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Why I Can't Stand 2D Games

I don’t like 2D sidescrollers. If, suddenly, everyone forgot how to make 2D sidescrollers, I’d be happy. Actually, I’d be pretty happy if we killed off bullet hell shooters, twin-stick shooters, Diablo-likes, fixed-camera games, MOBAs, fighting games, brawlers, whatever Terraria is, Metroidvanias, lightgun shooters, certain survival horror games, half the indie titles on the planet…


I mean, seriously. I love gaming, right? So why on Earth would I ever be happy if these games didn’t exist? That doesn’t sound right, especially since I believe strongly in the importance of having a diverse gaming experience.


Seriously, why? Why do I, as a person, actively dislike entire genres when I’ll play just about anything, regardless of quality, to learn about it? Why do I want people to stop making more games in genres? Why do I want to see them fail? Why wrinkle my nose in disgust at the latest MOBA or MMO? And if I don’t like 2D or fixed-camera games, why do I love pouring hundreds of hours?

I’ve been struggling with the answer to this question for a long, long time. Things are prickly. I like some 2D games but dislike others. I actually feel repulsed by certain genres. Why? Why do I love the games I do and dislike others?

Thanks to an amazing post by Adrian Chmielarz, I finally have… well, I think I have an answer: empathy.


What? Empathy? Like, how one person relates to another?


Um, sort of. It's not about my relationship to you, though. That wouldn't make any sense; after all, if this were about the empathy between me and you, I wouldn't—couldn't—be writing an article about how I'd like to see a bunch of games that you enjoy die. I’m talking about… well, the reason I shed tears when Ben, former heavyweight champion of the world, boxed himself to death in 1947’s Body and Soul. I’m talking about feeling like I had been wronged when I was framed for the Empress’ murder in Dishonored. I’m talking about my victory. My accomplishment. My feelings. My experience. That is the empathy I’m talking about.

I’m looking at why you and I could play the exact same game and why I could tell you that, even if it’s a masterpiece, I can’t stand playing it. Why, even though it’s good, I don’t like it. And why you might feel the same about games I love.


Chmielarz has already set up the groundwork, so while I’ll recap it, you really should just go read his post here. Basically, humans experience two main kinds of empathy: cognitive and emotional. The former, cognitive, is all about being able to empathize with someone so much that we can identify with them. Emotional empathy, on the other hand, is about being affected, perhaps unwillingly, by someone else's emotional state. As Chmielarz says, it's like feeling uncomfortable when we hear a baby's cry.

Now, I'm not entirely sure I agree with him. In person, I'm very much an emotionally empathetic individual, but when I play games, I tend to fit his model of cognitive empathy. Looking up a few other definitions of the two... I dunno. It's weird. I'm exploring unexplored territory here, and I'm not entirely sure I have the words to describe it. Cognitive seems choice-based, and emotional is almost involuntary. And yeah, people are complex human beings, so nothing is ever going to be super rigid. I get that. But hey, whatever. The terms might not fit things the way I see them in my head, but Chmielarz' explanations do.


When I'm playing a game, I am compelled to fit inside the character's head, so choosing to do so seems like a no-brainer decision. What they want, I want, because I am them. I identify so highly with their emotional state that I become the character. Is Half-Life's Gordon Freeman is being chided by coworkers for being late? Then I'm being chided by coworkers for being late, and obviously I laugh when they all die.


Okay, no, I don't. I actually feel scared because monsters are trying to kill us all, and even though they were kinda jerks, I was late, and maybe this is my fault, and oh no, all I have is a crowbar, oh no, now the guard is dead, I'm alone, I'm... Well, long story short, it's me. As Chmielarz defines my kind of mindset, we're role-players. The game experience is our experience. It is, in a way, real. This requires a tremendous emotional investment, whether by choice or by compulsion.

Some of you may be somewhat confused by the term “role-play.” There’s this argument about the split between RPGs and JRPGs wherein people arguing that JRPGs are RPGs often say “hey, well, in any game you’re playing a role, so you’re role-playing.” Well, um, no. Sorry guys. Never mind that if they were the same thing, then every game ever would be an RPG, and the genre name would be entirely moot; that’s not what role-playing is. “Playing a role” and “role-playing” are two distinctly different things, much the way “butterflies in my stomach” is not referring to literal butterflies in my stomach. “Role-play” is a concept that stems from theatre, where actors would improvise their roles. That is, instead of following a script (playing a role), they would create their own roles (role-play) by getting in the character’s head space and becoming that character, making all the choices and such that this character they’re defining would probably do.


That’s role-play. The role-playing mindset is one where the player is actively connecting to the experience; where they’re having the experience as if it were a real thing that was actually happening to them. I’d argue that it is, in fact, a real experience, since they’re often able to experience real emotions connected with the thing, but whatever. That’s going off on a tangent.

Of course, we've got another kind of mindset: these players are evil sociopaths who can't relate to another's feelings at all people who see their role in the game as that of caretakers. That is, where I think “I want to run over there,” they think “I want to guide/move this character over there.” Chmielarz defines this kind of play as care-taking. Instead of being part of the experience (“I kick, I dodge, I run, I speak…”), they move people about within the experience. I’m not really sure how to explain this perspective, because I, as a person, don’t, except for city-building games, but more on them in a bit.


Basically, these caretaker players see the player characters as separate individuals, and they emotionally connect to these individuals as distinct people. The role-players see these player characters as themselves, and connect accordingly.

As I sit here, thinking about it, I'm not sure the cognitive/emotional empathy split works super well. Chmielarz seems to equate emotional with care-taking and cognitive with role-playing, but… okay, this is kind of hard. I’m working through this as I type, doing my best to explain this; sorry for the rough edges.


I can dig the role-play/caretaker split. I definitely see that behavior going on. But I have a harder time reconciling the emotional/cognitive split, because I feel I experience both elements equally. In fact, I feel like to connect with a video gaming experience, you have to choose, on some fundamental level, to be a part of the experience. You have to be willing to let yourself feel the emotions of the game.


If you don’t, then surely the experience becomes… “I press X on this controller I have to kick, I make Character go sit down, I make Character say Yes…” They connect with games on this very sort of… logical/rational/boring level. “I am a person sitting here in front of my computer/television using my mouse and keyboard/controller to make the pixels on the screen do things because I am a robot who can’t get emotionally involved in an experience beep boop beep.”

Honestly, I think there's some third type of player who doesn't emotionally connect at all, but plays games more... technically?


Actually, in talking with a friend about the difference between Western and Japanese games, we kinda explored this a bit. A lot of early arcade games, which is where Japanese development comes from, is very much focused on a technical level. Strip everything away, and ultimately it’s just about you and your inputs. It’s an experience almost entirely devoid of any sort of empathetic engagement. When you’re playing a fighting game, for example, it’s about you and the person sitting next to you and the buttons you are pressing on your controllers.

Western development, largely built on simulation stuff like the early RPGs (which are just abstracted simulations of adventures) and stuff like 1977’s Flight Simulator, was more about sticking players in worlds and letting them be part of the experience. It was all “hey, guys, this is a real thing, so connect with it on some deeper level than merely technical button pressing.”


I think it’s sort of a cultural/mindset thing? Not really sure. Obviously it’s not a strict delineation, because of genres like city builders, which… well, like I said earlier, I’ll get to later.


I’m spitballing, and I realize this might be hard to follow.

So. Right. Let’s tie this all up with a nice little bow before continuing.

We’ve got people who play games as part of the experience. We’ve got people who play games as some weird omnipotent god figure who’s making things do what they want them to do. And we’ve got people who play games on a more “I am pressing buttons” level. None of these perspectives are necessarily good or bad. They just are.


And me?

I’m the role-player. I need to connect with my experiences, on an emotional level. For me, making the choice to play along with the game and say “yes, this is definitely a real thing that I am experiencing right now,” is instinct.


All this time, I’ve been trying to figure out why some of my friends are so into Terraria, or why some people protest to using a mouse and keyboard (my question: “why are you even thinking about that? Just make it an extension of your body!”), or why they’re into genres I’m not, or why some of them reject the genres I’m in. I’ve been trying to figure out why people don’t connect to games the way I do, and thanks to Adrian Chmielarz, I think I get it now. We just… emotionally experience the way we interact with games on different levels. I’d argue that role-play is the deepest level, because it’s all about immersing one’s self in the experience.

Honestly, it’s kind of weird to me that people are consciously aware of their control interfaces. It’s hard for me to appreciate enjoying the act of pressing buttons to make a figure on the screen do things and go “yay, that was fun!” I can understand why people do what they do on an intelligent level, but for me, I mean… it’s kinda hard to connect to Diablo 2 and 3 because my brain just sees that as “clickclickclickclick” which requires very little of me as a player, and does nothing to get me to emotionally connect to the experience. I might as well play with one of those games where you squirt bubbles into water and make little plastic rings land on spikes or something, unless the gameplay is exceptional. To me, these things are that boring.


I get fun out of being part of the experience, which is why nearly every 2D game on the planet bores me to tears. Because it’s not me. It’s just another layer of abstraction between me and the experience. I often joke that the world would be a better place if everything were shooters, and while that’s obviously not true, I’m also only half-kidding. What I get from video games is done best on the holodeck level.

I do enjoy a few 2D, non-immersive games, though. Why some and not others?


Tower defense comes to mind. That’s my jam, right there, but unlike, say, a 2D platformer, I’m not controlling any one person at a time, I’m simply setting up towers and letting the game play itself. It’s a strategy experience. But, of course, my favorite tower defense series? Orcs Must Die and Sanctum, third- and first-person games, respectively. Then, of course, you’ve got city builders and base-building RTSes, which I’ve put hundreds of hours into. They’re easily two of my favorite genres, but also (almost always, at least) done from a 2D, or 2D-like perspective. In those games, I’m not controlling just one unit. That’s why, despite the same camera perspective as a game like Diablo, I can deal with ‘em: I’m someone who’s in charge of a bunch of different people. I’m saying “you, go there. You, gather that resource, you, use your wololo on that guy, etc.”

In these other 2D games, they’re Talking To The Character, but I’m Doing All The Character’s Stuff. This leads to a sort of dissonance between me trying to be involved, since I’m doing everything, and the game wanting it to be a distinct person who is not me.


So… honestly, that’s what it comes down to. If I’m presented with any opportunity to immerse myself into the situation, I’m going to take it, not by choice, but by personality. For me to appreciate a game on a purely mechanical, not-at-all-immersive-in-any-way level, I’d have to be completely divorced from the experience, like the commander making choices in an RTS game, or a person finding a digital life form in some sort of Tamagotchi experience. For everything else… honestly, I am just compelled, by my personality, to become part of the experience. Everything else disconnects—I don’t register my mouse and keyboard as a mouse and keyboard, but as parts of my body. My monitor fills my field of vision. My headphones hit me with glorious surround sound.

And I’m part of the game.

The truth is, I think you’re weird if you game any other way, just like I think people who don’t like ice cream and love celery are weird. And while I’d be perfectly happy if all the celery were gone tomorrow and ice cream was everywhere, I think I’d empathize with the people who loved the celery and hated ice cream. Which, by the way, is why I’m not calling for the death of all 2D games as we know them or anything like that.


Going forward, as I look at what I want to do with my life, I realize things are a bit more complex than I’d hoped. Ever since I learned I’d never be able to fly planes professionally, I’ve wanted to make games. Now I’m in film school, since game school’s so expensive, but I still want to make ‘em and write about ‘em. I’m actually over here messing about with an indie project right now in between my classes.

Getting into indie development is really important to me, but I’m starting to see that, well, a lot of people perceive games differently than I do. We enjoy these things on different levels. This dissonance in perception may affect the way I make games. It’s a new thing to think about that I hadn’t really explored before.


I’ve never questioned this. The games industry is always making stuff in pursuit of the biggest possible audience, the widest possible appeal, and I’ve always argued that this is a problematic perspective, but up until now, it’s always been “because different people like different genres.” How people emotionally connect with and respond to those genres is just… it’s territory I’ve not explored. Where before I might go “ooh, I love horror games” and simultaneously go “but I don’t like the mechanics of Japanese Survival Horror games,” now, it’s like “horror only has an effect on me when I feel as if I’m part of the experience.” It’s a subtle change in the language of my thought, but a significant paradigm shift.


With films, we’ve got stuff that has a pretty much universal appeal. Jaws. Star Wars. Indiana Jones.

Games bring in interaction, which means players are doing things. A few essays ago, I wrote about how the player was the most important part of the game experience; that is, designers should craft the entirety of the experience with the knowledge that someone is going to play the experience. But now I realize it’s a bit… more focused than that. Some games are just never, ever going to appeal to certain people. 2D Platformers are never going to interest me. First-person shooters may never interest you. While a story or aesthetic may prove to have a broad, even universal appeal, once you put interaction on the table, it’s a whole different ball game.


In other words, while I know that different people like different things, and targeting the biggest audience possible is always problematic, until now, I'd never really thought about why people like the genres they do. People are motivated to do things in different ways, with different viewpoints, which means it might be really hard to, say, craft your take on a genre and appeal to the pre-existing audience when you approach it from a different mindset. This makes me wonder if you can design games that appeal to different mindsets.

So, what have I learned while reading about the subject and writing this? I’ve got a lot to learn about motivation. Why We Do Things is really, really important as it pertains to games, and there are at least three distinct kinds of people who have very different reasons for doing something. Instead of trying to make a game that everyone likes, maybe we should try to make games that we know will appeal to specific player mindsets, rather than trying to make games that try to appeal to everyone.


It’s the same logic as the whole “let’s try to make specific genres really good at what they do, rather than watering them down” thing, but expanded to

Me, I like what I like, and I think I’m going to try to make what I like as well, completely ignoring the rest. If you’re not into becoming part of the video game, if you’re not interested in treating it like it’s real, then my games, assuming I am ever able to make them, probably won’t be for you. Likewise, when it comes to gameplay styles that don’t appeal to me, I won’t be making them, because I can’t do so in any way that might appeal to fans of that mindset.



It’s a really cool topic.

I think I’ll be writing a lot more about it very, very soon.

Just random pictures from my screenshots folder today; didn't really have anything super appropriate to toss up. Apologies for the roughness of this post; I actually went into it not entirely sure what I was writing about. All I really knew was that I was tugging on something really interesting. Anyways, you can find me on Tumblr, Twitter, and the DocTalk tag on TAY. I love you guys, you know that, right?

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