://dylanbgameexperience.wordpress.com/2022/09/16/the-bones-of-style-is-substance-explaining-my-analytical-framework/

Unity Learn: https://learn.unity.com/

Blender: https://www.blender.org/

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 at 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 Revolutionised 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

PSX Effects basic tutorial: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9612hsnA_5Y

Recreating the PS1’s affine texture Warping with Unity Shaders: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tbe2niFQI2M

Why PlayStation 1 Graphics Warped and Wobbled so much | MVG: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x8TO-nrUtSI

98DEMAKE: https://www.youtube.com/c/98DEMAKE

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