In the 1930s, employees at Universal Studio Cartoons devised a game to interrupt the bow-backed routine of inking cels and preparing animation frames. The men would work rubber bands and clumps of spit-mulched paper into spongy balls, hide them on their laps and, at an opportune moment, hurl the missile at the back of an unsuspecting colleague’s head. A direct hit would be marked with a “bullseye!” that victory cry familiar to boisterous classrooms and offices everywhere, before everyone returned to their busywork, newly invigorated by the emotions of exhilaration, anguish and playful resentment now settling in the room.
Shortly after he joined the company, Tex Avery, the Texan animator who would develop and popularise cartoon characters such as Daffy Duck, Droopy, Porky Pig and Chilly Willy, was busily working when he heard a co-worker shout a warning. Avery spun in his chair just in time to catch one of the projectiles in his left eye. This missile, however, was different: it had been weaponised with a thumbtack. Avery was instantly blinded in one eye. Robbed of depth perception, some speculate that the injury resulted in the unique, chaotic style of Avery’s subsequent, era-defining cartoon work.
50 years later, the emerging video game medium’s art style was similarly funnelled and defined, not by the limitations of physical injury, but by the limitations of technological crudity. The chunky pixels, the three-head-tall characters, the graph-paper mazes, the backgrounds that scrolled like a slow-motion deck shuffle: video game development’s artistic minds were forced to work in tight corridors of possibility. With time the boundaries scraped outwards, and games were no longer forced to share a family likeness. As style diversified, nostalgia for the old ways of working and seeing emerged and today the vintage aesthetic of the medium’s earliest days is as commonplace as any other.