At a time when even most high-level indies incorporate three-dimensional design into their games, it’s easy to see two-dimensional games as less than—the budget option that either trades on nostalgia or high concept gameplay while avoiding the developmental challenges of three-dimensional environments. Some are close enough to a classic side-scroller to deserve the designation.
Yet Inside, a puzzle platformer released by Playdead on June 29, 2016, and the spiritual successor to their 2010 classic Limbo, has been (deservedly) reaping accolades for its spare, yet richly atmospheric environment. Inside is strangely, extravagantly beautiful, and because it is wordless, the environment carries the weight of storytelling as well as presenting puzzles and obstacles to overcome.
The game’s controls consist of five buttons—five, that’s it. Arrow keys to move up, down, right, left, and one key to grab. Yet this very simplicity of input allows for the creation of a densely, perfectly interactive environment. There are physics puzzles and jumping puzzles, and each has a deliberate, purposeful quality to it, even when the mechanisms repeat at times.
Height and levels are used extensively in the environmental design so that introducing a third dimension would seem almost extraneous, too much. Thus while the player’s movement and actions are tightly controlled and predetermined, the “payoff” when individual puzzles are solved is pleasurable, often elegant in the precision of the animation.
And without dialogue or text, visuals are everything—even basic symbols like numbers or letters are few and far between. As you guide a small boy through the levels of a strange, top-secret area, parasitic pigs and brain-dead meat puppets serve as tools, even as they impart a grim, dreamlike narrative to the proceedings.
The stakes are terrifyingly high—each failure of stealth, drop from a high place, or failure to outrun pursuers results in watching the little boy die horribly, whether from bullets or trained attack dogs. Though checkpoints are frequent, death is so traumatic each one feels like a much more significant failure.
The colors are subdued, and the cinematic mood and ending(s) means that Inside succeeds on the level of a horror game as well as being a satisfying (if short—gameplay is no more than five hours) platform puzzler. In emotional tone, it’s not dissimilar to The Chinese Room’s BAFTA-winning Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, though it’s much less invested in narrative specificity than that exploratory, environmentally rich game. Instead Inside creates a story experience that’s oblique and thoughtful, which Slant Magazine in its review describes as “one of the few video games that reaches the level of allegory.”
The look of Inside is impressively polished and aesthetically distinct not really in spite of its 2D constraints, but because those limitations allow for designers to scrutinize the aesthetic and interactivity of every inch of screen the player traverses. And the 2D format has a lot to offer in terms of allowing smaller studios the opportunity to focus on uniquely artful environments.
Samorost 3, the most recent offering from Amanita Design, creators of Machinarium and Botanicula, is an adventure game offers dreamily gorgeous 2D environments that incorporate creative puzzles. The world and the strange creatures found in it have a beautiful, timeless quality, like the creations of the best illustrators of children’s literature. Like Inside, the game is entirely wordless and the very tactile sense of interaction with the imaginative environment helps preserve the narrative thrust surrounding exploration.
Niffelheim, available in early access since April, takes a similar approach to the creation of its 2D world, using hand-drawn animation to create beautiful, mythic Viking landscapres in their RPG survival adventure despite having a tiny development team. Unlike more puzzle-oriented games, Niffelheim incorporates combat and crafting into gameplay. While Niffelheim doesn’t offer the satisfactions of a huge world to explore, the whole comes together to form a game that’s simple yet also satisfying in terms of both gameplay and visual design.
Even a tiny point-and-click adventure like Message Quest, which is really a game built around a basic, pleasurable conceit, can achieve a look that’s imaginative and distinct; the game, which features a lazy herald trying to deliver the “Call to Adventure” to a hero is realized in a simple, bright stained glass style.
I love big open worlds to explore and adventure through. I love the immersion provided by those spacious environments, which often conceal wonderful secrets in out-of-the-way corners. But those big, three-dimensional worlds often come with big time commitments in order to really appreciate. The beauty of 2D design is that it scales down environmental design to something more like a labor of love than an engineering product, allowing designers to maintain quality while developing a unique artistic vision.
Like short stories rather than novels, they’re bite-sized visits to wonderfully realized worlds that show the breadth of what good game design can really be.