Monument Valley

Exit Flatland

This article appears in Issue 9 of Kill Screen’s print magazine. It launches on August 8th, but you can get 10 percent off before that date with the discount code RELAUNCH.


In 1884, Edwin Abbott Abbott published Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions. It was told from the perspective of A Square, who lives in a 2D world. His life is transformed by the entrance of A Sphere, who opens his eyes to the existence of a third dimension.

For millennia, Western painting and architectural rendering occupied flatland. For all the joys of medieval art, perspective was often distorted, with large, compressed figures and buildings. With the discovery of the vanishing point, depth in Renaissance religious allegories and ideal cities became possible. Yet there were limitations. Buildings and figures behind the immediate street-level view were obscured; art remained a frozen moment.

Centuries later, programmers faced a similar problem. Lacking the technical capabilities for convincing 3D games beyond skeletal vector graphics, a flatland perspective was adopted in everything from Pac-Man (1980) to Castlevania (1986). Ingenuity went into the character of games, but they were still rendered as glorified floor plans.

Ant Attack

As it had for architects, the breakthrough came in axonometry’s most common form—isometric projection. Where the lines in linear perspective converged at a vanishing point, here they travelled vertically and 30 degrees to the left and right. This enabled a tilted bird’s-eye view onto objects, with three sides showing rather than one. Squares became cubes. Facades became buildings with volume. It was both revealed truth and mirage.

“Space games explode into a new dimension,” boasted the flyer for Zaxxon (1982), and games soon revelled in the geometric possibilities. In titles like Marble Madness (1984) and Highway Encounter (1985), you piloted 3D shapes around the terrain. In Ant Attack (1983), the star was not a giant insect but the pixelated Brutalism of the environment. Its city was called Antescher after the artist M.C. Escher, whose work (particularly his 1938 lithograph Cycle) had influenced another isometric hit of the time: Q*bert (1982). Escher had embraced the possibilities of axonometry for disorienting optical illusions, hinting at later physics-defying games like Gravity Rush (2012), Fez (2012), and Monument Valley (2014).

to gaze down upon entire metropolises

The history of game development is partly one of turning weaknesses into strengths. The Stamper brothers’ Filmation engine connected individual isometric rooms through archways; they created a template for fantasy in Knight Lore (1984), space travel in Alien 8 (1985), and the supernatural in Pentagram (1986). When processing power finally allowed it, it was possible to gaze down upon entire metropolises, enabling city-building games from Populous (1989) to SimCity (1989). All architects harbor fantasies of demolition, and in the likes of Desert Strike (1992) and Command and Conquer (1995), players could lay waste to architecture and its inhabitants. Death was not even necessarily the end, with Afterlife (1996) enabling the creation of isometric heavens and hells.  

Axonometry changed the nature of interactive storytelling in videogames. The ability to move around cities and interact with multiple characters—rather than simply repel invaders or pick off sentries—was crucial to the development of RPGs like Baldur’s Gate (1998). You could get drunk in a medieval castle (Ultima 8), assassinate insubordinate politicians (Syndicate), or play roulette in an irradiated wasteland (Fallout). You could even step inside a replica of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (1980) in La Abadía del Crimen (1987). Despite (or because of) the mastering of “real” 3D, axonometry remains popular, as evidenced by Transistor (2014), Satellite Reign (2015), and Bastion (2011). Beyond nostalgia, it suggests we might be voyeuristic gods, rather than one of those tiny sprites.

La Abadía del Crimen

In the 1980s, System 3’s best-selling The Last Ninja series evoked a semi-mythic Japan, with Buddhist shrines, rock gardens, and seppuku-committing guards. Its isometric perspective was crucial to its sense of exploration. The player climbed walls and descended into dungeons. Dragons emerged from grottos and birds flew through Torii gates.

There was a strange sense of déjà vu playing The Last Ninja. Its environment was recognizable because we had seen it before, long ago. In a mix of propaganda and pageantry, Chinese court painters had been employed to commemorate imperial festivities. These were expected not only to celebrate the grandeur of the kingdom but to record events as they happened. This fourth dimension of time was captured on scrolls like Along the River During the Qingming Festival by Zhang Zeduan and Xu Yang’s The Qianlong Emperor’s Southern Inspection Tour. To enable this widescreen view, they developed axonometry.

The masters of ukiyo-e woodblock prints borrowed the method, with the screens and sliding panels of Japanese architecture allowing artists to pry inside teahouses, brothels, and pavilions. Gazing at the original scrolls, it’s tempting to imagine the characters moving around the cityscapes. This was partly the intention. Like cinema, the basis for videogames was already there, centuries before our imaginations became powered by electricity. We discovered the future in a foreign past.

Subscribe to Kill Screen’s print magazine for many more articles like this one.