Untapped Potential: The Second Dimension

[It’s time for another Monthly Musing — the monthly community blog theme that provides readers with a chance to get their articles and discussions printed on the frontpage. — CTZ

Though I’ve been playing videogames for a fairly long time, I take a bit of pride in the fact that, all things considered, I’m not the stereotypical “old grouch” gaming veteran — after all, we don’t need any more real-life affirmations of the stereotypical overweight, middle-aged, scraggly-bearded specimen, only ever seen clad in a prized (and much-stained) Pac-Man shirt, who spends more time complaining about “the junk they put out these days” than actually, well, playing anything, old or new. In fairness, I contribute my fair share of silly hand-wringing and breathy griping on occasion, but I am nonetheless able to declare, with utmost honesty, that despite my decided fondness for older games, nobody’s had to forcibly drag me, kicking and screaming, into the medium’s modern era. To be perfectly honest, I rather like a fair amount of what I’ve seen come about lately.

Granted, it does pain me a bit that many of my personal favorite genres are not as prolific as they once were, but at the same time I’m pleased to note not only that they are all still out there in some capacity (especially if one puts in a little effort to track them down), but that they’re by and large newly focused, streamlined, deepened and perhaps primed for something of a comeback. Elsewhere, while I don’t personally game online very much, it’s still a really neat thing for players to be able to compete and compare high scores from just about anywhere, and can only be good for the industry. Moreover, the unceasing march of technology has heralded the realization of entirely new genres and stylings that we couldn’t have imagined possible not long ago; even relatively simple types of games have come away showcasing some nifty new bells and whistles. And while I know that this will tick some of my fellow golden-agers off, I’m quite glad to see some of the moldier facets of the “classic” mentality largely dead and buried — for one thing, anybody who still wants it, to be blunt, can keep the “time-honored tradition” of passing off stiff controls and authoritarian, time-wasting memorization as the primary aspects of a game’s “challenge.” In a nutshell, despite a significant number of more disappointing developments, I do honestly find a lot to like about modern gaming.

Unfortunately, this state of simple, easy-going contentment was not to last – as soon as I saw this month’s Musing topic all bets were instantly off, and moreover all you young hooligans had better stay the heck out of my way. As of right now, it’s out with shiny discs; in with dusty cartridges. Out with basic personal hygiene practices; in with the cheese puffs. Out with openly and readily acknowledging the good along with the bad within the medium’s evolution; in with longwinded, self-important ramblings about The Good Old Days.

Exit the sensible. Enter the Curmudgeon.

From whence does this wrinkly, crotchety horror come forth? Well, despite my best efforts to keep both feet on the ground when it comes to expressing my opinions on gaming, I’ve always had, and always will have, a glaring weakness when it comes to 2D games, in comparison to 3D ones. Before going any further, let me be very clear — this is not to say that I deplore 3D gaming in all its forms. Truth be told, I’m as big a fan of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Ratchet and Clank, among many others like them, as you’re apt to encounter. Be that as it may, though, I’ve been grumpily nursing a very sore, sensitive spot for years when it comes to the second dimension in gaming, and how it’s gone all but untouched, shamefully underutilized and sinfully untapped, for over a decade, condemned to cower in the shadows of its polygonal cousin. Off the cuff, of course, one might propose the notion that 2-D gaming has already had its heyday, and fully deserves its current spot on the back burner. After all, for the first 15 or 20 years of videogaming’s history (or more, if you care to define a different “official” starting point) the second dimension was, well, all there was. Such a timeline is accurate, of course, and moreover it’s not like 2D games have completely disappeared. Heck, you might say that if anything there’s been something of a resurgence on that front lately, thanks in large part to the increasing presence of downloadable and independently-developed games by smaller studios, many of whom choose to stick to the old reliable flat plane for their projects.

I don’t deny any of this — heck, to a point I’m as happy to see things going the way they are as a more reasonable person would be. In spite of it all, though, dagnabbit, I’m still cranky, and moreover I’ve got enough menacing grimaces for every last one of you. Why? Well, let me put it to you this way — if you don’t mind reminiscing along with me for a bit, please take yourself back, for starters, to the early days of 3D games, and remember what was on the shelves at the time, and what was considered, in all aspects from graphics to mechanics, “cutting edge” as well as “standard-issue.” Let it soak in for a minute. Got a clear picture? Good — return to the present, and this time call to mind what’s available to us right now, in terms of the third dimension in gaming — further, tally up and mull over as best you can the advancements made, the fundamental changes implemented, the once-common problems on any and all fronts, from the superficial to the vitally central, that have been all but completely banished to the developmental abyss. Look, think, and feel how much effort has been expended within the industry, from the very start to the here and now, to advance, to perfect, to evolve 3D videogaming.

Okay then. Next, with that overall impression now floating around someplace in your midst, close your eyes and take another trip, even farther back, to the beginnings of 2D gaming, and by extension gaming itself. In the same manner as before, take a minute to remember all that once was … and then, once more, fast-forward yourself back to modern times, and bring into focus what’s in front of you as we speak. Again, do your best to get an overall sense of the advancements and various leaps forward that have been made in 2D gaming, over an even longer period of time than we previously considered. Now, compare this new impression to the general sensation you got when you took stock of the comparative history of 3-D gaming.

Take your time. Ponder deeply. Drink in and savor everything that you can call to mind when it comes to your knowledge of and experiences in videogaming of all sorts. Place the one evolutionary path on one side, and the other adjacent to it. Gaze at them both, clearly and honestly.

Now, tell me what you see.

If you see what I see, then you’re probably getting a little bit ornery yourself.

All right, to get this caveat quickly out of the way, yes, matters like these are always going to be “eye of the beholder” situations to some extent, and I won’t argue at length with anyone who doesn’t innately detect as wide a gulf between the creative energy generally expended upon the advancement of 2D versus 3D gaming as I do. That said, if you’d prefer a different perspective, consider this separate bit of context. If you’d be so kind, take another imaginary look around, this time solely at the ranks of contemporary game releases, 2D and 3D alike. Okay then, off the top of your head, how many recent (I’ll leave it to you to determine exactly what time frame falls into that category, it’s not likely to matter much in the end) 2D releases can you list that are constructed (if not directly billed) as “back to basics” or “retro” titles, a “memento” or “tribute” to “gaming’s early days?” How many 2D games have you played, seen, or heard about lately that are meant to appeal almost purely to nostalgia, to a roughly-defined “style” of gaming that’s been largely relegated to long-abandoned Internet shrines and musings like this one for years on end? Got an overall idea?

Now, then, keeping that in the back of your mind, tell me how many recent 3D releases you can think of that are looking to resurrect genre standards circa Super Mario 64 or Crash Bandicoot, or even further back than that. How many developers (and, by extension, gamers) are craving another taste of this bygone era, one a good deal less distant and more directly linked to modern gaming than the other at that? How many within the gaming community are chomping at the bit when it comes to all but completely disregarding the advancements made in 3D gaming since its inception? How massive are the crowds demanding a return to the standards and stylings of “old-school” 3D games? How much screaming nostalgia is out there when it comes to their dusty, bygone days?

If you don’t see a disconnect here, and more to the point one which calls into question just how much “advancement” has been made in one type of game over the other, I’m not quite sure what to tell you.

Of course, I already hear a handful of you out there, grinning broadly and shaking your heads in a bemused, pitying manner. “Oh, calm down BulletMagnet,” you gently coo in my direction. “You’re forgetting one very important thing. Fact of the matter is, there’s just not as much advancement to make when it comes to 2D games as opposed to 3D ones. Once you add that extra axis in there, it’s a whole new ballgame. You just can’t do as much with a flat plane as you can with a three-dimensional one. 2D gaming’s already advanced about as far as it ever will — that’s just the nature of these things. So don’t blow a blood vessel on us, okay? Here, I’ll turn on Nick at Nite for you.”

To this I have but one thing to say — Balderdash.

On the surface, there may appear to be some merit to the previous claim. It is quite true that there are more than a few things, both aesthetically and from a “practical” standpoint, that can be implemented within a three-dimensional environment which are quite simply impossible in a two-dimensional one. No reasonable observer would ever dispute that much. My question to you, however, is why the debate (if it could even truly be called that) so often stops there (warning: some art geekery ahead). Slightly before my time, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo are said to have argued at length as to whether painting or sculpture could truly eclipse the other as the superior art form. Michelangelo (the sculptor, and younger of the two) would insist that the additional depth, in purely physical terms a well as the specific technique required, granted via rendering a subject in three dimensions was by itself enough to make it his preference (“Good painting,” he is quoted as saying, “is the kind that looks like sculpture”). Leonardo, however, would counter by pointing out that the painter, limited by the lesser dimensionality of his work, must endeavor to create the illusion of space — to, as it were, force all of a grand landscape or detailed portrait into a mere rectangle of canvas. As such, a painting, to Leonardo, was more about creation, in its purest form, than sculpture, which struck him as more focused on simply copying existing forms directly. A painting or drawing’s innate simplicity, which the artist must struggle to overcome, and whose efforts to that end would in the end be as much a part of the finished piece as the subject itself, was to Leonardo “the ultimate sophistication.”

Okay, pop quiz for all of you. Who was right? Which of the two artists has been judged by history as an abject failure due to his utterly misguided convictions?

Of course, this analogy is far from perfect. For one thing, in those days, art was all but completely about realizing a single goal, namely realism, while today even the likes of videogames and cartoons continue to reach out towards ever more abstract means of representation and expression. Not to mention, of course, that comparing a painting to a sculpture is far from the same thing as putting a 2D game next to a 3D one, in more ways than I’d have room to list here. Regardless, hopefully my larger point is clear, both of the aforementioned artists had their specialties and preferences, both could ably explain and justify their positions without completely discounting the value of the other, and both produced, by most anyone’s standard, truly exceptional work, and are still celebrated as standard-setters and masters of their craft centuries later. Nowadays, however, I can’t help but imagine that sometime back in the 90’s a bunch of game industry bigwigs got a look at a polygonal David (if you can bring yourself to compare those rigid, jagged models to such a timeless piece, that is), and were, like most of us back then, impressed. Unfortunately, their awe too quickly grew and festered into an all-consuming obsession (after all, 3D is the future!), to the point where, when they happened to accidentally glance back at a lovingly-pixelled Mona Lisa, they turned up their noses and deposited her roughly into a closet, all but forgotten.

… er, yeah, this is getting more than a bit pretentious, isn’t it? Sorry.

Anyway, the fact of the matter is that such a hard-nosed, unreasonably exclusive stance, towards fine art or anything else, is laughable on its face, and only comes across as even more ludicrous the longer one dwells upon it. Be that as it may, the videogame industry has done largely just that when it comes to two-dimensional gaming, and many of their consumers have eagerly followed suit. Show any 2D game, regardless of quality, significance, or anything else, to a relatively young or new player, and you’ll likely be met with unabashed, knee-jerk incredulity. “Seriously? Where’d you dig THAT relic up? It can’t actually be fun to play, can it?” Few things make my inner geezer’s blood boil with greater fury, yet I can’t help but acknowledge that such ignorance of, and lack of appreciation for, the unique caliber of craftsmanship required to construct a standout 2D game is not entirely the youngster’s fault. After all, imagine a world where, as soon as someone discovered how to sculpt a form, suddenly almost nobody drew or painted anything anymore. Would aught other than near-complete disinterest in the latter media be expected before long? Or, as perhaps an even more relevant parallel, imagine that, after the camera was invented, “traditional” artists simply vanished altogether, as they were unable to match the exact realism of this new device. Why even try to compete, after all?

Of course, as history shows, this is not what happened.

Artists of the day — a few at first, more joining them later on — simply put their brushes and chisels aside for a minute, sat back, ventured outside the de facto social and artistic confines of the previous centuries, and thought. Thought, and talked amongst themselves, about exactly what their art could do that a photograph couldn’t, even if such things had never been attempted before. “So we can’t make exact realism our sole goal anymore,” they reasoned — “all right, so what should our new endgame be?” And indeed, shortly thereafter, from these meager musings sprung unprecedented movements, intent on capturing fleeting moments inexactly, as human eyes, not camera lenses, most often experience them (Impressionism), depicting impossible scenes that could not exist outside the human imagination and subconscious, and thus could never be captured on film (Surrealism), channeling raw, unfiltered emotion, as opposed to physical beings, objects and scenery (Expressionism), and a host of others, which did not simply stick to past definitions of “art” and continue to be ever more limited by ever more insurmountable competition, but instead looked for new and different ways to apply their craft, and in the process change the very definition of what art could be.

Now, I very quickly want to make it known that 1) I’m NOT looking to once again resurrect the tired “are games art?” debate, and 2) I’m beyond well aware that expanding the “traditional” boundaries of any medium or art form is not without its far-reaching consequences (for one thing, don’t get me started on Dada, its probable inevitability notwithstanding) and should not be taken lightly, but I DO firmly believe that the few videogame developers who still work within two dimensions have by and large spent far too much time huddled within the confining walls at the opposite end of the progressive spectrum, chained down by design standards that have been rusting and calcifying for decades. Granted, I give ample credit by default to anyone who’s willing to do 2D at all in today’s market, considering the numerous financial and reputational risks involved, but to be perfectly honest, by now I’m a little bit tired of asking myself anew when the industry at large will finally grow a pair and take the next step. At this point even some “mainstream” gaming authorities are beginning to wonder themselves what the holdup is when it comes to The Next Big Thing in two-dimensional game design. After so much has been done in a comparatively short time to bring 3D games to “the next level” again and again, it’s high time that someone out there took up the mantle for gaming’s forefathers. No, I wouldn’t presume to predict exactly who might best be in such a position to do it, nor how precisely such a mission might eventually be translated into a workable product, but I do declare that there are a handful of simple yet unquestionably parasitic bits of “conventional wisdom” that must be dispelled before any such venture could go forward. Budding developers would do well to keep the following in mind.

Starting at the surface — believe it or not, no, we haven’t reached the pinnacle of what can be done with 2D from a purely graphical or aesthetic standpoint. Yes, we’ve been making sprites longer than we’ve been rendering polygon models, but seriously, who decided to just stop somewhere along the line? There were immediately-noticeable advancements from the 8-bit generation to the 16-bit one, for instance, and again when the 32-bit systems rolled around…but can it really be said that we’ve come very far, artistically speaking, since back then? How many times do you hear modern sprite-based games ridiculed as “looking like something from the PS1 or SNES days,” but accepted as “what to expect if you’re not dealing with polygons,” while corresponding 3D titles are dismissed as unacceptably ugly for merely looking like something from one or two years ago? I like old-school spritework as much as anyone, and would agree in a heartbeat that the 2D visuals of yore have aged far more gracefully than their 3D counterparts, but sorry – the bar desperately needs to be raised. A “retro-styled” release deliberately tailored to look out of date is fine once in awhile, but when that’s all but the only style you see in contemporary releases, one can’t help but feel compelled to gripe a bit (or, in my case, a whole lot).

A handful of companies have been making unfortunately-infrequent attempts to bring things up to speed on a purely technical level (Arc System’s Guilty Gear and BlazBlue, along with Vanillaware’s Odin Sphere and Muramasa, come most immediately to mind), but A) For starters, much more of this sort of thing needs to be done, across the board, and B) That said, simply bumping up pixel resolution counts and available color palettes isn’t enough. Numerous graphical “revamps” of older titles have come to pass, and they’re fine for what they are, but are they truly advancements for 2D artistry as a whole? In the interest of comparison, it’s worth recalling that the 3D set has in recent years seen, to name but a few, Okami, Shadow of the Colossus, MadWorld, Psychonauts, Rez, Killer 7, and a host of other visually-arresting games whose unique art styles, even if they’re attached to less-than-revolutionary game mechanics, are effective and evocative enough to make that point all but irrelevant to anyone playing them — on the other side, for our part, we 2-D gamers have received, well, other than Braid, um … well, they re-released Yoshi’s Island? Maybe a handful of other portable titles, if you’re feeling generous?

Obviously I’m leaving a lot of stuff out here, but my overall conviction stands – developers, I know that producing aesthetically-worthwhile 2D visuals these days tends to be far more time-consuming and expensive than a 3D showcase of roughly-equivalent caliber, but honestly, the technical shortcomings, while important, aren’t what’s been most sorely lacking in 2D visuals for so long. It’s a bit hard to put into words, but it just feels, to me, as if many of you are so nervous about getting a sprite-based game or the like out there to begin with that the “core” of the work tangibly feels tailored to ensure at least a bit of profit, and everything else is built around that single element. Even if the presentation and everything else is solid, it too frequently just doesn’t come across as a truly cohesive whole, as the Games of Old did. Again, a large part of this is simply the reality of your line of work in this day and age, but please, do your very best to minimize the negative effects of the status quo, because it DOES register at our end. The prettiest character sprites and most exquisitely-painted backgrounds in the world lose a lot of their luster if they’re recycled or reused too often, and moreover the most expertly-set mood pieces and details are all but completely worthless if the visuals as a whole are just there to look pretty, and do nothing to complement or enhance the actual goings-on within the game.

THIS is what game design is truly about, from a purely aesthetic standpoint — you’ve done it before, and I know you’ve still got it in you, especially considering the new and largely untapped technology you now have to work with. It’s a hard sell to the suits, I’m sure, but there are a growing number of customers out here who have been waiting an increasingly long time for one (preferably more, if you can manage it) of you to let us know that you’re still listening, still experimenting, still willing to go the extra mile – to revisit our old pal Leonardo for a second, he infamously experimented with the ingredient makeup of the paints he used for The Last Supper, among other pieces, and the results were frequently less than ideal. In so many words, however, don’t be afraid. It’s still a great painting, and he’s still revered as a genius. We gamers might not be able to elevate your work and your names to immortality, but we can and will respond to earnest efforts to use the second dimension to its fullest artistic extent, to exploit its innate freedoms and limitations, as da Vinci did, to do and express things with it that you can’t in 3D. Give us something to respond to.

Digging a little deeper now, to pointer number two, no, we have not seen everything that can be done in terms of gameplay on a 2D plane. Putting purely visual elements aside, again, why is it apparently assumed that the only way to make a two-dimensional game “different” or “more interesting”, outside of the visuals, is to do the exact same things as have been done since the NES days, just make them “bigger” (“this one’ll take ‘em at least 500 hours to finish! Ooh, and we’ll add MORE parallax layers to put the floating bricks on!”)? News flash – just because it’s a 2D platformer doesn’t mean it has to be structured strictly after Mario and company. Just because it’s a puzzle game doesn’t mean that you must create another Tetris or Puyo Puyo knockoff. Imitating and slightly tweaking the classics has given us some good games over the years, yes, but if you ask me the well’s long run dry – even if you choose to stick with the tried and true, why haven’t there been more efforts, even relatively simple ones like Henry Hatsworth, to do something different with the time-tested elements we’ve got? That said, genre cross-pollination is far from your only option – if you’ll pardon one final bit of art snobbery on my part, M.C. Escher (if you don’t know his work, by all means look up some of it, even if this article’s subject matter doesn’t interest you at all) was playing around with the unique spatial and mathematical possibilities of two-dimensional design, with much success, decades ago – why haven’t more contemporary developers done the same, outside of Echochrome (technically a 3D game) and a handful of other noteworthy examples? And heck, although we’ve mainly been keeping our focus on flat planes alone here, there’s no reason to see 3D as some sort of “enemy” – why not combine both sets of dimensions creatively, as Crush and Super Paper Mario have done? And those are just the examples that a plain, unremarkable Joe Schmo gamer like myself can come up with off the top of his head – this being what it is, there’s no way you’re going to convince me that the industry insiders who are trained and hired specifically to get consumers’ attentions and woo the critics in the name of the next mega-hit can’t or won’t do better than that.

To summarize: The second dimension has NOT been fully tapped. Stop acting as if it has.

All right, I’ve rambled on more than long enough. Hopefully, though, this article gives you a sense of just how strongly I feel about this particular forgotten corner of gaming, shamefully all but abandoned, long before its time. The irrepressible, intolerable grump within me is slowly retreating to his rocking chair of resentment, for the time being – as his cavalcade of grumbling fades into the distance, once more I can take a deep breath and be grateful for what HAS been done right, in all types of gaming, that I’ve been able to enjoy over the years, and fantasize about what good things might still be to come. I don’t think I need to tell you, however, that if things continue as they are, before too long Old Man ‘Magnet will re-emerge, even angrier than before, and you can forget about EVER getting your fancy-schmancy three-dimensional baseball back if it falls into my yard.

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