The Elegance of 2D Games

Ever since I began reviewing video games on this blog in 2018, these have been my Game of the Year (GOTY) award winners:

  • 2018 – Celeste
  • 2019 – Fire Emblem: Three Houses
  • 2020 – Ori and the Will of the Wisps
  • 2021 – Metroid Dread

You may notice a pattern here — 2D games take up the majority of my GOTY winners. One is a tough-as-nails platformer and two are Metroidvanias. 2019’s emotional JRPG Fire Emblem: Three Houses is the only exception. I figured that some people may feel confused about why, so today I shall properly explain why 2D games are just as important to me as 3D ones.

First off, let’s unpack why it’s controversial for a modern 2D game to win an award in the first place. Once the video game industry began to fully understand 3D game design in the late 1990s, 2D games on home consoles became scarce. The AAA industry had officially moved on to big sandboxes and cinematic set pieces, something that 2D games can’t quite accomplish. If you wanted to play a 2D game, you were stuck playing on handhelds like the Game Boy Color and the Game Boy Advance. I think this sidelining of 2D games gave it a reputation for being “inferior” to 3D games.

Nintendo tried to break this concept with the home console successes of New Super Mario Bros. Wii back in 2009 and Donkey Kong Country Returns in 2010, and ever since Nintendo has been the forerunner for “AAA 2D Games.” Unfortunately, the only other developers that have truly embraced 2D game design are indie studios. With their pixelated graphics and lower price points, many people still think that there must be something wrong with 2D games, when in reality they have their own set of strengths and weaknesses, just like 3D games do. Let me repeat that again: there’s nothing that automatically makes a 2D game worth less than a 3D game — you’ve just been conditioned to think that way.

What might those strengths be? Let’s dive deeper.

I Actually Have Time For Them

My first reason is very much a practical part of being a game reviewer, but it is also relevant for anyone who seeks to actually finish the games they buy. I can’t award a game I don’t review; and I can’t review a game I don’t finish. Since 2D games are usually shorter than 3D ones, I often have a larger pool of finished 2D games that I can award. An article from 2017 mentioned how only 44% of all players who started Uncharted 4 ended up finishing it, and that was still only a 15-hour to 20-hour game. If you pay $60 on a 2D game and finish it in 10 hours, or pay $60 for a 3D game that you start but never finish… then did you really get a “better dollar value” from the latter?

Picking up a 2D game feels like driving to my local city park, while picking up a JRPG feels like leaving for a cross-country road trip to New York City. I like both, but I can only complete so many metaphorical 2,000 mile road trips in one year. On the other hand, I can fit in many, many more visits to the park down the street.

I Don’t Need a Lengthy Tutorial to Play Them

This shorter run time creates a domino effect that improves many other parts of a video game as well. Because you have less time and space to work with, 2D games are typically much simpler. As the player, it’s easier to know where to go and how game mechanics work when you only have to move on just the x and y axes. 3D games are certainly exciting to explore, but the complex geometry can be difficult to navigate, and you may need more time to get used to all of the variables that go into exploring said 3D space. 3D games need a lot more tutorials, whereas you can begin to “intuit” what you’re supposed to do in a 2D game. They’re clear and minimalistic, whereas recent 3D games can feel rather cluttered with all of the gauges, meters, currencies, statuses, and inventories.

I Can Focus On Them Better

2D games are usually more focused. Again, it’s much easier to design levels and environments for a flat interactive plane. It’s easier to predict where the player will go and how to guide the player along. Even in nonlinear 2D games, the shorter run time allows designers to create a tightly cohesive emotional experience and pace the game exactly right. As much as the video game industry strives for nonlinear storytelling, I think (at least for the games that I’ve played) that we still have a long way to go before we can truly achieve that kind of open-ended storytelling. I admire being able to choose my own adventure, but a well-paced story with the right emotional beats will never feel obsolete.

The gameplay obviously benefits from this brevity as well. No gameplay mechanic will outstay its welcome, and if the developers do mess up a certain mechanic, or if a certain level doesn’t work, it never lasts too long. On top of that, the focus allows the player a strong sense of mastery over a quick period of time. The gameplay can have its beginning, middle, twist, and end without taking up a month’s worth of your free time. 3D games, for all of the exciting content that may have, can lose their focus so easily. Even Metroid Prime and Xenoblade Chronicles, games that I consider masterpieces, have sections of gameplay that feel unnecessarily fluffy; and there are some days when I just don’t want to go through the padding. 2D games tend to be leaner; there’s no room to put the fluff.

They Obviously Have Their Limitations, Though

So those are the strengths of a 2D game. What might be their weaknesses? Well, for starters, the 2D perspective is quite unnatural; it’s easy for a player to remember “I’m playing a video game” when they can see a cross-section of rooms, caves, and forests. It takes an exceptional 2D game with strong sound design, tight controls, and a cohesive art style to immerse the player into the setting the way that a 3D game can. 3D games also use a more naturalistic control scheme and user interface, evoking the way us humans already perceive the world around us. First-Person video games are ubiquitous for a good reason — it’s very easy to see the world from a virtual character’s eyes when you put the camera right there, at eye level. This is the very reason that Super Metroid, as atmospheric as that game is, will always loose to Metroid Prime in terms of taking me to another place. 

Furthermore, 3D games carry a sense of scale that 2D games struggle to replicate. 2D games excel at contained, personal stories, and struggle at telling grand epics. I love the online demake videos for Breath of the Wild, but none of them can quite capture how small I feel when I’m actually playing Breath of the Wild. Finally, while 2D games are more replayable, 3D games certainly can (in theory) give you more value for your dollar, provided you actually finish the game.

They are Just as Valid as any AAA 3D Game

To conclude, the industry has evolved to a point where the 2D perspective isn’t necessarily a “throwback” or a small, insignificant project. Designing your game in 2D is just as valid an artistic decision as designing the game in 3D; in fact, the strengths of a 2D game may be exactly what a certain game needs in order to have the impact that it’s trying to achieve. Just because a 3D game appears to have more work done on it doesn’t necessarily make it better. A challenging game like Celeste may never work in 3D; alternatively, an expansive movie-like adventure like Death Stranding could never work in 2D. As a reviewer I want to meet video games where they are, and respect these decisions and how they contributed to the overall experience. 

What are your favorite 2D games? How do they stack up in terms of what the industry decides should be worth a “full price game?”

One thought on “The Elegance of 2D Games

  1. I’m not a huge platformer fan. But for example I really enjoyed the Trine trilogy, as it puts an extra twist on the formula.

    Also has co-op which is pretty cool.

    It is also freakin beautiful, they’ve put so much love and effort into it.

    Like

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