In many ways the isometric viewpoint was a historical necessity — and yet today we remain enthralled by the style. The perspective boomed in the ’90s when proper 3D was expensive, limited, or just technically difficult to do.
These obstacles meant isometric projection became a neat and efficient way of creating intricate video game worlds. So are isometric games made today simply relics feeding off our nostalgia, or is there something to this unique viewpoint?
Isometric is the general term used to refer to a particular way objects are represented when drawn. Rather than drawing environments from a purely top-down 2D perspective, objects are angled slightly so as to give the impression of depth. In the world of video games this technique allowed artists to draw and bring to life complex settings with a great deal of architectural detail, creating a sense of three-dimensionality without actually having to render things in 3D.
Despite the technical advantages of the viewpoint, the perspective only thrived within particular genres. Isometric projection was originally a style of technical drawing used by engineers and architects, and so the viewpoint was a natural fit for video game developers creating city and settlement building strategy games like Populous and SimCity 2000. The wide, zoomed-out perspective gave players the eyes of gods and urban planners, respectively, allowing them to plan, plot and chart out their grand schemes at an equally grand scale.
Strategy games more generally were keen to pick up the viewpoint and its advantages. The Civilization series, like SimCity before it, ditched its older, flat top-down view for the more varied perspective.
This allowed the games to draw their landscapes and buildings in greater detail and to a style which seemed better suited to players as planners and builders. More militaristic strategy games followed suit, the withdrawn camera just as easily allowing you to jump into the boots of a war-time general in The Settlers, Age of Empires and Warcraft/Starcraft. All of these games, with their mixture of settlement construction and army control benefitted from the added environmental detail which isometric projection brought.
Tactics games also utilised the viewpoint, the classic X-COM allowing you to control a squad of soldiers, turn by turn, out-maneuvering an invasion force of extraterrestrials. Like a board or tabletop game, the view allowed for a full tactical overlook of the map, making it easy to plan out moves and position your soldiers. This particular realisation of over-the-head tactical combat was one of the reasons RPGs also began to utilise the viewpoint.
Role-playing from above
When video games began adapting pen-and-paper roleplaying systems, the isometric perspective seemed to fit the bill. When it comes down to it, mtost RPGs are ambitious mixtures of elaborate world-building and tactical combat. Like a beautifully crafted map, the wide isometric perspective meant you could get more world on screen at one time. The environment could also be drawn in detail as it didn’t need to be rendered in real-time (like proper 3D graphics).
This meant artists could be excessive and ornate in the background environments and objects they drew (compared to 3D worlds, which were sparse to say the least). The viewpoint also lent a certain topographic quality to the world, something which chimed with both designers and players seeking to imbed and immerse themselves in these grand, fictional places.
Having an overarching angle on the environment meant you could deal with scaled-up combat scenarios in an interesting way. Like in X-COM where you could have dozens of soldiers and aliens on screen, RPGs of the late 90s and early noughties tended to be party-based and involve swarms of creatures and monsters. Diablo was an action-based variant where you delved into underground labyrinths, hacking and slashing your way through Hell and back. This sense of being swarmed, as well as herding and controlling crowds and mobs of enemies all began here at the isometric level.
Perhaps the most popular isometric games of all time were those created using Bioware’s “Infinity” game engine, which was specifically designed to be used in conjunction with the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing system. The tactical combat involved parties of adventurers battling monsters for experience, whilst the games also brought to life D&D worlds like “Faerun” and “Planescape”, with the isometric viewpoint dealing with natural and alien landscapes just as well as the urban centers seen in Baldur’s Gate.
The future of the isometric viewpoint
In recent years we’ve seen an influx of Infinity engine-like games: Pillars of Eternity, Torment: Tides of Numenera and Tyranny, all seeking to capture some of the magic of those earlier classics. This is to say nothing of all the other modern strategy, tactics and RPG games which — despite now being rendered in real-time and in full 3D — remain top-down and angled in a particular way so as to call-back to the history of isometric projection.
It’s clear as to why isometric games remain popular and in-demand. Despite no longer being historically necessary (3D is now, comparably, cheap), the perspective still has clear and distinct advantages. Whether you’re looking to use scale for effect, manage a complex tactical combat system, or use this particular style of projection for an architectural and engineering aesthetic, I think we’ve evolved past the point of nostalgia-trips.