Published on May 29th, 2013 | by Brendon Templin0
The Joy and Wonder of the Second Dimension
There’s something enchanting about the second dimension. The first dimension is all mere lines, and the third is the realm we live in, but the second dimension is a strange facsimile of our own: unwaveringly flat but limitlessly representative of the third dimension. It also makes for a great platformer.
There’s something to be said for good 2D level design, holding a flat plane against the player yet leading them to imagine a sense of depth. It takes a particular level of thoughtfulness to create a setting where not everybody can double-jump, so I often find myself looking for staircases and ladders, in my scrutiny of their universe’s realism. I have come to the conclusion that Dracula’s castle houses no (live) human legs, and that Shadow Complex is the most realistic platformer of all time; places such as the Green Hill Zone are harder to rationalize.
Hopefully 2.5 catches on before 3D glasses.
Beyond correcting the quirks of the second dimension, though, there are many other advantages of the territory, such as lacking the need to manipulate a camera. Controlling the point of view has been a thorn in 3D gaming’s side since inception, as well as being the reason most of the PS1 library is now unplayable. On the canvas of the flat plane, the designer can really put whatever they want before you, from sunset horizons to sprawling caverns. The untouchable foreground and background create an immovable frame, not to be intruded upon by the wobbly fray of survival and exploration, and in this a constantly controlled cinematic stage. Beyond that, the developer may take liberties to enhance the presentation, such as the awe-filled distanced shots of Limbo, or the dark, claustrophobic shots used in Jasper Byrne’s Lone Survivor.
In addition, linearity is generally a much more graceful beast when the player is not allowed to walk in the full 360 degrees. Though “linear” has become somewhat of an insult in the world of game reviews as of the last few years, in truth it is a necessity of game design. Not every game is Minecraft or Terraria, and even those that offer branching choices, like Mass Effect or the Walking Dead, must keep players along the rails. In game design, A must lead to Z in one way or another, usually taking the B to C to D method. While games like Half-Life are able to lead you through a virtual corral without you realizing, that sort of finesse is hard to achieve, as we’ve all found ourselves looking upon the obvious “one entrance” while surrounded by non-interactive doors and pointless hallways. Even if 2D as a medium doesn’t eliminate bad design, it makes it all the easier to lead a player in a direction without having to create countless other directions that can’t be used. Instead of just emulating actual architecture and geography, 2D lends itself to deeper elevation and distance, as well as the well the grandeur of impossible proportion ratios (Megaman is a wee little thing, and Diddy Kong might be smaller.)
Admittedly, though, much of my love for the second dimension comes from mere nostalgia. Whenever I first step into a video game unable to jump at least five feet in the air, an urge deep inside of me is hampered. I love the feeling of being able to move as gracefully as the timing of my thumbs, gladly taking mobility over aim; so yes, although I know that the second dimension is not the penultimate realm of gaming, it is the only to allow me to pounce across ledges at breakneck speeds. Except for Crackdown and Infamous, those games know what’s up.
But in respect to the larger world of gaming, let us dissect what the second dimension really means, beyond bouncing and collecting stuff that glows. To the best of my knowledge, the third dimension had little use in gameplay before early flight sims and Tomb Raider. Within the mid 90s, it became touted as the big thing in gaming, but truthfully, the impact was mainly cosmetic. Doom was a twin-stick shooter in first person, while Resident Evil and Metal Gear Solid conspired across flat planes. Many of these principals remain true today, as can be seen by modern hits like Gears of War’s or Dead Space’s use of cement-footed protagonist. Other genres, such as our hack n’ slashes and real time strategies, have never left the flat plane, instead opting for evolving mechanics over action movie bravado.
This rant of mine may have been much more defiant five or ten years ago, before the indie scene had grown a comfortable space across bundles and Kickstarter, before retro had become a hot word and Metroidvania a prominent genre. So in this age, I say “two dimensional” not in mournful remembrance, but in celebration that I will continue to see the expanding video game industry churn out my favorite genre, and many more once missed. So let the good times roll. And let the next Gears of War have double-jumps.