When a bunch of extraordinarily blocky grapes from Final Fantasy XIV: Endwalker went viral on Twitter at the end of last year, it wasn’t because people were being mean-spirited. In fact, when they were updated in Patch 6.01 to look slightly less like they could take an eye out, people wanted them back — even the official Final Fantasy XIV Twitter account mourned their loss. (Although I personally like the sort of mottled-gourd look they’ve got going on now.)
The grapes, and the Final Fantasy XIV community members who loved them were merely joining a wider community that is already dedicated to celebrating low poly assets in games. Twitter accounts centered on compiling either out-of-place but lovable polygonal assets, or the low polygonal aesthetic as a whole, have been around for a while. For example, while Low Poly Videogame Foods might have enjoyed a boost from the viral appreciation of the Final Fantasy XIV grapes, they’ve been curating content since close to the beginning of 2021. As of the writing of this article, they have over 131,000 followers who look forward to seeing assets like the rubbery hotdog from Psychonauts 2, the brown slop of mac and cheese from The Sims 4, and the extremely crushed hamburger from Cyberpunk 2077.
“I think the newest games are the best for posts because they shouldn’t be that way and that makes it funny,” the person behind Low Poly Videogame Foods tells Fanbyte.
There is certainly an inherent appeal to the humor resulting from seeing a sharp-edged model that seems out of place in an otherwise glossy AAA game. But Winnie, an artist who works on the MMORPG AdventureQuest 3D, says these models are usually intentional choices made by the developers. Games need to run smoothly on all kinds of hardware (including mobiles, for AdventureQuest 3D). As a result, Winnie has to pick and choose what gets to be shiny and smooth, and what stays blocky, in order to save some strain.
“Weapons, armors, and important set pieces like statues, NPCs, and boss monsters,” can be much more detailed, she says. “However, if I’m making something like a tent or a lamp post, which the player probably won’t pay much attention to, we try and keep that down to just the basics.”
Of course, some people do pay attention. And it’s not just otherwise modern-looking games that can gather attention by having low poly assets. Some communities are dedicated to celebrating the aesthetic in all its forms. The person behind Low Poly Depression, for example, says he created his account to connect with people who love the nostalgia of older games as well as the newer ones created to mimic them.
While he recognizes that people are often tickled when lower poly models are included to balance performance issues in AAA games, he finds that they can make for a more wistful experience for him. “I feel like a lot of older gamers become nostalgic when these types of things are discovered and slip into ‘Low Poly Depression.’”
The name of his account was coined to reference not just the bittersweetness of nostalgia, but also a kind of regret about how much games have changed since the ’90s and early ’00s. Luckily, there are a lot of modern games that still use that aesthetic, which Low Poly Depression says he’s a big fan of. While he can name “more than 200 games with retro aesthetic graphics,” he’s been playing Christmas Massacre from Puppet Combo and Hypnagogia from Sodaraptor, as well as replaying Dusk from New Blood.
Horror game developer Puppet Combo, also known as Ben, says his games are “mostly based on ’80s slashers,” and that he’s simply always been a fan of the low poly aesthetic. If anything, he feels the current surge in the aesthetic’s popularity has made it harder for his games to stand out.
“I don’t think the boom of PS1-esque games would’ve existed without Puppet Combo and Haunted PS1,” Low Poly Depression says, referring to another community that brings together indie developers using the aesthetic in their games.
The existence and flourishing of these communities feels almost like a relief against a recently growing trend of people making unreasonable complaints about background assets in games, amplified by the quote tweets of those baited into defending them. But while this viewpoint may drive a loud segment, it’s not the only popular way of looking at them.
“I think gamers have always loved little imperfections in games,” Winnie says. “It’s those little details – janky as they may be – that remind players that they’re playing a game that was lovingly created by a team of individuals, not a faceless company where everything is perfect all the time.”
Her favorite? “The horse shoes.”
After finishing work early one week, the CEO of the company asked her to include something a player had been requesting for a long time. Not hooves, but shoes with horse faces on them. Shoe models in AdventureQuest 3D are typically reused, so she didn’t model anything new; instead, she stretched a texture over them to make them look like horse faces. The horses themselves look slightly bemused, as if they don’t quite understand how they got here.
“They are hideous,” Winnie says. “I love them.” A perfect rallying cry for the whole low poly community.