For the Love of Isometric RPGs

By Robin Booth

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, such as Baldur's Gate, look very 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?

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.

19 Responses to “For the Love of Isometric RPGs”
  1. Tony says:

    I don’t think non-linear RPGs have ever found great methods of expressing character interaction.

    Text was usable. Voice-acting scenes are a sensible progression, but a lot of people still skip through the conversations. What’s missing?

    • Robin says:

      First of all – let me say I agree with you! There is something missing.

      As for what’s missing – I don’t know. Better writing? Or perhaps there will always be limitations on any representation of real human interaction? I would like to see an RPG which displays (either textually or visually) a character’s full body language during a conversation. But then, this takes the player towards some kind of cinematic uber-reality and away from what most human interactions focus on – eyes, mouth, hands, voice – and maybe most of all – thinking of what you are going to say next!

      I would be interested to read what you make of the difference between character interaction in linear and non-linear RPGs. Are you thinking about the difference between entirely scripted encounters (with no, or very few dialogue options) and ones with a lot of dialogue options?

      • Tony says:

        Those are great ideas. I don’t know if it’s limited by tech or time or what, but NPC interaction hasn’t much changed since I played my first RPG in the 80s.

        I think linear games don’t have to worry about interaction too much. When the avatar isn’t set up to be synonymous with the player, you’re *watching* a story unfold just like you would in a film. Even if the avatar is treated as the player, if we don’t have the freedom, the story and characters write themselves with those limits. This, I think, is evidenced by stuff like Mass Effect where your character is voiced. Because of that limiting factor, he gets a personality all his/her own in spite of the player’s input.

  2. mikaeru says:

    Interestingly enough, the one recent RPG I was able to wrap my imagination around was Dragon Age: Origins. In that game, everything was a template for what was occurring in my mind. It made the game breathtaking, as every fight scene lost its repetitive nature and became an amazing adventure into my own imagination..

    • Robin says:

      Great! I’m glad that you had such a good experience with it. I did too – at least early on in the game.

      I’m curious. Was there anything in DA: Origins which seemed different to other games – to games which may not have sparked your imagination so? (unless they all do – in which case you are very lucky!)

      For me it was the initial storytelling of Origins which had me enthralled. The fighting really meant something – and the enemies were so monstrous that destroying them felt positively the right thing to do.

      I do not know if you have played Dragon Age 2, but personally I find it rather a letdown in this respect.

  3. Chris Heeney says:

    Shadowrun on the SNES – such a good overlooked isometric RPG

  4. Dan Sir says:

    Which game is represented in the very first screenshot with “For the love of iso rpgs” letters on it?

  5. rockykev says:

    I never really thought of how static views affected me. I don’t remember how the Citadel looks in Mass Effect, but I sure can navigate my way through Baldur’s Gate’s main town. I always thought Resident Evil was stupid for being 3D and having static cameras, but upon reflection, maybe it was better that way. Code Veronica was visually and level-design wise easier to digest for me than the confusing labyrinth that was RE5.

    • Dan Sir says:

      But ofcourse 🙂

      Im not sure when exactly it was but many years ago i was thinking about how when everything turned 3D and FPS/TPS at the same time that feeling of playing smth fresh and original faded with time…

      Static Cams and preferably 2D let you fill in the blanks with your personality/imagination instead of being showed smth uninspired…The games had parts of you in them from the depths of your own head and not from a lets say bethesda artist. 🙂

      They were like books vs movies (in a sense)

  6. Dexter says:

    You can still make such wonderful, fantastical and abstract landscapes with 2D art that 3D STILL to date isn’t quite capable and they are much more capable of stimulating your imagination while 3D is a lot more WYSIWYG.

    Just take a look at this RPS article from 2008 about Planescape:
    Or Sanitarium:
    Or even the good old Baldur’s Gate 2:
    Which 3D game was ever able to replicate the level of detail and pleasing look/atmosphere of these games?

    I’d relinquish any SKYRIM, Fallout 3, Mass Effect and even Gothic for a up-to-date HD revival of the genre and quality storytelling any day of the week…
    In the meantime I’ll have to console myself with the likes of Avadon (which will come out on Steam for 10$ in 3 days btw.), which although being isometric is lacking in both budget and style to be a proper stand-in for those games.

  7. Tom Jarzyniecki says:

    I’m going to be honest here and first admit that I never played any of the oldschool iso crpgs back when they were big, my first pc game was tie fighter. I’ve played isometric games certainly, but they were more A Link to the Past and Starcraft than anything RPG. Maybe I was just too young at the time, but I wasn’t terribly fixated on RPGs growing up. I might have just been too young to appreciate them, but the first RPG that I really really felt any kind of legitimate connection to and immersion in was Deus Ex, shortly followed by Morrowind, they both engaged and absorbed me so thoroughly.
    Ever since, I’ve found that, while I can immerse myself in pretty much any game with enough effort, with first person games I am always immediately immersed, to the point where any decent RPGish affair in first person is instantly my “favorite game off all time” that I gush about to all my friends after playing for 20 minutes.
    I know everyone loves bioware for their RPG fix, but while I’ve enjoyed playing bioware games the experience always seems to me a good deal more like seeing a movie, where as booting up a Bethesda game is like settling down in a chair by a window, and reading my favorite books while a wonderful thunderstorm breaks outside, rain and thunder drumming and crackling away the world, transporting me into the fantastic places found within the pages.

    • Tom Jarzyniecki says:

      I feel like I should clarify. I see the value of the Isometric, after all my second favorite media is the written word, and games are mostly on the top because of interactivity and their potential than any one experience.

      My point about Bethesda is that, while most RPGs these days are pretty much movies in that, you go from here to here to there, making decisions along the way. Meanwhile Bethesda’s work does frankly only a passible, if not thoroughly weak job of telling linear narrative (With the possible exception of Fallout 3) but you shouldn’t be there for the narrative, you can get narrative anywhere, what Bethesda really excels at is handing over an entire world for you to just explore and enjoy, which is a feeling I readily feel when reading some of my favorite books, which always involve richly detailed worlds that I would love nothing better than to just drop into and explore.

      One of my favorite moments in the Harry Potter series (of books /shakesfist) is at the beginning of book three (Prisoner of Azkaban) When Harry spends two weeks just exploring Diagon Alley.

      I’m sure an iso game could pay dividends on detailed exploration of a location, but would it let me look up and Gringots, thrust into the sky, blocking out the sun, in all it’s marble glory? could I walk in and looking up again read the poem etch on the door that I still remember word for word?

      The question isn’t whether iso or 3d or first or 3rd person is better, the question is, where did the people who made those incredible isometric worlds go, and how do we fully realize that magic again with a different perspective.

      • Dan Sir says:

        I cannot disagree with you in the “Deus Ex” – “Morrowind” example, they are perhaps the best 3D FPS rpgs that were able to keep that atmosphere and story going.

        but since you enjoy the written word as an entertainment im very much sure that you would love iso-rpgs since the best of them are essentially good/great books made into games that you can play in and make your own path and say your own words (to a certain extent)

        im pretty sure Planescape Torment rivals some of the top 10 books of all time in writing
        and while you wont look up the sky and the sun (which is awesome) the game presents everything in a book-like manner with excellent writing and inspired 2D art which will make your imagination fly higher than this sun you want to look for…


      • Robin says:

        The sky is a very interesting place, isometric RPG wise… might have to write another article about that… this one focused on what the isometric format Does give – but what it doesn’t or can’t give is also interesting…

        The wasteland in Fallout 3 utterly terrified me. I had the misfortune to emerge into it for the first time at night, and after hearing a few stray rounds from raiders and the Noise of a molerat I decided to stay as hidden as possible and creep slowly down the hillside… fully expecting to be shot on sight by what I presumed to be an insane and hostile robot (who turned out to be a Deputy).

        Planescape Torment contains over 800,000 words. War and Peace has 560,000. Good stats if anyone ever tries to claim that games are low-brow.

  8. Chad M. says:

    First-person RPGs are great for deeply immersive environments (which is what Bethesda does best, altough they certainly took their inspiration from Ultima Underworld, which itself inspired later Action RPG hybrids like Deus Ex and System Shock). The great thing about First-person is that you can really understand the bigness of the world- think of looking at the Imperial City in Oblivion from a mountaintop, or running around the Mall from the Washington Monument to Lincoln Memorial in Fallout 3.

    However, it’s a little disappointing that more non-Bethesda games don’t allow you to go to the isometric view. One of my biggest disappointments in the Witcher 2 is that they required the over-the-shoulder viewpoint and didn’t allow you take either of the isometric “tactical views” offered in the original (and in some places, the game REALLY could have used it). I think if you want a more strategic RPG, you almost have to have this kind of viewpoint (or at least straight overhead). RPGs descend from tabletop wargames, and as such strategic combat is an integral part of many games like Dungeons & Dragons. The Gold Box, Baldur’s Gate and Temple of Elemental Evil games all had their own spins on the system, and all did them well.

    Unfortunately, most RPGs today are action oriented at the expense of strategy- it’s more about having quick reflexes and a properly min-maxed character (looking at you Diablo 2/Torchlight). One of the things that killed Dragon Age 2 for me- even above the subpar writing, irritating characters, scattershot plot and lame combat system- was the fact that they took the isometric view out of it. I will never understand the concept of removing things from sequels (other than bugs).

    Whew. That was a lot of writing. 😛

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