What is Isometric View? [Gaming Definition, Meaning]

Since the advent of the first generation of video games for home consoles, graphics have evolved in many ways, becoming more and more complex over the years. Do you remember the two-dimensional graphics – often abbreviated as 2D – of Pong (Atari, 1972) which were viewed as a miracle at those times? Well today, a game like that is obsolete, it is more like a beauty from the early Seventies which only a retrogamer or an expert of video game’s history can really appreciate. Nowadays, the type of graphics preferred both by developers and the public are three-dimensional (3D) ones, which are more realistic and thus capable of making a player live the best gaming experience as possible, without having to rely only on a valuable plot and the playability. The most famous type of graphics for home consoles is undoubtedly 3D, but when we talk about video games, we can’t refer only to PS or XBOX anymore now. With the wide spread of portable technological devices such as tablets and smartphones with a system a lot less powerful than a home console’s one, the world of gaming entertainment has metaphorically taken a step backwards, digging up a series of vintage games’ expedients that aren’t really en vogue anymore. Among them, the kind of graphics which is best-known as “isometric view” is certainly the best compromise to appease the players of both the old and new games generation.

First of all, let’s explain what an isometric view is in gaming. We could define isometric view as a display method used to create an illusion of 3D for an otherwise 2D game. Unlike a classic flat, side 2D perspective, isometric games’ viewpoint is angled in such a way that the x, y, and z axis measure exactly 120 degrees – to be precise, in pixel art, the angle is slightly different from a true isometric drawing, with the result that only two of the axes have equal dimensions, so isometric view is actually dimetric – from each other, producing a three-dimensional effect which gives players the possibility of seeing other elements of the game environment impossible to be seen otherwise. Another characteristic of isometric games is that, differently from 2D side-viewed games, characters are not forced to follow a predefined straight direction, but can freely move within the rooms like they actually have a depth.

The first games to use an isometric view date back to the 80s and belonged to the arcade market – they belonged to adventure and strategy genres, in particular. Since then, this above-angled type of perspective have been experimented by many game developers who tried to make it work for both 2D and 3D games, with the result that not all of their products can be classified under the isometric category. Thus, let’s try to get the whole history of games using an isometric view to understand better what they are and how they are different from other games featuring diagonal-oriented point of view.

A Brief History of Isometric Games.

Isometric projection was particularly used for developing video games in the years between the 80s and the 90s. The title which introduced this kind of perspective is Zaxxon, a shooter released as an arcade game for Sega platform in 1982. Isometric perspective got such a success that just a few months after Zaxxon’s first release another game of the same kind – Q*bert – came out, completely different from Zaxxon in its gameplay and objective, but still valuable enough to be anointed as one of the best isometric games ever made. In an era when giving depth to video games was still unthinkable due to lack of adequate technology, a point of view obtained from an isometric projection was such a great achievement that the siren call for the production of more games based on the same idea was irresistible. From 1983 on, isometric games got richer in characteristics, adding three-dimensional climbing and jumping to their features, too. Moreover, they stopped being an exclusive of the arcade market and spread also to home consoles, hitting the top with big titles like Ant Attack for the ZX Spectrum – first of the adventure games using an isometric perspective – and Populous – first of the strategy isometric genre.

With the evolution of gaming technology in the 90s, isometric view started to be first modified and then abandoned in favor of a pseudo-3D gaming environment, like in the case of Diablo (1996). In the late 90s, Isometric projection in the gaming industry mostly survived in Japanese tactical role-playing games (JRPG) such as Final Fantasy Tactics (1997), but its era was giving away to newer graphics. It was only thanks to game engines like Infinity Engine and Kickstarter that isometric perspective made it to the 2000s and become incredibly popular among JRPGs’ fans, who helped it surviving until today.

Final Fantasy Tactics.

  • System/Platform: PS, AND, PSP, IOS
  • Publisher: Square Enix, SquareSoft, SCEA
  • Developer: Square Enix, SquareSoft, TOSE
  • Release Date: Jan 28, 1998

When we talk about famous Japanese games using an isometric perspective, we can’t ignore such big titles as the ones belonging to Final Fantasy saga. In particular, Final Fantasy Tactics is a tactical role-playing game developed and published by Squaresoft (now Square Enix) for the Sony PlayStation video game console. Final Fantasy Tactics is set in a fictional medieval kingdom called Ivalice. The story follows the adventures of Ramza Beoulve, a cadet who finds himself thrust into the middle of a military conflict called The Lion War, where two opposing noble factions are fighting for the control of the monarchy. While the conflict furthers, Ramza and his allies are more and more aware that there is a darker plot behind the fighting than simple will for dominance.

Having been released when isometric view had already been experimented by many other games companies, Final Fantasy Tactics makes use of all the features which made of isometric the great innovation it was, but mixing it with the newer elements introduced in the late Nineties. Indeed, in contrast with previous games with the same graphics, Final Fantasy Tactics uses a 3D, isometric, rotatable playing field with two-dimensional bitmap (or bitmap sprite) characters. The great harmony of its layout, together with its amazing plot and high playability, made of Final Fantasy Tactics an immortal legend able to attract also new generation games’ fans.

FINAL FANTASY TACTICS: The War of the Lions (for iPhone) Launch Trailer

Isometric VS Other Projections.

A common mistake made by inexperienced players is to confuse every game with a diagonal projection for a title using an isometric perspective. After all, projection means displaying a three-dimensional object on a 2D plane, thus it is inappropriate to define “isometric” any type of game using a diagonal projection. In fact, there are more kinds of projections that were and are still largely used by game developers, that are trimetric, oblique, and perspective. Projection resulting into a trimetric view is pretty much similar to isometric, but it is based on a freer concept. The axes composing the geometric layout measure different sizes, in fact, resulting in a more stylized polygon which is actually very hard to distinguish from isometric one with the naked eye. Good examples of games with trimetric perspective are Fallout (1997) and SimCity 4 (2003).

Oblique perspective is instead based on a graphical projection used for producing two-dimensional images of three-dimensional objects, with the result that objects are not put in a homogenous perspective and the overall image appears distorted. Popular examples of games using an oblique perspective are Divine Divinity (2002) and Ultima Online (1997), but oblique projection hasn’t actually been that successful. On the contrary, games using perspective projection achieved a great success. Differently from the above-mentioned views, perspective projection is based on a realistic concept which tries to mimic how objects look to the human eye, and relies on the concept of a focal point – it works at the same way as cameras do, to put it simply. Torchlight (2009), Divinity: Original Sin (2014), and also the earlier titles belonging to the Resident Evil are just some of the games which use that realistic perspective view which will become the ancestor of today’s 3D graphics.

Final Thoughts

The history of video games goes hand in hand with the technological progress which is what makes it possible for gaming industry to develop newer and more complex graphic techniques which aimed to render a gaming experience something more than a simple virtual adventure. Since Pong’s release, game developers have come a long way, passing through absolutely flat and colorless games to get to a realistic human-like perspective, and isometric projection has been a smart intuition which anointed as the fundamental step between these two eras of video games.

What about you? How many games with an isometric perspective have you played? What is your favorite one? Do you prefer 2D isometric games or you are more into perspective views? Don’t forget to let us know with a comment!

Dareka Nobody


Author: Dareka Nobody

I’m an Italian dirty little girl obsessed with Japanese language, culture, literature, anime, manga, games, but also with writing, reading, and travelling, in general. I lived in Japan and I’m about to be moving there forever. When I’m not working, I translate yaoi light novels for a hobby. I’ve recently started a partnership with the website Novelleleggere.org where I publish my works. I run a page on Facebook about my translation and I’m also a blogger who likes to write about her experiences in Japan. Akiba addicted and enthusiastic Honeyfeed’s writer!

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