3D Platforming: An analysis of a genre's changing design philosophy.
Platforming is one of my favourite things to do in games, so much so that I wrote multiple articles in the past for an old blog that was specifically about obscure platformers, their history, and their design. Platforming is one of my favourite genres and I've even coined a term on many forums, reddit, and social media which I call "kinesthetics", which losely means "quality of movement, flow, and tactile input". You may have seen posters claiming there's multiple kinds of learners, and a "kinesthetic learner", learns by touch or by doing, as opposed to a visual or audio learner. That's the only context I've seen the word use previously. In relation to gaming it would be what a lot of people call "game feel", but I feel "kinesthetics" is a good, and less ambiguous term. Regardless, I want to establish early on that I love platforming to give context for what I say here.
You'd probably expect, given what I've just said, that I'd have glowing reviews of platformers to share, given my positive bias for the genre, but I don't. In fact when it comes to 3D platformers, I find much of the genre mediocre and feel it panders to the lowest common denominator in their audience. Perhaps because I'm a fan of the genre I'm more critical than most. I often find that the games have a way higher than acceptable level of filler and that somehow the internet as a whole has this disgustingly vitriolic fanboy streak that not often defends this time wasting filler and even seems to want more of it. I just don't understand these people.
We need to look back at the creation of the genre to really understand what's happening here, and we need to look at the 2D platformers for context. When it comes to 2D platformers there's one core mechanic. Get from point A to point B whilst moving from platform to platform. That's what a platformer is. The most obvious way of making this fun is to make those platforms into either; a gauntlet filled with enemies, an obstacle course that the player needs to move through, or a puzzle they need to solve. These approaches create the action platformer, mascot platformer, and puzzle platformer respectively. Yes, I know the mascot isn't necessary for an obstacle course stype platformer; but for some odd reason that's just the accepted convention so it's the name I'm going with. I think the mascot came about as it was an easy way to distinguish between action platformers and obstacle course platformers, and allowed for the art style to infer information. Giving your game a darker, more realistic, or more "adult" theme indicated to the player that there would be more combat and less focus on precision jumping. While the cartoon art style usually meant more precision jumping and movement focus. Interestingly there was little effort made to ensure the clearly kid-friendly cartoon art style was easier to play, and in fact mascot platformers where often some of the hardest. All this said, the lines between an action platformer, a mascot platformer, and a puzzle platformer where quite grey. One outlayer is the exploration platformer which took the premise "get from point A to point B" and expanded on it. Rather than a number of levels that all follow that point A to point B formula, these games, nicknmes "metroidvania" (though I hate those game referrential titles), instead create a single point A to point B challenge that spans the entire game, with layers of puzzles within puzzles in order to open up pathways, discover items, and develop tactics that allow you to proceed often involving backtracking. It's the most non-linear approach to the concept and while they where often styled as action platformers, they where perhaps the most divergent form of platforming.
With 4 types of 2D platformer prevelent in the early 90's, how could they be converted into 3D games? After all, when games where in 2D, platformers accounted for about 60% of all games made. It wasn't just a genres, platformers WAS gaming. The "Action Platformer" became the action focused games of the day, games like 'Devil May Cry' and 'God Of War' can see their early games borrowing heavily from the ideas layed out in action platformers such as 'Super Castlevania IV' or 'Ninja Gaiden'. I fact both franchises later had 3D action games release that seemed to take cues from the likes of 'God Of War'. These games would have levels where you start at point A and navigate to point B though a gauntlet of enemies that you fight, usually in fairly linear arenas. This then paved the way for open world experiences such as 'InFamous' or 'Marvel's Spiderman' where you're focus is easily split between hand to hand combat, and traversal, but is clearly adapting the same basic concepts as a 2D action-platformer. In these games, missions take place in an "open world", but once you start a mission you're still essentially starting at point A and you're focused on reaching point B, perhaps needing to complete an objective along the way. Platformers alone can't take credit for the action game genre group, the classic "Beat em Up" genre took what the action platformer was doing and simply removed the platforming. It's still a side scrolling gauntlet to get from point A to point B, with enemies in your way; there's just even less or even no emphasis on jumping. These rudamentary fighting systems have influenced action games significantly. 'Spiderman' may have elements of action platformers, but when fighting the thugs on the ground, it's clear that the brawling mechanics are a strong focus, though interestingly if a modern game had the simplistic often one-button combat system of 2D 'Beat em Up' games they would be likely labelled as button mashers and criticised for being too basic. It seems as technology improves, game complexity is expected to keep up. Many modern 2D platformers have way more complex combo driven combat systems than any 80's or 90's era 'Beat em Up', making the genre very much a relic of it's time.
Another direction action platformers went in was the "run and gun" style. You would have a gun that could rapid fire, and a fast moving level with loads of enemies. Still an action platformer, but with elements from side-scrolling shooters; it's clear to see their influence in 3D games when we look at third person shooters, particularly the cover based action adventure games that still involve platforming. Games like 'Uncharted' and 'Tomb Raider' for example. This additional dimension was explored crudely with early games like 'Tomb Raider', but once the cover system popularised by 'Gears Of War' came into effect more branches started to form. High octane shooters like 'Vanquish' exist while games that focus on stealth like the 'Splinter Cell' games started to appear. All are able to trace their lineage back to the action platformer to an extent. Again, like with "Beat em Ups" there are "Shoot em Ups" which are basically side-scrolling games with shooting and little to no jumping. Often these games would be auto-scrolling and are the natural progression from the top down space shooters that where everywhere in the 80's. It's more reasonable to claim the "run and gun" was a convergence of the "Shoot em Up" often abreviated to just SHMUP and the action platformer, though while the action platformer has continued to remain relevant and influential the SHMUP has become somewhat of a niche genre.
It's easy to see that the action platfomer is profoundly influential. It has effectively spawned the majority of mainstream gaming at this point as action is one of the things gaming can convey well. Even open world RPGs have a lot of elements gained from platformers, or from genres spawned from those platformers. We can see it more apparently in games like 'Spiderman' and 'InFamous' but even games like 'Red Dead Redemption' and 'Grand Theft Auto 5' have built upon the third person shooter mechanics lifted from the previous generations more linear third person shooters, which in turn owe a lot to early 3D games like 'Tomb Raider' or 'God Of War', which finally can trace their lineage back to the more action orientated 2D platformers such as the likes of 'Castlevania'. It was the action part of the action platformer that people where iterating on and making more of the focus of the game and that's fine. Most people would find the idea of calling something like 'God Of War' a platformer a little jarring, and even less people would use "platformer" as a description for open world games like 'Marvel's Spiderman', but go back and consider the gameplay and you can see just how much jumping between platforms you do in those games. When people think of platforming in 3D, there is a genre, unsurprisingly named "3D Platformers" that come to peoples mind. It was primarily the mascot platformers that grew into the 3D platformers we remember, and not surprising either. An obstacle course style is more focused on the movement between platforms, it's the purest kind of platformer, so when the elements are expanded upon, the later games that can still be characterised as platformers are these ones.
There was a problem though. Platformers struggle to work in 3D, (or at least they did). It's easier in 2D with only two axis of movement displayed on a 2D screen. You can be extremely precise with a 2D platfomer because you only really need to worry about one axis of movement left and right, with jumping facilitating movement in the second axis, and because we're displaying all this on a 2D plane with the use of a TV screen, there's no need to worry about perspective, or as it's come to be known, "the camera". In 3D there are immediate problems. First of all it's "fake" flat 3D, it's simulated 3D displayed on a 2D screen which is an issue. We only get a certain angle of view which makes judging distance almost impossible, we need not just a way to move our character but also a way to move our sense of perspective. A fixed perspective can work with good scaling, which is how many racing games do it, but there are limitations with how this can be adapted. A d-pad or analogue stick can both do 2 dimensions of movement with the 3rd being done by a jump button, so controlling the character isn't a big challenge. This can work if the perspective is fixed and the character is moving in a largely linear single direction, in a similar manner to racing games like I said earlier. 'Crash Bandicoot' is a great example of this done well. But if you want to make the world expansive, if want to allow freedom of movement, not only do you make the camera an instant issue, you also add the problem of needing to develop a way of creating linearity in gameplay. If we ignore the jumping, as that's just a means of avoiding obstacles. A 2D platformer has one axis of progression, left to right. We describe platformers as being a point A to B experience, and that's what it is in essense. Moving along that line. The skill needed in the game, is timing when to move up and down, and to do it at the correct points in order to get past the obstacles along that line. If you're going from left to right, so long as you keep moving right, you will get from A to B eventually. In 3D it's different. If we ignore the jumping, we now have a plane of movement. You could go the wrong way, you could get lost, you could go around in circles. There's no guarantee that you'll move the right way both in the game as a whole but also in each individual movement. There needed to be something to direct the player.
The answer was COLLECTABLES!
Collectables have existed for a long time, in games; way before 3D platforming. They where the coins in Mario games, the rings in Sonic games, the bananas in Donkey Kong games. They where used to encourage movement forward and collecting many of them would often give bonuses, such as extra lives, to reward competent play. This worked. Using these low tier collectables to guide a player in the correct direction, a line of collectables snaking their way through the level could effectively act as both a trail of bread-crumbs to follow and an easy way to tell which bits of the level you've already been in, the bits without collectables, and which you haven't, the bits with collectables. That could work, but it only really works if the player follows the line and the level stay relatively linear, as soon as you include a branching pathway, or pathways that cross over each other, it becomes an issue. Aaah, but what if there wasn't just one "point B". What if instead of going from A to B, you where starting in the middle of the level and collecting a load of different items dotted around that level. That would create a game where the player wasn't just following the obstacle course, but exploring it right?
This is how the collectathon came about. Instead of an obstacle course where you have to move skillfully from one platform to the next, you're left in a wide open course with multiple objects, be them stars, gems or other McGuffins to pick up. This allows the same level to be played over and over as they can just hide multiple items in each level. Now maybe the idea of a digital scavenger hunt sounds interesting to you, but to me, a scavenger hunt and an obstacle course are not the same thing. With the focus on collectables, the game is no longer about movement it's no longer about platforming, it's no longer kinesthetically pleasing. It becomes about collecting an arbitrary number of random things just because they're there. That just doesn't seem like fun to me.
Now don't misunderstand. Collectables could be fun. You can put challenges in linear levels. Move through this course and see if you can find the three hidden items along the way for example. Or, move through this course and see if you can get these three special items that aren't hidden but require tricky platforming or a bit of puzzle solving to collect, while mid-level. This is how you do collectables well. They enhance the game by giving it a gradiated challenge, be it in 2D or 3D. You're still moving from A to B, but can you do it and find the hidden things at the same time? Can you do it while displaying enough skill to get to these hard to reach platforms and pick up the collectable? This is challenge. Challenge is the key to value in gaming. When a game offers you conflict, a challenge, meeting that challenge is intrinsically satisfying. Do you have the skill to move from A to B? This requires accurate, co-ordinated, and well timed button presses in order to move a character through a level. That's the base level challenge of the game. Do you have the further skill required to find and reach the collectables, AND reach the end of the level? This is variable difficulty. Going for 100% completion is a draw because it's a self-affirmation of skill.
Collectathons, for the most part, don't have that sadly. They just have collectables. Often hidden in arbitrary places, with little care for the skill needed to get them and no sense of accomplishment. In some games such as 'Donkey Kong 64' or more recently 'Super Mario Odyssey', there are so many of these collectables that they become a tedious chore to collect. This isn't testing our skill and it doesn't have the intrinsic fun platfomers should have, that kinesthetic appeal. There may be small sections of platforming which in isolation are satisfying but if they don't achieve anything, it's not fun upon reflection and you wind up feeling as if your time was wasted. If the reward for completing these challenges is also given out for just talking to an NPC, looking behind a rock, or walking in a line, it cheapens the struggle and makes it feel pointless also. There's no fun to be had, if there's no point to any of it. This is my biggest issue with 3D platformers, they're often not platformers, they're just scavenger hunts.
The biggest example of this can be seen in one of the most overrated and loved 3D Platformers of all time, as well as almost everything that followed it on it's original platform. 'Super Mario 64' is one of the most disappointing games I ever played. I loved Mario games, and I was looking forward to playing that same experience in 3D. But I didn't get it. There was no moving from A to B. There was no skill based movement focus. This was an adventure game with jumping in it, not a platformer. Mario punches for fuck sake! They changed everything. The mushrooms and fire flowers are gone. Mario has a health bar. Power-ups are timed stat boosts rather than upgrades. Everything was different. People claim it still "felt like Mario", did it bollocks! It felt like a completely different game and completely different genre. Then 'Donkey Kong 64' came along and did the same thing. No more precision platforming, just running around looking for bananas. This isn't fun.
For me platformers should always be about the flow. Some games did this well, others really did not. Collectables are a fine addition as an extra. Something to do as an aside. They've been added into so many games. Most games have something to collect, even open world RPGs, spectacle fighters, third person shooters and more have collectables now. Can you imagine playing 'Assassin's Creed' if the only thing there was to do in the game was go looking for feathers? Would 'Uncharted' be a fun game if the only thing you did was look for the treasures? No. Collectables are an afterthought. An excuse to go exploring and a reward for that exploration, but not a primary draw. Well, just like how these games wouldn't be fun if they where just about the collectables, a platformer without proper skill based linear platforming levels that test my skill isn't fun either. As far as I see it, the game is unfinished. Rather than make a genuinely challenging and fulfilling game, they just scattered a bunch of shit about and tasked us with cleaning it up. That's just not good enough.
To go back to Mario for a moment, there has been 3D Mario games, genuine 3D games that play like Mario games. There was 'Super Mario 3D Land' on 3DS and 'Super Mario 3D World' on Wii U. Both have challenging and fun levels, where you go from point A to point B. Collectables are intergrated seemlessly into the linear levels to give skilled players something to attain while moving through the levels. The ridiculously overdone and overly varied Mario moveset has been paired back down to the basics. You don't need half a dozen different jumps in a game with no challenging obstacle courses to jump through! Rather these two games bring it back to basics, and instead focus on mastery of the basic jumps by giving you great level design instead, which is how it SHOULD be done. More importantly this is actually Mario. You jump on enemies, as the snappy 3D fixed camera system causes Mario to move only along cardinal and ordinal lines, allowing judgement of jumps far more easily. In '3D Land' there's the stereoscopic 3D which make it even better for judging distance. Rather than create the crutch of collectables and scavenger hunts Miyamoto actually adapted the GAMEPLAY of the 2D platformer into 3D. Something he said he wanted another go at, it was his driving motivation for making the games. The fact that Miyamoto himself could see that the 3D Mario games up until this point where a compromise and not a true evolution of his base concept speaks volume I feel. It took another 15 years, but it was worth it to get TRUE 3D platforming.
And with that, we have the evolution of the 3D platformer. From the challenges of the adaption of the obstacle course concept, to the crutch that was collectables, to the return to level design and a kinesthetic approach. I hope this was an interesting discussion. In future I want to discuss individual platformers in a bit more depth, as well as give my top 20 3D platformers list. Until next time...