I’ve always had a fondness for top-down perspective video games; those games, like in the image above, that are built with a blocky, digital aesthetic in which the entire game world is situated on a grid. Probably some of the most famous games to use this style would be the early entries in the Legend of Zelda series or all of the Pokémon games before the most recent generation. There’s a certain charm to the design in the worlds of top-down games that I rarely find in the level design of more organic looking games.
As the medium of video games has broadly grown in both graphical detail and technical capabilities, changes to this style have been seemingly inevitable. Even in games that still use a top-down view, worlds have become increasingly less rigid, offering more organic contours and in some ways trying to hide the fact that they’re built on a grid system. Pokémon’s sixth generation exemplifies this trend, particularly Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire, as they update Pokémon’s Hoenn region, originally a fully top-down perspective world made of only rigidly pixelated, straight lines, with 3D graphics and naturally rounded textures. The result is a region that feels something like the real world, but is still heavily bound to an inorganic grid.
This hybrid style has given way to an… *ahem* evolution in design for the most recent Pokémon games, Sun and Moon, with camera angles becoming more varied and the world featuring more wildly varying curvatures. The grid is also completely abandoned. Pokémon Sun and Moon‘s Alola region is the first in the Pokémon series to abandon the top-down perspective and instead offer a viewing angle that is closer to the third-person camera used in many action-adventure games. This new perspective combined with the more organic world design creates an experience that feels very different from what can found in top-down perspective. Compared to Sun and Moon‘s design, top-down perspective as the basis of an aesthetic style feels retro, or even outdated.
Why the top-down Pokémon games feel retro has as much to do with Sun and Moon’s increased graphical fidelity as it does with Sun and Moon’s more complex perspective and world design. There’s a sense among some gamers and designers that an embrace of realism, (which top-down aesthetics often reject), is part of how games grow up or modernize. This logic of modernization, however, is in the same questionable vein as the reductive view that all technological development constitutes some degree of civilizational progress; extended to games, this logic asserts that video games that take advantage of contemporary computer power to render the most realistic looking graphics are more advanced than previous generations by virtue of their increased complexity alone.
There’s nothing inherently wrong better graphics or more realism in video games, but rather than being a marker of progress or innovation, I see it instead as simply expanding the already powerful tools available to game designers. For one thing, within top down games there’s an honest acceptance of video games for what they are and the unique properties they entail. The worlds of top-down games don’t try to perfectly mimic reality, and they also don’t attempt to hide the abstract, rule-systems of the games they contain. Instead, the worlds of top-down games welcome the idea that games are not exactly comparable to reality. They operate under the assumption that games are highly representational and, above all, functional. Pokémon games, for example, are not so much about simulating a real experience of wondering a world to tame and battle strange creatures, but rather about simulating that experience within the formal, rule-based structure of a game.
In this sense, top-down games follow a fundamentally minimalist, aesthetic ethos, which asserts that through confinement to a singular aesthetic and what essentially amounts to a visual, building-block language of representation, a player can actually find great freedom and possibility. Where top-down worlds show creative restraint, they also display a coherent and consistent language of design from which the player is easily able to read the presence of boundaries, obstacles, and open space. Particularly in 8bit or heavily pixelated top-down games, the repeated use of textures and objects helps delineate boundaries that would otherwise by obscured by the limited detail of graphics.
Like pixel art in general, top-down games are potentially timeless, existing today inspite of graphical advances because some designers still see their unique worth. At the very least, top-down games are also particularly important to me, because as a child I found them highly fascinating and engaging. Hours spent playing Zelda and Pokemon on the Gameboy inspired me draw my own top-down perspective game worlds. I came to internalise their accessibly minimalist logic, and indeed, much of my taste in art today is informed by a love of minimalism. This would not have been the case if games had completely abandoned top-down aesthetics too early on, which is why I hope the style continues to be explored for generations to come.