For the Love of Isometric RPGs
The scout spurs his horse forward, each hoof-fall revealing more of his surroundings. Much of this area has been explored already, but there may still be boar to be found beyond the edges of existence. The black, intangible, unmanifested reality around him may hold many riches – strong timber, stone, food, gold… or the fletched arrows of an enemy watchtower. He rides with just one side visible at a time, our view of him is immutable, as is our view of the land he rides through. Only if he turns do we see more of him, but even then only a set number of images can ever be seen. But the scout is a fuller, more transient, more unpredictable and a far less beautiful entity than the immovable trees he passes.
We shall never see the other side of those trees, or the back walls of the city the scout left behind not a minute ago. We will never see the eyes of his killers, merely the bare chests, dark hair and unprepossessing garb of the villagers, who, on seeing him approach, lay down their fruit-baskets and draw knives. Eight of them surround the scout, whose sword arm rises and falls in an attempt to hack his way free. Before he can dispose of even one of his assailants, the merciless villagers have cut him down, and return to their berry-picking.
Age of Empires was the first game I ever played. Since then, I have been repeatedly seduced by the isometric format. It teases the player with things they cannot ever see. In older games, with no zoom or rotate function, the world is presented as a vast, unfolding picture – an image which would be appear flat if it were not for the barriers to movement and sight – the trees and corridors, stairways and mountains which delineate the isometric system of motion and interaction. The isometric viewpoint made games look graphically impressive without sacrificing computer power.
Classic isometric RPGs (including but not limited to Baldur’s Gate, Fallout 1&2, Arcanum and Planescape: Torment) all have extremely memorable worlds. These games all have interesting plots – but what I remember more than anything else from them is the scenery. Isometric scenes, temple and city layouts, characters and monsters are seared into my mind with far more clarity than the 3D cityscapes and character models of more recent games. There is a good reason for this, of course – upon entering or moving through the wilderness around Baldur’s Gate, the player will always see exactly the same image. In Mass Effect, The Citadel retains no such familiarity. Even after 3 play-throughs it remains a confusing place, almost unnavigable without a map. Visiting the city of Baldur’s Gate is, by contrast, like returning to a place that I have created myself. The view I have of it is always the same, and the same as the view of the designers who created it.
Fixed-view isometric RPGs have a kind of solidity – a static, immutable nature. They present immobile worlds which necessarily hide part of their presumed reality. Imagining the unseeable side of a building makes these worlds strange and alien places – half-worlds of unseen bricks, stones, signs and terrors. Imagining the world the Nameless One or the Vault Dweller sees actively requires thought and creativity, investing players in the world, rather than having them passively pass through it.
But this presupposes that we players do imagine ourselves as these isometric characters, and that for them the world they inhabit is not isometric, but full and rich like ours. For them it could not be the flat, isometric world we see.
Does the isometric view in fact distance us from RPG characters? At first glance, yes – compared to first-person RPGs the differences seem clear cut. Seeing the charging Deathclaw getting closer and closer to my ‘face’ in New Vegas should (and does) create a sense of panic and urgency. I instantly hit VATS, or pull up the inventory on my Pip-Boy, anything to take time to think, to get away from the bloodthirsty monster. But I cannot escape the fear.
My escape is to a static place, to a place where only my imagination moves. The scene pauses. Should I shoot the Deathclaw in the head, hoping to kill it quickly? Or in the leg to slow it down? Should I waste valuable time equipping a more powerful gun? Or should I gobble down all these drugs I’m carrying around and hope for the best? And suddenly I am away from the first-person experience, thinking about my situation without seeing it. I know that the Deathclaw is still ‘out there’ and I still feel in danger. While perusing my inventory, I am more alone with my fear of Deathclaws than with the fully realised, visible Deathclaw. So am I closer to my character, or further away?
Can beautiful visuals and non-fixed camera angles lose some of the connection between player and character? Do we really need high-end graphics to make games immersive or can we could we get away with cheaper gaming devices and have a better time playing oldschool isometric style?
If players do not invest themselves in isometric characters, then the flat worlds they inhabit become mere opportunities to point and click. The RPG becomes a simple puzzle – how to get from point A to point B and pick up lootable items X, Y and Z. But if players do invest themselves in imagining their world, if they go beyond the teasing limits of the fixed isometric view, then the isometric world can be at least as (if not more fully realised than) a first-person RPG. First-person RPGs often present a world as close to reality as possible given their graphics and the creativity of their designers. This always leaves some room for improvement. Looking at Miranda’s face in Mass Effect 2, I cannot help but feel that sometimes she is not aware that I am in the same scene as her. I cannot get beyond what is presented to me – there is no room for imagination as the scene is fully presented. What you see is what there is.
The uncanny valley will always lie between game representation and immaculate representation of reality. In fixed-view isometric games there is room for the free play of imagination to create the world from the signs it is given, rather than have the world given to it, fully but not immaculately formed.