New angles on low-poly gaming
Cheap plastic cameras from the ‘70s were notorious for light leaks and other issues. In the hands of creative users, however, these flaws became tools for artistic expression, and now turned into a staple of many photographers’ palette.
The same goes for game design. Due to limitations in early technology, 3D graphics were mostly achieved with low-poly renders. But developers used them in creative ways, and over time, low poly became a widely embraced aesthetic in its own right.
The name is derived from the relatively low number of polygons used to make a complex 3D shape. Generally, more graphic detail requires more polygons (known as high-poly). But because early hardware was not yet powerful enough to handle the necessary computations, low poly was initially a practical solution for 3D graphics – detail is sacrificed for speed. But the end result was an abstract, geometric aesthetic that has been embraced and imitated ever since.
A watershed moment for low poly came in 1996 with the release of Tomb Raider on the PlayStation console. The game remarkably allowed players to navigate through a 360-degree, 3D environment. However, heroine Lara Croft was not rendered in detail. She was angular, rigid and expressionless – still far from appearing human. But the game has become a low-poly classic and further inspired many titles.
More than 20 years on, despite improvement on game design techniques and 3D rendering, players can still find plenty of low-poly titles on the App Store, each with their own unique character.
Carnival of colours
PARADE! shares many design similarities with Lara Croft’s world: The main character has no facial details, and the parading animals are just as angular. It’s not realistic, and that’s the point – the use of colour and cute designs create a cartoon-like world that encourages play. And much like Tomb Raider, the 3D game also features 360-degree perspectives that make the game even more engaging.
PARADE! involves swiping and tapping to the rhythms of the animals’ moves as they march and dance on the street. Match the series of arrows correctly and the animal joins your parade. The game starts as a side-scroller, allowing you to clearly see the animals’ moves. However, the perspective changes as your number of parade members grows. Sometimes you’ll get a front view of your animal roster bouncing and dancing about. Other times, however, you’re shown the parade from a distance. This is where things get difficult, because the rhythm arrows become very small.
PARADE! - The Rhythm Battle
We couldn’t discuss low-poly games without mentioning the indie hit Monument Valley, where developers Ustwo ingeniously employ low polygon meshes to create a fascinating world of optical illusions. Players are challenged with guiding the heroine, Princess Ida, on a winding path to summit a series of wonderfully impossible structures.
The game is minimalist in every sense. Even Ida’s head just is a smooth sphere. But its minimalist design and colour palate proved to be a unique pairing that quickly gained attention. In 2014, it was released to rave reviews on the App Store and took home an Apple Design Award that same year. The sequel, Monument Valley 2, builds off its optical illusion puzzles with an added storyline that centres on a mother and her daughter and their journey through an enchanted world.
Monument Valley 2
A story of beauty and illusion
Low poly and realistic detail may seem like contradictory ideas, but developers Crescent Moon Games got creative, and the result – Morphite – is quite impressive. You play as a young woman exploring a distant, unknown planet who slowly begins to unravel an even deeper mystery.
The design is equally intriguing. At first glance, the environment appears full of meticulously rendered elements: rolling hills, ancient temples and strange beasts. But upon close inspection, everything is unmistakably low-poly. By cleverly using a variety of light and shadow effects, the developers were able to give their geometric world a feeling of vast depth for exceptionally immersive gameplay.