Pixelart Animation For Storytelling: Techniques

Pixel art is a form of digital art created through manipulating individual pixels to form an image or animation. According to Wikipedia, “Pixel art as it is known today largely originates from the golden age of arcade video games, with games such as Space Invaders (1978)…”. The early limitations of graphics technology meant video game developers had to work within a very confined space using blocks of uniform color.

The beginnings of pixel art animation go back to the early 1970s but it didn’t become mainstream until the release of games like Pong and Space Invaders in the late 1970s, according to 2D Will Never Die. As display resolutions increased, pixel art remained popular with indie and retro-style games. The constrained nature of pixel art presents unique creative challenges, leading to very stylistic and emotive designs.

Benefits of Pixel Art for Storytelling

Pixel art has several advantages that make it an effective style for visual storytelling. Many people find pixel art to be more nostalgic, harkening back to classic video games and evoking a sense of childhood wonder. Despite its retro stylings, pixel art can convey complex stories and concepts in a deceptively simple format. The limited resolution encourages creativity within constraints, as artists must convey emotions and narrative elements in minimalist compositions.

As this blog post discusses, pixel art has unparalleled visual clarity on small screens, perfect for handheld gaming devices and mobile apps. The restricted color palette focuses the viewer’s attention on key details. Animating pixel art characters and scenes frame-by-frame allows for fluid, dynamic storytelling.

Overall, pixel art’s stylized approach makes it well-suited for evocative, engaging narratives, distilling stories down to their essence. The nostalgic pixel aesthetic draws viewers in, while the artform’s constraints drive creativity and emphasis on core themes and emotions.

Tools and Programs

When it comes to creating pixel art for storytelling and animation, the software you use can make a big difference. Some of the most popular and capable programs for pixel art creation include Aseprite, Adobe Photoshop, Piskel, Pyxel Edit, and GraphicsGale.

Aseprite is a dedicated pixel art program that provides a robust toolset optimized for animating sprites and tiles. It streamlines workflows with layers, palettes, tiling tools, and onion skinning. Many pixel artists swear by Aseprite for its flexibility and ease of use (Reddit).

Adobe Photoshop is a versatile graphic design software that, while not purpose-built for pixel art, contains the features needed to create detailed pixel art assets. Photoshop offers powerful selection and painting tools, as well as animation frames and timeline integration.

Piskel is a free online editor dedicated to sprite art and pixel animations. It provides an intuitive interface with onionskinning, layers, and export capabilities. Piskel is a lightweight option good for beginners.

Pyxel Edit similarly offers a simplified pixel art creation experience, but with more advanced features like tilemap editing, palettes, and multi-layer animation. It also integrates with the Pyxel game engine.

GraphicsGale is an older pixel art program that still remains popular for its animation tools like onion skinning and frame management. It provides a classic pixel art interface and optimized workflow.

Character Design

Character design is a crucial part of pixel art animation. Some key principles of pixel art character design include:

  • Using simple geometric shapes like circles, squares, rectangles and triangles as the building blocks for characters. This simplifies animation.
  • Defining distinctive visual features like hairstyles, clothing, accessories or body proportions to make each character unique. Strong silhouettes help distinguish characters.
  • Designing fluid and believable walk cycles and movement. This brings characters to life.
  • Crafting emotive facial expressions and body language for storytelling. Pixel art can convey complex emotions with just a few pixels.

References: https://www.pinterest.com/petermsan/pixel-art-characters/

Start with simple base shapes, then add key identifying details. Animating just a few pixels can create the illusion of fluid motion and personality. Distinctive characters let pixel art effectively convey stories.


Backgrounds play a critical role in pixel art animation for storytelling. They set the scene, provide context, and create a sense of depth. One important technique for pixel art backgrounds is using parallax layers. Parallax scrolling involves the background moving at a slower rate than the foreground, creating an illusion of depth. This can be achieved by separating background elements into layers and moving them at different speeds.

Tiles are another key technique for backgrounds in pixel art animation. Tiles are small repeating sprite graphics that can be arranged to create large environments efficiently. Tiling backgrounds allows the same small graphic assets to be reused and also enables infinite scrolling environments. Combining tiles of different sizes can add visual interest.

To create a sense of depth in pixel art backdrops, larger background objects should move more slowly than foreground objects during scrolling. Distant objects like mountains and clouds can scroll the slowest, while trees, buildings, and other midground elements can scroll slightly faster over them. The main characters and immediate scenery in the foreground then scroll the fastest over the background layers. This parallax effect brings traditional 2D pixel art to life.

Other techniques like adding ambient animation such as flickering lights or falling rain can also enhance backdrops. With thoughtful implementation of parallax, tiles, and depth, backgrounds become immersive environments that draw viewers into the pixel art narrative.


Animation Principles

When creating pixel art animations, it’s important to apply the 12 principles of animation to bring your characters and scenes to life. These principles allow animators to communicate action, emotion, and personality through movement. Five key principles for pixel art storytelling include:

Squash and Stretch

Squash and stretch refers to distorting the shapes of objects to simulate weight and flexibility. For example, when a character jumps and lands, their body can squash down on impact and then stretch back up. This helps convey physics and weight.

In pixel art, squash and stretch is achieved through careful manipulation of character shapes and outlines frame-by-frame (Source: https://www.gamedeveloper.com/game-platforms/12-principles-for-game-animation).


Anticipation prepares the viewer for upcoming action through motion or posing. For example, a character may crouch down before jumping or wind up before throwing a punch. This builds anticipation and visual interest.


Staging focuses the viewer’s attention towards the most important part of an animation sequence through composition, lighting, or centering the action. In pixel art, staging draws the eye to critical storytelling moments.

Follow Through and Overlapping Action

Follow through shows the effects of motion with secondary animation after the primary action is complete, like a character’s clothes still moving after they stop. Overlapping action is when character parts move at different rates, like arms and legs moving asynchronously.

Implementing follow through and overlapping action makes pixel art animations feel less stiff and more life-like. The different parts of a character or object move in reaction to each other, creating a sense of weight and realistic movement.

Storytelling Techniques

Pixel art animation offers unique storytelling techniques to convey visual narratives. The limited resolution can force creators to focus on core story elements and be very intentional with every pixel placement. This constraint allows for powerful emotional storytelling if done right.

To convey emotion in a pixel art animation, facial expressions and body language are key. With a small sprite, small changes like slightly lowering eyebrows or slumping shoulders can create big emotional impacts. Environmental storytelling also helps set the mood and Provides context clues for the narrative.

For example, in the pixel art game Hyper Light Drifter, the protagonist struggles with an illness. The dark color palette and environments filled with sacrificed bodies help convey the somber emotional tone.


[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jdnCOlATb-c

Limitations and Solutions

Pixel art has some inherent limitations due to its low resolution nature. However, skilled pixel artists have developed solutions and techniques to work around these limitations.

One major limitation is the low resolution, which restricts the amount of fine detail that can be depicted. To compensate, pixel artists rely on color, shading, and dithering to suggest details. Careful use of colors, shadows, and highlights can create the illusion of complex shapes and textures despite the limited pixels (source).

Similarly, pixel art can feel restricted in its color palette. But designers can creatively use a limited color palette to their advantage. By relying on strong, deliberate color choices rather than nuanced gradients, pixel art can feel vibrant and iconic (source).

Animation also poses challenges, as each frame must be painstakingly redrawn. To reduce workload, animators reuse frames and create efficient cycles. Though more time-consuming, this handcrafted approach allows for charm and personality (source).

Overall, pixel art requires creativity and problem solving to turn limitations into distinctive visual styles. When executed skillfully, pixel art can feel intentional, not limited.

Best Practices

When creating pixel art animations, planning and iteration are key to producing high quality results. Here are some best practices to keep in mind:

Plan out your animation sequence before starting work. Make a storyboard showing the key poses and actions. This will help you visualize the overall flow and scene transitions. Iterating on your storyboard will allow you to refine the action and timing before you start animating.

Start with rough animation sketches focusing on the overall motion before cleaning up the details. Getting the general movement right first will make the polishing phase much easier. Be prepared to iterate and refine as you animate. The more iterations, the smoother and more natural the end result will be.

Pay attention to timing and spacing between frames. Having frames that are too far apart creates choppy motion while frames too close together cause unnecessary work. Use animation software’s onion skinning feature to better judge timing.

Animate, playtest, refine and repeat. View your animation frequently as you build it out. Playtesting will reveal any hiccups in motion or problem areas. Refine and polish these areas through further iteration. Good animation takes time and patience.

Use pixel art animation tools that assist with the process. Programs like Aseprite provide specialized brushes and features designed specifically for pixel art creation and animation.

Notable Examples

Some of the most impactful and effective pixel art animations include:

Lost in Play – This charming pixel art point-and-click adventure game features a boy and his imagination. The nostalgic pixel art animation style transports players to a whimsical world and helps convey a sense of childlike wonder.

Hyper Light Drifter – The moody, atmospheric pixel art animations in this action role-playing game evoke a sense of mystery and exploration. The limited color palette and flickering animations set an ominous tone.

Sword & Sworcery – This indie adventure game uses a distinctive pixel art animation style with muted colors and simple movements to create a dreamlike, mythical ambiance. The minimalist animations align well with the game’s focus on music and atmosphere.

These examples demonstrate how pixel art’s constraints on detail and motion can be leveraged to produce evocative animations that capture a specific aesthetic or feeling. By working within limitations, pixel artists condense animations down to their essence, conveying more with less.