Taking On "Detrimental" Isometric Game Design

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Taking On "Detrimental" Isometric Game Design

Yahtzee takes on the isometric view of video games and finds he really isn't all that fond of that type of presentation.

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It's a good thing he threw in that last line about strategy games, or there would be a bunch of 4X players in here plotting to get their revenge on Yahtzee within 20 turns.

I think there's a time and a place for isometric viewpoints in games. The time is (as Yahtzee pointed out) when playing as someone overseeing the characters, such as XCOM or that old PC games Bedlam, and the place is when a 2D plane is fine, even preferable (such as for hiding secret characters behind a tree) such as in Digimon World 2003. It works better with games with less-demanding gameplay such as RPGs, and when you have heavily stylised graphics.

Unfortunately, what I'm seeing more of nowadays is developers using isometric since it's easier to develop a game that way (probably because you don't have to deal with a camera that can look at things), rather than because it suits the game you're making. As the creepy guy with the bowl job says in No Country for Old Men, you should always use the right tool for the right job :)

I agree wholeheartedly.
It's doable in Diablo games, but you are aware that you are just staring at a game character walking on all kinds of marvelous looking different floors... I too can't get into the character like in proper 2D or 3D.

A big swing and a miss in this week's column.

Well sure, using an analog to control something isometrically sometimes won't be as good, but using a mouse it's a piece of cake - click where you want to go and there you go.

Saying isometric games don't have a third dimension because there's no depth is like saying a 3D game doesn't have a third dimension because the screen you're viewing it on is flat. In Final Fantasy Tactics for example there's X/Y coordinates and height. How can you say it lacks a third dimension? All games are simply using visual tricks to make your brain think there's a third dimension when there's not.

Isometric camera lets you see more, and without the usual camera problems that exist in over-the-shoulder games. It reminds you that you're playing a game? Uh, ok, I know I'm playing a game, that's why I turned it on. Not everything needs to be some deeply immersive experience.

Isometric has strengths and weaknesses. It's fortunate that not everyone is listening to Yahtzee that isometric cameras are "rubbish" and we're starting to get more and more games using it again.

But... do you not feel like Bastion and Transistor did the whole Isometric thing rather effectively? Perhaps less so with Transistor since much of the novelty factor had gone but at least with Bastion I can't imagine the game being better presented as a 2D or even 3D platformer. The layout emphasized the exploration aspects of the game and highlighted the themes of construction and destruction of a city [as well as memories and ideas if we start to analyze a little too deeply]. Equally significant was how it allowed for the ARPG-like "3D" fighting mechanics where enemies can surround on all sides. After all, videogames have had a long and checkered history with trying that in "true 3D" and getting the camera angle and controls just right.

I agree that the perspective create a sense of detachment but in the particular case of Bastion weren't we supposed to be listening to this story that's being told about 'the kid' and all the things he interacts with rather than 'becoming' the protagonist like we do in more conventional videogame narratives. Anyway, I fail to see a real issue here given that we're hardly going to be swamped with legions of 'Bastion' clones [except maybe from SuperGiant games themselves] and so the perspective is likely to remain the hallmark only of X-Com style games and Super-Giant's offerings.

Well the whole subjectivity thing was highlighted rather than stating that this is fact. Even if I don't agree I at least see his point.

Except that Yahtzee doesn't know that Chess uses one of the best storytelling methods in gaming. It leaves it all to you with only a unique looking world to stare at.

moggett88:

Unfortunately, what I'm seeing more of nowadays is developers using isometric since it's easier to develop a game that way (probably because you don't have to deal with a camera that can look at things), rather than because it suits the game you're making. As the creepy guy with the bowl job says in No Country for Old Men, you should always use the right tool for the right job :)

While I don't doubt there's some ease of use involved, I can't help but think a lot of this is "because nostalgia."

I can't personally relate to your points, but you articulated them well enough that I understand and respect your opinion.

Also the floor in Transistor is damn gorgeous. I could look at it all day long. A bit funny we end up looking at them all the time when the game keeps talking about how people can change the sky with a pool and one of the side characters is a "sky-painter". I wonder if Supergiant noticed the irony?

The problem I have with it is the lack of expression you get when all characters are tiny and far away. Portraits help a little. Anyway, it's much more annoying in those old beat 'em ups where you move up and down on the screen but it's all 2D so it's annoying to miss stuff.

Looking back at the top down 2d games I've players, I don't remember isometric games looking all that good except for a few (like Bastion). The more Zelda like top down style looked better to me.

When I saw Shadowrun Returns, I was very relieved that it was isometric, because while it's certainly a limited playing field, it's also a comfortable one. 3D games tend to disorient and confuse me; For one thing, anything above or below you is not properly signaled by audio.
I'm not talking about motion sickness, just that 3D environments aren't so superior that they don't have their own flaws or can't accomodate all games.

I won't deny that there's a significant amount of nostalgia involved for those of us who grew up in the glory days of Fallout and Baldur's Gate, but when I play recent isometric games there's a sense of a controlled environment that nostalgia can't account for.

And it's not just the way it interferes with the functional aspects of the game that makes me dislike isometric, although I would think that's reason enough - it's also aesthetically boring, as well.

"Aesthetically boring" is hardly an argument and certainly not an objective one :)

Luckily we don't have to deal in absolutes, otherwise we'd live in a very, very boring world.

I think I get your argument as well as the earlier posts in this thread. For you Yahtzee an isometric brawler/spectacle fighter with a story takes you out of it. And yes I'm referencing The Wonderful 101. And for many an isometric perspective does feel right. It's best to agree to disagree on this subject to your preferred taste. I opt for camera control if the environment has part of the story to tell, like for example platformers.

Yeah, you're basically dissing my formative first eight years as a gamer, and my favourite game of all time in the process.

image

It's arguably lazy (or possibly deliberately retreaux) to do it now, but there was a time when it was all we could manage.

Not a bad article. Some good points about how it limits genuine "3d"-ness and stuff

I will admit I prefer isometric. I've spent so much of my time in 3d games dealing with crappy cameras that I prefer a fixed perspective, since the designer can adapt for it, making sure that you can see all that's relevant.

Thanatos2k:
Well sure, using an analog to control something isometrically sometimes won't be as good, but using a mouse it's a piece of cake - click where you want to go and there you go.

Click-to-move has an inherently distancing effect in games for me, as it removes the player from the active process of moving. I'm not moving my avatar, I'm telling them where to go and like Yahtzee said I feel like a separate entity in the sky.

"When I say that an isometric view makes a game look the most like a game, I mean THE game, that is to say, chess. It turns a room into a board, and its residents into playing pieces."

It's funny that Yahtzee mentions chess being brought to mind by isometric games. When this article was about isometric games being distasteful, it made me think of Don't Starve (or helped me think of it, since its strings of strategies about mitigating monsters, nightmares, and - of course - starvation have captivated me for several days), which is partially an isometric metaphor for chess. Or it at least references chess with the exits of worlds being giant chess boards like the one in Harry Potter, and the antagonist is akin to a chess opponent who you must outsmart and thus aggravate until either you or he feels the pain of defeat. It still suffers from the bugbears isometric games suffer from here, but it doesn't need verticality and has a camera angle that can be turned around.

Maybe it could be next week's review?

Kinitawowi:
Yeah, you're basically dissing my formative first eight years as a gamer, and my favourite game of all time in the process.

image

It's arguably lazy (or possibly deliberately retreaux) to do it now, but there was a time when it was all we could manage.

That's amazing because I was actually thinking of Head Over Heels while I read the article! That, and The Last Ninja. What everyone here calls the NES era was the C64 era to me, and I'm sure those games are terrible now but I loved them.

I actually agree with Yahtzee almost without reservation this time around. I really liked Bastion, but isometric is a big problem. I especially liked the point about how it makes the game world feel like a board game. Good insight.

I can't really relate. Many of my favorite games of all time have been isometric. Turn-based strategy and RPGs. We're talking XCOM(original and remake), we're talking Fallout 1&2, we're talking Jagged Alliance 1&2, we're talking Baldurs Gate 1&2, and so on, and so on.

It just might not be the best for single-character action gameplay, well, melee it's still good for melee games like Batman: Arkham City, ok so I guess it's bad for single-character ranged action gameplay... well, unless you consider over-the-shoulder like Borderlands to be isometric...

The perspective I've loathed for a long time(but recently started to relent a little, I liked Terraria, and been trying some others, with mixed results), is side-on 2D, especially platformers. Probably because I hated platforming, and I feel more restricted in side-on than isometric.

You can have isometric games that let you get verticality, jumping, ladders, etc. You can't really go around stuff in a 2D side perspective, all you have is forward, backward, up and down, so usually just forward and backward really. Which for example made me hate Zelda 2 way back when, despite liking the first one, and loving the third one.

Are 2D side-view games "background, the game"?

Playing an isometric game feels like watching a theater play from the balcony. To some that's disengaging, to me that draws me in.

... Just saw Book of Mormon, twas awesome!

I too find the isometric view to be rather... crude. It makes me think of the cruddy graphics of early attempts to use it to replicate 3D. The only really good version of it I remember from the early days was in Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, but that was because they also allowed you the straight NSEW axis (and it broke up the stumbling around with a more straightforward RPG combat system).

Though this does remind me of Naya's Quest, a Flash game that took the fundamental limits of the isometric viewpoint and made a puzzle out of them.

Well, I feel like nitpicking a little, so here goes:

Most games that people call "isometric" aren't isometric at all. They are usually using a dimetric projection, sometimes trimetric (Fallout 1&2) or some sort of oblique projection (Ultima 6&7). But I guess the usual 2:1 perspective is close enough to isometric that I shouldn't worry too much about it. Something like Fallout is clearly not isometric, though.

I only complain because I care! This is really interesting stuff.

Well done Yahtzee - I also agree wholeheartedly & have, by & large, never been a fan of isometric games.

Wait, he complained about Amalur always looking at the floor? He does know you had camera control in that game right? Right? You could have just, I don't know, looked 'up' once in a while.

Dammit Yahtzee! I'm so offended. In fact I became so offended that I took offense to myself, and then forgot what I was originally offended by.

I don't remember playing many isometric games other than all the RTS games, so maybe I don't have the experience, but I really can't recall ever being bothered by feeling far away or that it looks predictably gamey. Even when they told an interesting story in some RTS games, I still became 'immersed', I think. I still call StarCraft and Red Alert atmospheric.

However, I agree with the diagonal movement and getting lost in the foreground/background bit. It was a little issue I had with The Binding Of Isaac, as I could only shoot in 4 directions unlike my movement, and some of the enemy's would fling a whole lot of fire towards you and it was hard to tell where it was going to land. I had to carefully lookout for incoming shadows, and I found it somewhat annoying.

I'm curious to know if the isometric view would bother you as much if you were in space. Or anyone else in that matter. Maybe with little platforms here in there, but they didn't look so flat, if you know what I mean.

I never had a problem with bastions perspective since it doesn't pull a devil may cry and thinks it's a platformer now.
Problems only arise once you add precision jumping puzzles.
See landstalker for the genesis as a prime example of that nonsense.

The "which direction is up?" thing is also a non-issue in the day and age of analog sticks which basically turn isometric games into top down ones gameplay-wise and most good isometric games will let you move up if you press up because they're 8-directional.

As for only seeing the floor, well that's top-down for ya. It's nothing inherently exclusive to isometry.
I bet you'd never criticize a zelda or a pokemon that way though.

I'm fine with Isometric perspective in games. It works really well in some games I think, though admittedly those games are usually older ones. It's not exactly one of my favorites though, that's third person view. I even dream my dreams in that perspective.

Yahtzee Croshaw:
I'm into the storytelling aspect of games, and there's not enough context going on in chess for me. What nations do these armies represent? Am I the only one picking up on the subtle sexual tension between the queen and the bishop?

That's actually funny. And what's more funny is that some of the best isometric games in the last years are turn based strategy games (chess-like games) where the pieces have dramatic stories.

Zombie Badger:

Thanatos2k:
Well sure, using an analog to control something isometrically sometimes won't be as good, but using a mouse it's a piece of cake - click where you want to go and there you go.

Click-to-move has an inherently distancing effect in games for me, as it removes the player from the active process of moving. I'm not moving my avatar, I'm telling them where to go and like Yahtzee said I feel like a separate entity in the sky.

....So? Why are we acting like this is some kind of flaw?

What it also allows you to do is shift your attention to other things once you've given the move order. Like figuring out what you're going to do after you get there, or queueing up actions, or moving someone else.

Zombie Badger:

Thanatos2k:
Well sure, using an analog to control something isometrically sometimes won't be as good, but using a mouse it's a piece of cake - click where you want to go and there you go.

Click-to-move has an inherently distancing effect in games for me, as it removes the player from the active process of moving. I'm not moving my avatar, I'm telling them where to go and like Yahtzee said I feel like a separate entity in the sky.

I hate click to move in real time games because it's a horrible horrible control method. Not because it distances me from the play, but because it's so damn clunky, it has no place in an action/twitch game. NONE. Don't tell me there's a good reason for the attack and movement inputs to use the same controls, when reactions matter, it's just stupid.

It's fine for turn-based though.

Thanatos2k:

Zombie Badger:

Thanatos2k:
Well sure, using an analog to control something isometrically sometimes won't be as good, but using a mouse it's a piece of cake - click where you want to go and there you go.

Click-to-move has an inherently distancing effect in games for me, as it removes the player from the active process of moving. I'm not moving my avatar, I'm telling them where to go and like Yahtzee said I feel like a separate entity in the sky.

....So? Why are we acting like this is some kind of flaw?

What it also allows you to do is shift your attention to other things once you've given the move order. Like figuring out what you're going to do after you get there, or queueing up actions, or moving someone else.

Because if the game requires me to be invested in its story or action I need to feel a direct connection to what I'm doing; I got far more invested in Fallout New Vegas than in Fallout 2 because I felt more present in the game world. However my favourite game is still Planescape Torment despite it being isometric because Torment was entirely about the dialogue which I was directly involved in.

Zombie Badger:

Thanatos2k:

Zombie Badger:

Click-to-move has an inherently distancing effect in games for me, as it removes the player from the active process of moving. I'm not moving my avatar, I'm telling them where to go and like Yahtzee said I feel like a separate entity in the sky.

....So? Why are we acting like this is some kind of flaw?

What it also allows you to do is shift your attention to other things once you've given the move order. Like figuring out what you're going to do after you get there, or queueing up actions, or moving someone else.

Because if the game requires me to be invested in its story or action I need to feel a direct connection to what I'm doing; I got far more invested in Fallout New Vegas than in Fallout 2 because I felt more present in the game world. However my favourite game is still Planescape Torment despite it being isometric because Torment was entirely about the dialogue which I was directly involved in.

Why do you have to imagine you're the character in order to be invested in the story or action?

Fallout 2 is leagues better than New Vegas, and a tactical RPG battle system beats out a dumbed down shooter. I was invested in the gameplay, which is far better in Fallout 2.

So there was me singing the praises of the Spectrum.

Crash Magazine, Issue 51 (April 1988):
Of course, whether isometric perspective presents a "true" 3-D view is arguable - the player in these games is "positioned" somewhere up in the air, outside the playing area, so any game using the technique looks forced, like a technical drawing. Though its representation of object and rooms may be highly effective, if we're going to nit-pick we can't say isometric perspective gives a realistic view.

But the technique has proved perfectly satisfactory for countless games, and it's pointless to damn them all for lack of realism.

More significantly, it will be interesting to see if the market for isometric graphics ever dries up, and if the public will one day reject the genre as outdated and overused, just as it once refused to accept any more Pacman clones.

It is true that the presentation is jarring for human eyes because we only ever see in perspective view and all the others don't make sense.
But on the other hand you can present things with solid accuracy all the time, and you can put a 3D world into sprites since everything maintains it's size and angle. Which makes all the visual assets far far cheaper to make, and because they are only sprites it also takes very little power to run no matter how detailed the environment.

Obviously it's only a substitute for when you haven't got the time/money to go full 3D.
But going up close and personal also requires the visual fidelity to jump 20x, and if you can't get it there shit might turn out far more disconnected then with sprites. Fallout was mentioned already and makes for a good example, even though the new ones came with 12 years of technological advancement they really didn't feel that far away, because their 3D fidelity (especially with characters) is still pretty damn poor.

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