Through his work at Capybara, based in Toronto, Canada, Vic Nguyen has developed his pixel art skills in public via the company’s emergence on the game development scene ten years ago, working on a string of modest mobile titles before moving onto more critically acclaimed fare such as Critter Crunch and Might & Magic: Clash Of Heroes. It was 2014’s Super Time Force, though, that really saw him shift gears, contributing art and animation to one of the most vividly rendered action games of recent years.
APPEAL “It used to bring me a sense of nostalgia, of my younger self in his pyjamas, crawling out of bed after mum and pa went to bed, to sneakily play Nintendo and Sega! Because pixel art is so deeply rooted in the very dawn of videogames, it gets really easy to label it as ‘retro’. But more and more, when I’m working on it, it’s not really my goal to convey that sense of nostalgia or try to make it look ‘old’. To me, pixel art has become like any other medium you could use to create images and express something. You don’t look at paint on a canvas and say, ‘Oh, that’s so retro.’ At least I hope no one does.”
HISTORY “I started doing pixel art way back in 2006 – when I started working for Capy, actually. I had never tried any pixel art prior to that, but then again, Capy had never really made games before, so it was perfect. We started out doing contract work on mobile games, and I’m talking pre-iPhone, pre-smartphones. Dumbphones, really. Anyway, the games Capy was making could only use pixel art, and I was hired as an artist so I had to pick up pixel art pretty quick! I had amassed a huge cache of pixel art references from other games, and I pored over them. I was used to doing still images in different mediums, so I thought if I just stared at all this beautiful pixel art it’d rub off on me. But quickly I learned that videogame art goes way beyond just figuring out a look or style for the game – it’s about how you animate everything; how things look when they move and react. I think with those early games we were all just doing the best we could, flying by the seat of our pants. But after a short time I think I started to develop my own style, as did Capy. More and more of my stuff started to look less like the games in my references folder and more like my own thing, I guess. By the time we got to Super Time Force, I was definitely just making everything in my own voice, alongside the other pixel artists at the studio. I feel like it’s always been really important to me that things have some original quality to them, one way or the other, and I get to that by just experimenting, even if it’s just a tiny step towards something new that most people wouldn’t notice. I need to be doing that in anything I’m involved in. In fact, I became confident enough in my voice as a pixel artist that I began making weird pixel portraits of people and pets.”
INSPIRATION “[It comes from] Craig Adams. Hands down. He’s the incredible pixel artist Superbrothers; we worked with him on Sword & Sworcery. Having him in our office every day, seeing him exude creativity and originality, like a distinct voice through pixel art – that was a big game-changer for me. He set the bar really high. In the morning he’d say, ‘Hi, Vic’ and I would mumble back, ‘You’re my hero,’ but too quiet for him to hear. He probably thought I was weird.”
STYLE “Again, having to animate all those little pixels really dictates a lot of style. You can go crazy and make these hugely layered and complex images – but then you have to animate them and you have a whole team counting on you and a schedule to keep. I try to keep things clean and simple. But other than that I would say my style is… cute?”
THE SCENE “In a weird way I feel like pixel art in 2016 is in the same place it was in like 1996 – there’s tons of it around, but you have to really look to find the stuff that stands out on both a technical and artistic level. Besides a couple of standouts like the work Tribute Games is doing, and Hyper Light Drifter, there isn’t much that makes me go, ‘Wowza!’ I think it’s because pixel art is so heavily steeped in nostalgia at this point, that when you use it you really have to have a point of view or an innovative take. It runs the risk of becoming stagnant if it’s simply to evoke the past.”
ADVICE “I think pixel art is an easy way to get your foot in the art door. If you have an eye and a lot of patience, you can connect one pixel to another and create images. But it’s like any other form of art: you’ve got to study and practise it. And if you’re specifically getting into pixel art to be part of the videogame industry, then don’t neglect the animation component. Remember: animation equals life.”