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The "Retro" within Retro/Grade

Posted: Wed Oct 30, 2013 10:03 am
by macaca
Hi everyone, of the many details in Retro/Grade, I think it is particularly fun to try noticing are the numerous references to the 80's and some even earlier.

Some are quite hidden: for example, the Octobot and Rick Rocket's ship cast a blocky, two-dimensional shadow on the back wall of the level that flashes on and off for only brief moments at a time. It is a creepy effect angled in such a way to remind the player of the size differential between Rick Rocket's tiny ship and the enormous spider-like boss. Giving the player just brief glimpses of a shadow is a classic horror technique Matt has also employed to great effect in the NN demo (I'm referring to the terrifying event when a monster's shadow appears briefly through a reflected window, the first real scare of the demo), but the actual makeup of the shadow in Retro/Grade is also reminiscent of 1978's Space Invaders and other classic shooting games from the 2-d era. There are other retro references in the game that are more obvious but not at all less effective- a personal standout for me is the lovely Disco Mode filter cheat, which reminds me of roller skating rinks I experienced as a kid when they shut out the lights so we could wave around those diphenyl oxalate glowsticks. Other noticeable retro references are found in the chapter titles, several of them referencing classic 80's video games like Zelda 2, Pro Wrestling, and Zero Wing (which is actually from early-90s). While "Play Him Off" is a reference a much newer meme than the others, it originates from Keyboard Cat, a home video created in the mid-1980s.

I'm quite certain that Rick Rocket's ship is partially inspired by Alex's spaceship from 1984's "The Last Starfighter," and the game's neon color pallet is classic "Tron." These two films are significant because they represent early efforts to fuse video game storylines with science fiction movies, using CGI techniques that are crude by today's film standards but were far too sophisticated for the games of their era (the video game version of Tron is certainly great, but it was unable to replicate the spooky neon glow of the effects used in the actual film). Retro/Grade closes this gap by borrowing from those classic CGI film effects and applying them to a classic-style 2d space shooter focused on scoring. The effect of this FEELS like you are playing a classic 80's movie about classic 80's videogames, but nothing like that could actually exist until now. This effect is heightened by the game's fantastic original music by Nautalis, which is clearly inspired by the classic 80's science fiction film scores of Vangelis (Blade Runner, Chariots of Fire), Brad Fiedel (The Terminator), and Howard Blake (Flash Gordon), among others.

For those of you who have unlocked the "Retro/Noir" filter cheat, Matt reaches far further back into the history of 20th century entertainment than the 80's. While the "noir" label Matt gave this colorless filter might suggest he is trying to evoke the classic Hollywood black-and-white "noir" films from the 40s and 50s, the grainy visuals and phonographic sound fidelity accompanying them reflects a much earlier period, stretching back to the start of the 20th century when silent film originated. Given Retro/Grade's space theme, I think Matt is referencing the very first science fiction film, Georges Méliès' "Le Voyage dans la Lune," first released in 1902 (Scorsese's 2011 film "Hugo" gives a nice homage to this classic movie.) While I initially inferred that Matt chose to translate into French all of the power-up notations when using this cheat as an homage to the French film critic Nino Frank who coined the term "Film Noir" ("Black Film"), I think it makes more sense that Matt's use of French is actually on homage to Méliès and other early francophone film pioneers, notably the Lumière Brothers. Another interesting variation on the same theme occurs when you trigger the overthruster while using the Retro/Noir filter cheat. A rush of saturated poly-chromatic color floods the screen, reminiscent of Méliès' painstaking effort to "colorize" his films by painting each frame with a limited color pallet.

Another subtle retro reference is the Hypersphere boss of the "Play Him Off" level, which more than resembles the classic Epcot Center icon "Spaceship Earth," constructed in 1982. One thing that I think is particularly interesting about what Matt has done with this particular reference is that it represents a fusion of two classic ideas from two of the most important science fiction icons of the last century. One is the futurist and architect Buckminster Fuller's depiction of Planet Earth as a spherical spaceship flying through the heavens. The other is Ray Bradbury's idea for the Walt Disney World attraction itself, which came two decades later. As many of you Disney fans may know, Epcot's "Spaceship Earth" is a giant geodesic sphere (which I believe is still to this day the largest in the world) based upon architectural principles actually developed by Fuller, and it looks identical to Matt's Hypersphere boss. The attraction houses a ride developed by Bradbury to express Fuller's vision of the future from the early 60's (people who have experienced the ride may remember that the domed roof within the sphere actually forms an enormous planetarium, where the Earth is depicted soaring through the stars just like in Fuller's vision). So while Ray Bradbury's attraction represents a fusion of Fuller's two most important ideas, Matt's hypersphere might be considered somewhat of a meta-fusion: that is, it is a fusion of Buckminster Fuller's original concept of Earth as a flying spaceship along with Ray Bradbury's own homage to Buckminster, the "Spaceship Earth" Disney attraction itself. I doubt that Buckminster Fuller ever envisioned a flying geodesic spaceship like Matt's Hypersphere ("Spaceship Earth" was merely meant as a metaphor for our planet), but as a standalone image, Matt has created something quintessentially Buckminster, a symbolic representation of this "retro" icon's timeless contributions to architectural design and 20th Century futurism.

I might be reaching a bit with this next one, but the way the game handles fixing the time stream reminds me of another retro classic, the movie "Back to the Future." In that film, Marty's timeline is safe so long as he sets up conditions in the past so that they more-or-less could lead to his conception, but this completely ignores the Butterfly Effect: that is, the moment Marty set foot in the past, it is unlikely the changes he set in motion would not alter the timeline enough to prevent the specific recombinatorial event necessary for a "Marty" to be created. Getting his parents to meet in another way than how it happened originally might still lead to them starting a family, but not one where he himself or his particular siblings would ever be born. Retro/Grade pays homage to BTTF by also ignoring the Butterfly effect. Rick Rocket needs only to approximate his actions from the first go-round to preserve his timeline. Thus, the time-stream is not damaged when you have an errorless run (i.e. Continuum Captain or Astro Admiral rank), even if you don't time each shot perfectly or use the five overthrusters in the same locations as Rick Rocket initially used them (reflected by finishing with a low-score above zero).

Of course, I'm leaving out of this message tons of other retro references in the game, many of which I certainly have yet to notice myself. Hopefully some of you can share some you have identified. Incidentally, anyone in these forums who has not yet played Retro/Grade is missing out on one of the most detailed and nuanced indie games available on Steam or PSN. I expect that few developers besides Matt would even think to put francophone references to early silent film in what might on the surface appear to be a basic music rhythm game (it is far from that), and then embed all that detail into an advanced side-quest unlockable that many players will never reach. It's the sort of attention to detail that is missing from many games today, and players owe it to themselves to play rare games like this when they come around (and to reward developers who make the effort to produce them). So if you haven't yet, please download this game on Steam or PSN and join in the discussion! I'd love to read about what other hidden treasures in the game you discover!

Re: The "Retro" within Retro/Grade

Posted: Wed Oct 30, 2013 5:45 pm
by matt
Unfortunately, any blockiness in the shadows is due to limited shadow map resolution. It is a problem that isn’t unique to Retro/Grade. If you look carefully in numerous games that use shadow mapping, they often have issues if they are projected long distances or strange angles.

Justin Wilder was responsible for the Film Noir mode, so I’m not what he was inspired by. He wanted to switch all the text to French, but I was worried that we would fail our Sony submission. The Sony testers would probably complain, and it would be a mess. One of the nice things about doing PC and Ouya is we get a bit more freedom to make the game we want to make. While the console requirements aren’t terrible, there are some things they don’t want you to do. I wonder what Sony’s QA would think of the Stanley Parable.

I honestly can’t quite remember where we came up with the idea of the hypersphere. It was an iterative process with a number of different artists, so it’s hard to say exactly how it all fell into place.

Re: The "Retro" within Retro/Grade

Posted: Wed Oct 30, 2013 7:56 pm
by macaca
I suppose I overreached about some of these retro-references like the blocky shadows and why the noir mode uses French. I guess I may have also been wrong about the hypersphere being a reference to Spaceship Earth, but in any case the geodesic structure a still a nice throwback to 1960's postmodern style of futurism so it's cool you guys chose to do that.

BTW, I love how everything in the background of that level really is made out of boxes and other angular shapes (as suggested by the level's whimsical starting text). Very effective way to highlight the elegance of that unusual spherical enemy. Probably my favorite overall background design in the game, though Rick Rollin' is a close second.

Re: The "Retro" within Retro/Grade

Posted: Thu Oct 31, 2013 9:06 pm
by matt
I'm glad to hear you like what we came up with! We tried to create different settings for every level. I really wanted to do a proper retro 3d pixel level (and even modeled what the player ship might look like myself), but I think it ended up evolving into the cube world level.

Also, I'm not sure if you noticed, but the actual planet is a cube. You travel on the four faces, and there are basically 90 degree turns at 3 points in the level.