Oh no! Sparseness in 3D games

Lately just thinking about – the transition of 2D to 3D. What happens with that.



Something I’ve thought about as I’m a few weeks from being done with Anodyne 2 is that it’s easier to create an explorable space that can capture your interest 3D, there’s just a sparseness problem to it all.

That 2D Harvest Moon image above looks quite empty, but it still feels like a visual whole. The noisiness of the tilework creates a coherence, a cozy sense of ‘farm’. something about the 3D in the upcoming friends of mineral town remake – looks bizarrely empty. Now I’ve seen the trailer and some shots of it (like the towns) still look nice. But just when it comes to one-off areas in 3D games, they’re so so expensive.I think 3D presents a unique challenge when adapting 2D. Because 2D games really “work” by reducing a lot into a flat plane, and when you unflatten things, you get all this bizarre empty space you have to account for. like see the harvest moon. you can just pixel art a mailbox and wood dividers and stuff, but for 3D boom you have to model and texture all that crap. and most of it is just colliders.

Some games don’t account for the emptyness and you get weird just like… empty places.

How do you account for empty space? Well, to me it seems like:

  • throw money at it, which basically means throwing PEOPLE at it, which means uh oh! now you have ridiculous commercial expectations so this doens’t seem to be a great way to go about it
  • throw time at it (“my 20-year love letter to shadow of the colossus! oops now the universe has heat deathed”)
  • ignore the problem and hope it goes away

REAL FARM (thanks gamefly)


TIME AND ETERNITY (thanksgamestop)


now i’m not saying that an empty feeling game is a problem, but moreso that i think that if a game feels really empty, the ‘spatial feel’ is a dimension of a 3D game you can use to your advantage, so it’s better to figure a way out than just well, not doing anything. Not to mention that having a huge 3d space to fill is anxiety inducing and spending time just throwing assets at it doesn’t really make the game better… idk.. 10 art assets in a 3x3x3 meter room can be more expressive than 10 art assets in a football field, is what i’m saying

so the last option is

* do something about it.

don’t really feel like saying much, but i think shadow of the colossus MUST have seen a similar problem. they went ‘Oh shit, there is so much fucking space to fill in 3D! fuck. we are fucked. wait what if empty space was the point. haha’

As much as banjo kazooie is equivalent to intentionally forgetting your wallet at home after driving to the grocery store, you have to give credit to these early 3D games for being good about space management. Things are kept relatively small and dense. say what you want about good old BK but those levels did have a sense of place and personality, even if it was well, banjo kazooie.

but back to anodyne 2, because I enjoy talking about ourselves. so if you pick up the game next month, there are these interior areas. i call these ‘mistakes’ JUST KIDDING. they’re wonderful but they were EXPENSIVE to make, in terms of time. when you get to Cenote city, that place was.. expensive. marina had to fill it with too many buildings. we then found that SURPRISE outdoors naturey areas that are sparse and hilly are easier to make! hm. should have done that more often. but at the same time, nearing the end of development, I am lagging behind so maybe that giant city bought me time to do all the random programming stuff I needed to do. but that’s a different issue – coding uniqueness and time… sigh, we are still learning so much about how to be careful about time…

anyways, in anodyne 2by modeling a few rocks and ground textures and using a general environmental shape concept, we made pretty neat 3D areas that are big-feeling but still feel like that sparseness is intentional rather than a big ‘oops haha empty’. sometimes it’s a matter of slight terrain variance to break up flat ground perceptions. othertimes visually ‘messy/dense’ textures (like anodyne 2 has a lot) help to create denseness. idk. there are a lot of tricks. Some of the outdoors nature 3D areas in Anodyne 2 could have gone faster if we had better tools, but then we’d need a tools programmer..


Here’s an area we took out of the game. Well, not really – we used many of these textures in the game in a similar area, but this picture specifically does not show up in the game. There are a few ground textures, grass texture, then a single rock 3d model copy pasted a bunch. The structure on the right was expensive to make because we didn’t even use it in the final game (except the red huts). But it was a learning experience for 3D asset making I guess.

also the other way we dealt with it was moving gameplay heavy stuff into 2D, so you don’t spend all the time in 3D, but that also has various production issues that blah don’t feel like talkign about.

I made the mistake a few times over Anodyne 2 dev of creating these small, one-off areas in 3D that are just entrypoints into 2D levels. I think they were wastes of time. Memorable, maybe. But I’ve been playing Yoshi’s Crafted World, and every single level is this disconnected singularity of 3D art assets that has no connection to later levels. Like a visual explosion.

At least in Anodyne 2’s case, all our areas are connected so we have the coherence benefit of those one-offs still fitting into a big picture. The next time we make a game we can be more careful about these things. In the case of AAA extravagance like Yoshi, you just have a gigantic grab bag of these little party poppers of levels… which look traditionally BEAUTIFUL but there game is just boom boom boom visual explosions so I can’t remember much actually. plus it’s a simple 2D platformer so i don’t really remember the spaces much


It’s funny, another game I’ve been playing is the opposite of Yoshi – 10 beautiful postcards by thecatamites. In some ways there’s a parallel I see between Yoshi and this game in that from a visual standpoint, both are games where you are constantly whiplashed between visually distinct and dense areas. In Postcards you’re travelling in an almost endless maze of colorful areas, but they have thematic overlap. In Yoshi you’re just going into one random mechanic-fest after another. it shows just how much money large Yoshis are wasting on these set pieces when there isn’t a drop of meaning to be found in terms of the bigger picture. On the other hand…

Postcards is interesting because it presents an example of what would happen if small-sized (or in this case solo) developers did a huge amount of unique visual content. Of course when you’re a small team you can only polish so much, so Postcards has very traditionally ‘unpolished’ visual art. which for me doesn’t matter at all outside of various commerrcial implications – But it goes to show that there is an interesting effect in scale, meaning arising as multiple distinct spaces start to connect to each other, like reading one word after another…

Anyways the point of this is for the love of god don’t make an 3d game with big open spaces unless you are okay spending a lot of time.

alright, not really going to edit this. good bye, time to go finish anodyne 2… ho ho


(EXCERPT) Tokyo Lo-fi: Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne

Hey all, so recently I published an essay on Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne in the Heterotopias journal – here’s an excerpt of it which I originally posted as a preview on Gamasutra.

This is an excerpt from Heterotopias 003, the third issue of the game and architecture zine, which is now available to purchase for $6. To read the rest of the article, which further analyzes the techniques used in Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne, go grab your copy over on itch.io.

In Joni Kittaka and I’s eight-plus hour game Even the Ocean, I spent days fixing the animations of a mole that walks along tunnels in a single area, rather than replacing the mole with something less animation-heavy. This level of detail applied to every aspect of the game—such as cutscenes, art style revisions, and level design—contributed to the development time of three-and-a-half years.

For a long time I believed the only way to reduce the costs of content-heavy games with high-fidelity art was to make them smaller. But, recently, I’ve found another and perhaps better solution to reduce the traditional quality of the art. What stopped me from this discovery before was the prevalent attitude towards what are deemed ‘lo-fi graphics’—a widely-held view is that they are  inherently bad. But this shouldn’t be the case. They are not always a rush job or a mistake. They have, in recent years, even emerged as an art style in their own right. We can and should do more than dismiss lo-fi graphics as a historical stepping stone, inferior to photorealistic or HD art styles.

Consider games before 2010 with total or partial lo-fi art styles. Some of these older games aspired towards photorealism while lacking the hardware to do so effectively. Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne (hereon Nocturne) is a visually striking game, despite its ‘old’ graphics. First released in Japan in early 2003, it is a monster-collecting JRPG set in post-apocalyptic Tokyo. It had a team of about 15 artists, as opposed to the roughly 500 (counting contractors) artists that worked on Final Fantasy XV.

Nocturne  is full of ‘low-quality’ textures, objects, and spaces, yet its art style conjures an atmosphere more thematically dense and memorable than many contemporary games. Interrogating the art style shows Nocturne achieves this atmosphere through abstraction-based techniques for visual and spatial design. What is exciting about these techniques is that some of them do not require years of technical training in programming or visual arts, and thus, these techniques are easy for game developers to use to create new forms of visual expression in their games.

Nocturne’s setting

In Nocturne, Tokyo has just gone through a nuclear apocalypse, and so it has the player travel the city in order to decide how to rebuild it. Nocturne makes no attempt to create a realistic Tokyo, instead, it focuses on abstractions of public and commercial spaces like subways and malls, occasionally with more directly referenced real-world spaces, such as Shibuya Crossing.

While the artists aimed to dress the game’s spaces in realistic textures, the art direction is ethereal—this is accomplished through the eerie lack of human presence, a refusal to make accurate recreations of Tokyo spaces, and the use of unrealistic lighting. The latter is especially captivating, as it sees ambient lighting illuminate empty rooms in bizarre shades of purple or blue, lights cast in impractical ways, and shadows appearing without visible light sources.

Post-apocalypse Shinjuku Medical Center


Shibuya Crossing


Blurriness, sharpness, and immersion

Without actively looking, it’s harder to notice the lack of photorealism in the floor tiles of Nocturne’s subways than it is to notice it in a poster on the wall. Advertisements, printed materials, and commercial items like clothing appear throughout Nocturne, all of which invite players to parse them for written or visual information. But these objects aren’t suited to that type of inspection and only cause the fidelity of the game to fracture. Posters and ads appear too blurry or too sharp; a stack of newspapers resembles a cube rather than individual sheets, making it clear these were objects placed as atmospheric shorthands rather than sources of information.

These types of objects act strangely in games. Look at the “Yushima Station: Safety Message” picture. If the object is blurry, like the station exit diagram on the left, it immediately separates the player’s reality from the game’s should they attempt to read it. There also exists a problem when the object is clear and readable, like the warning sign on the right, as this isn’t a game about obeying train signs, and its sharpness makes it weirdly readable when almost everything else around it is hazy. The artist who placed this sign probably wanted it to stand as a nod to the pre-apocalyptic history of the station platform, as a way to ground it in a reality closer to the player’s, but its inconsistency with the textures around it pull it more towards achieving the opposite.

One solution to this would be to remove all the posters and signs, but that may make Tokyo strangely bare. Whereas rendering the posters blurry makes them too obviously fake, having them sharp enough to read causes them to stand out too much in this indistinct world. It is better to view these ‘problems’ as a technique that can, like the train station signs, be utilized to carefully place references to reality into a less realistic space.

Yushima Station: Safety Message and Station Exit Map


 To read the rest of this article purchase Heterotopias 003 over on itch.io.

Sean Han Tani is a developer of Anodyne (2013), Even the Ocean (2016), and currently, All Our Asias. He also lectures about game design and game music production at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.