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2D to 3D: The Deterioration of Video Games

This blog post discusses the reasons why the transition from 2-D to 3-D has causes a deterioration of video games.

Derek Truong, Blogger

December 8, 2014

11 Min Read

As video games have progressed from 2-D to 3-D, the quality of video games produced have deteriorated. In the 90’s video game era, 2-D video games dominated the industry and led to the production of timeless 2-D video games such as Chrono Trigger and Half-Life. Chrono Trigger, a role-playing video game developed by Square Enix and released in 1995, was iconic in the role-playing video game genre. The player follows the main protagonist through a prehistoric world that consists of humans and dinosaurs sharing the land. Chrono Trigger revolutionized the combat system of most role-playing video games in that battles were fought outside of a separate battle screen, a feature common in many Square Enix video games, such as the Final Fantasy series. In addition, Chrono Trigger provides a plethora of many other unique game play features such as time travel and combining your own abilities with other characters, both of which were innovative at the time of release. Half-Life, a science fiction first person shooter set in New Mexico, produced by Valve and released in 1998, revolutionized the genre for modern first person shooter video game franchises such as Counter Strike, Call of Duty, and Battlefield. Half-life follows the main protagonist, Dr. Gordon Freeman, as he fights off hordes of aliens created by the Resonance Cascade. In respect to game play, Half-life boasted game play features unique to the first person shooter genre such as, boss fights that required strategic positioning, platformer puzzle games, and assistance from non-playable characters (NPC). The transition from 2-D games to 3-D games have alienated many people with slow computers unable to handle the intensive graphical requirements that many modern 3-D games have. For example, the minimum video specification for Call of Duty: Black Ops is a “NVIDIA GeForce 8600GT graphics card or better” (2012). The cost of a graphics card of that caliber costs approximately one hundred dollars, which quite expensive in addition to the cost of the video game. As video games have transitioned into the 3-D era, modern video games companies have shifted their focus on embellishing their games’ visual aesthetics rather than quality game play mechanics.

In order to discuss and compare video games based on game play, we need to define what ‘game play’ means and how the term relates to video games. The anthropologist Roger Caillois defines a game in his paper The Definition of Play, The Classification of Games using taxonomy of what a game is defined as, “After examining different possibilities, I am proposing a division into four main rubrics, depending upon whether, in the games under consideration, the role of competition, chance, simulation, or vertigo is dominant. I call these agon, alea, mimicry, and ilinx, respectively. All four indeed belong to the domain of play” (Caillois, 2006). Utilizing Caillois’s classification of different qualities used to create games, we can dictate whether a certain game play feature progresses or improves one of these four categories. To discuss about ‘game play’, we also need to talk about how the term ‘play’ connects with how a game is defined. According to Roger Caillois, ‘play’ is deeply connected with the classification of a game such that the individual categories (agon, alea, mimicry, and ilinx) dictate the quality of ‘play’ that is present in the game. To fully illustrate, “The point of the game is for each player to have his superiority in a given area recognized. That is why the practice of agon presupposes sustained attention, appropriate training, assiduous application, and the desire to win. It implies discipline and perseverance. It leaves the champion to his own devices, to evoke the best possible game of which he is capable…” (Caillois, 2006) Combing both of Caillois’s definitions, the term ‘game play’ refers to a construct within a game that enhances the player’s experience based on the four categories classified by Caillois. Now that we have a definition for ‘game play’, we can apply this to the video games I discussed earlier, Chrono Trigger and Half-life. As a role-playing video game, the interaction between the player and the game can be classified as being competitive because as the video game progresses, the opposing force or antagonist in the game acts to artificially compete against the player in order to prevent the player from progressing further in the game. For example, in Chrono Trigger, the player has to defeat enemies to increase the player’s attribute levels and obtain gold used for purchasing items that also increase the player’s attribute levels; however, enemies in the game progressively become stronger to compete with the player. Previously mentioned, Chrono Trigger allows you to combine abilities with other non-playable characters to create a stronger attack. Utilizing our definition of ‘game play’, the ability to combine abilities to create stronger attacks enhances the player’s competitive experience because the player is allowed to organize combined attacks to gain the advantage over the enemy. Although we have constructed a definition for ‘game play’, to compare video games based on ‘game play’, we need to discuss the effect that a ‘game play’ feature has on the game’s ‘flow’ because it dictates whether the ‘game play’ feature improves or detriments the player’s experience while playing the game. Coined by video game designer Jenova Chen, a game’s ‘flow’ is defined to be “the feeling of complete and energized focus in an activity, with a high level of enjoyment and fulfillment” (Chen, 2007). If a new ‘game play’ feature creates increased difficulty, the game’s flow causes the player to feel anxiety and causes an unfavorable effect on the game as a whole. Utilizing both the definition of ‘game play’ and how ‘game play’ features interact with a game’s ‘flow’, we can start using these concepts to discuss the development of video games from the 2-D pixilated era to the modern 3-D period.

The transition from 2-D video games to 3-D video games started during the early 21st century and led to many video game companies creating three dimensional representations of worlds within their 2-D games. For example, the Legend of Zelda franchise was originally produced in 2-D, but after the transition to three dimensions, Nintendo started producing spin offs of original Legend of Zelda games such as, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, incorporating more advanced battle systems that involves aiming attacks from a third person point of view. In Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, the player controls Link—the main protagonist that adventures off to rescue the kidnapped princess Zelda—from a top down point of view and uses 2-D directional aiming for attacks. Throughout the game you obtain key items such as bombs, a bow, and a boomerang, that are required to progress through the story. Since the combat system uses directional aiming, positioning is very important when fighting enemies. Using Caillois’s four classifications of play, the combat system of Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past can be classified as agon because positioning and directional attacking is purely skill based. In comparison to Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, a newer expansion of the franchise, Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time does not use a directional aiming but rather aiming based on the Link’s orientation. For example, in Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, the player is only able to aim in eight directions, up, left, down, right, and diagonals in between two directions, whereas the number of orientations Link could be oriented are limitless in Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time due to the additional dimension. Using our definition of ‘game play’ mentioned earlier, this change in aiming is detrimental to the game because the difficulty has increased due to the additional possible orientations. Now that Link can be in multiple orientations, the amount of precision needed to execute an attack has increased, thus increasing the difficulty of the game, which decreases the game’s flow. Throughout the whole Legend of Zelda franchise, there are many puzzles that the player needs to solve using items mentioned earlier. Since The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past is played from a top down point of view, the puzzles are easier to perceive and solve. The transition from top down view to third person point of view in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time alters the perception of the game world for the player. The player’s point of view in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is altered because the vision of the player is decreased. The orientation of the camera can be classified as an ilinx game play feature. Using the definition of ‘game play’, the transition from top down view to third person view causes a change in difficulty for the player, which decreases the 'flow' of the game and causes a detrimental effect to the game.

The creativity of 2-D video games is more open compared to 3-D video games because 2-D video games are not confined by the physical limitations placed on humans’ perception of the world. To understand the reasons for the limitations placed on 3-D world, the concept of the ‘magic circle’ must be discussed. In Edward Castronova’s book Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online,  Edward describes a game’s virtual world being “an organism surrounded by a barrier” and describes the ‘magic circle’ in relation to the this ‘barrier’, “Within the barrier, life proceeds according to all kinds of fantasy rules involving space flight, fireballs, invisibility, and so on. Outside the barrier, life proceeds according to the ordinary rules. The membrane is the ‘magic circle’ within which the rules are different” (Castronova, 2005). Since players live in a 3-D world, namely Earth, 3-D video games have to obey the physical limitations present on Earth therefore a ‘magic circle’ does not exist because the limitations placed outside of a 3-D video game’s virtual world still exists within the video game’s virtual world as well. Video game designers have to follow this rule in order to prevent alienating players. Since the physical limitations of Earth are not present in virtual worlds of 2-D games, the ‘magic circle’ is present and allows for greater creativity because players are less prone to being alienated from the game play. As a result, the transition from 2-D to 3-D has hindered the creativity of video games because the ‘magic circle’ doesn’t exist within a 3-D virtual world. Although the ‘magic circle’ exists within 2-D virtual worlds, we have to consider that this ‘magic circle’ can be penetrated by players of the video game. After defining the ‘magic circle’, Castronova acknowledges that the ‘magic circle’ cannot be completely solidified from outside influence, “In the case of synthetic worlds, however, this membrane is actually quite porous. Indeed it cannot be sealed completely; people are crossing it all the time in both directions, carrying their behavioral assumptions and attitudes with them. As a result, the valuation of things in cyberspace becomes enmeshed in the valuation of things outside cyberspace” (Castronova, 2005). To fully understand the concept of the ‘magic circle’ within 2-D virtual worlds, you have to consider cases that it is penetrated and violated by players. One prominent case where the ‘magic circle’ is violated is when players bring information regarding economic influence within the game world. For example, common in 2-D massively multiplayer online role playing games (MMORPGs), the economies for their worlds can be influenced by the economies that the players partake in outside of the ‘magic circle’. Since the ‘magic circle’ exists in 2-D virtual worlds, the creation of communities within the game is possible.

After the transition from 2-D to 3-D the quality of video games has decreased due to the decrease in flow within the game. Earlier we discussed the classification of games using Roger Caillois's definition of 'play' and how we can use it to determine the effects of new 'game play' features on the game. We connected Roger Caillois's definition of 'play' with Jenova Chen's definition of 'flow' in order to discuss about how increased difficulty can lead to a decrease in the quality of 'game play'. To fully illustrate this idea, we used the Legend of Zelda franchise to analyze the effects that the transition from 2-D to 3-D had on the 'flow' of the game and how these effects affected the game overall. Using certain aspects of The Legend of Zelda such as the combat system and puzzles in the game, I determined that the transition from 2-D to 3-D led to a decrease in the 'flow' of the game. After discussing the affects of the transition from 2-D to 3-D had on 'game play' features, I used Edward Castronova's concept of the 'magic circle' to show the negative effect that the transition had on the player experience throughout the game. From the reasons I have discussed in this paper, I conclude the transition from 2-D to 3-D has caused a decrease in the quality of video games produced.



  1. Caillois, R. (2006). The Definition of Play, The Classification of Games.

  2. Call of Duty: Black Ops. (n.d.). Retrieved December 6, 2014, from http://www.geforce.com/games-applications/pc-games/call-of-duty-black-ops/system-requirements

  3. Castronova, E. (2005). Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online. The University of Chicago.

  4. Chen, J. (2007). Flow in Games (and Everything Else). Communications of the ACM, 50(5), 31-34. Retrieved December 6, 2014, from http://www.jenovachen.com/flowingames/p31-chen.pdf

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