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2D to 3D: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it

In my post last month, I mentioned how I’d managed to find a copy of the first Simon the Sorcerer PC game at the London Gaming Market recently. A photograph of the case sparked a conversation with proxyfish in the comments during which we briefly discussed the series’ switch in visual style, from the pixelated wonders of Simon the Sorcerer II: The Lion, the Wizard and the Wardrobe in 1993 to the triangular features of Simon the Sorcerer 3D almost a decade later.

This got me thinking about other classic adventure franchises where the developers made the decision to jump from 2D to 3D. There are a number of well-known occasions where this occurred but instead of being amazed by technical advancements, fans were left unimpressed; take the transition from Broken Sword: The Smoking Mirror in 1997 to Broken Sword: The Sleeping Dragon in 2003 as an example. So what is it about this switch in style that we don’t like?

I discussed the subject with a few blogging friends last week and was actually surprised at their responses: most were positive about the switch in style and very little negativity was expressed. Perhaps my 3D aversion has something to do me with being a slightly older gamer then? I can remember being so excited at the release of The Escape from Monkey Island in 2000 but being horrified at what they’d done to Guybrush once I’d managed to get my hands on it.

For fans of an established series, the change can be quite jarring. You’re used to seeing your favourite characters depicted in all their pixelated glory; and, as I wrote in my response post to Brandon from That Green Dude recently, the plot then encourages your imagination to fill in the blanks between the pixels to create their full image. Then all of a sudden they’re 3D, looking nothing like you pictured in your head – and more like a bunch of jagged triangles hastily glued together.

I suspect that, like myself, many older fans of the genre found their way into it through a love of fantasy and science-fiction books when they were younger. The nearest thing to actually seeing the amazing stories contained within their pages were comics, which were then a short step to 2D adventure titles. Perhaps playing those sort of narrative games in 3D is so far removed from the original mediums that it feels almost ‘unnatural’ and we’re more at home in our flat worlds.

But maybe it’s nothing to do with visuals at all? We’re all aware of how bad the controls became when titles such as Gabriel Knight: Blood of the Sacred, Blood of Damned made the visual switch. Gone was the ease of simply clicking on an item to use it or right-clicking to display the verb wheel; and instead we were greeted with frustrating movement, bad camera angles and a release which just generally feels clunky (not to mention cat-hair moustaches).

And then again, maybe it’s nothing to do with the game at all and down to the fact that we gamers are generally a difficult bunch to please. Nostalgia has a funny way of affecting your opinion on a subject and casting a rosy glow around all that you remember from your younger years. For 90s players, the most well-loved adventures were those presented to us in pixels; and just as we’d quickly cite our preference for 2D, an adventurer from the 80s is as likely to cry out for text.

Regardless of how bad we think the transition from 2D to 3D was, the visuals themselves don’t really matter: it’s more important for the graphics to be in-tune with the developer’s vision for their project and to suit the gameplay. As I wrote last month, if all aspects of a release aren’t in sync and don’t work together in harmony, they’ll never create a coherent form that makes for an awesome gaming experience.

And let’s face it: if LucasArts were still with us and made a 3D adventure today, it would be way better those triangular nightmares we recall from our past.

17 thoughts on “2D to 3D: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it Leave a comment

  1. There’s a lot to be said for a “beloved” art style. Just look at how many games are returning to the pixel art style of the past right now! Having said that, I played the original Monkey Island games, but my favourite art style is the third one. I really liked the bright colours and more cartoony characters.

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    • Every Monkey Island game I’ve played (except the first), I’ve always hated the visual style at the start. But then I’ve ended up loving it by the end! I’m still not sold on Telltale’s version though… one day I might give it a second chance.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I agree with you on so many levels ;-).

    I consider myself an older gamer, too (after all, almost 30 years of experience?), but I don’t think the 3D problem has anything to do with it.

    There’s no turning around the fact that all the 3D transitions didn’t work well (and they still don’t today at times). Even Tim Schafer said that Grim Fandango was just done in 3D to make more money, and what’s the worst about this amazing game? 3D, at least the controls. And even if I think Gabriel Knight 3 is the best of the trilogy with its story and atmosphere, the 3D made it difficult to play, not even taking into account some motion sickness. Cat-hair moustaches? That was priceless and more memorable than most other classic adventure games’ ideas :-).

    Yes, I still prefer pixel art over the new 3D visuals, just looking at “Escape from Monkey Island”, although again I loved that game, and also Telltale’s episodic sequel.

    But Simon the Sorcerer 3D? Oh my… that’s an entirely different story… which we’ll hopefully tell soon (just left you an email message) ;-).

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    • I completely agree with you with regard to the transitions – for me, that’s the worst thing about taking a classic adventure from 2D to 3D. If it’s not done well it can be so disorientating, and make the game bloody difficult to play!

      I’ve got your email… and I think I might be able to do something in September… I’ll send a proper reply as soon as possible. 😀

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  3. I remember Broken Sword: The Sleeping Dragon and the backlash due the change in visual style. The game is still good though.

    I think old school 3D still looks good but that’s probably the nostalgia coming into play.

    A lot of 3D games from the 90’s look incredibly dated now but they are still fun to play. Games from the early 2000’s (PS2, Gamecube, Xbox) look a lot better than their predecessors due to the huge improvement in 3D image quality and technology. Compared to current games, they look dated. However, as I said previously about 90’s 3d games, they are still fun.

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    • It makes you wonder what 3D games are going to look like ten years from now… Are future gamers going to look back and think they’re still great in terms of visuals, or will technology have advanced so much they’ll consider them completely aged? 🤔

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      • If the Nvidia tech demo from Gamescom is anything to go by, I think we are heading straight into uncanny valley.

        I think many gamers will still think that that 3D games from now and previous gens look great for the time that they came out. However, as we all know, the thoughts and opinions of gamers can change. The gaming industry and the core audience changes so quickly that it is sometimes hard to keep up.

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        • I totally agree – the rate of change seems to have increased so much in the past few years that it’s hard to stay on top of everything going on. It seems like only yesterday when I was gawping over how good Myst looked, and now we have games like Horizon Zero Dawn which are in a whole different league.

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  4. I don’t know if there’s a lot of gamers like me, but I’m all over the map when it comes to graphics. I love the 16-bit retro style of Shovel Knight (not to mention that it’s Super Mario, MegaMan, and DuckTales in one game), but I also spend hours just looking at the scenery in Horizon: Zero Dawn. I adore Studio Ghibli’s art style in Ni No Kuni, yet I need my Metal Gear Solid to be realistic and gritty.
    I can’t even tell if I would have liked these games if their graphic styles were any different.

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    • I spent so many hours taking photographs in Horizon Zero Dawn, it was ridiculous ha ha! I got photorealism-fatigue after playing for so long however that the next game I picked up was Kathy Rain – 90s-style pixels and totally different both in terms of look at genre.

      I think graphics are kind of like ice-cream… you should never stick to just one flavour. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

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