Visual styles for games

When creating a game, a key element is how you display information to the user visually, and this will have a major influence on implementation times, skills needed, and how easy it is to divide up tasks among multiple developers. In this post I’d like to talk about some of the different categories available, along with each’s pros and cons.


Writing a game that operates in a flat space in two-dimensions is a very common style, and even now I feel it is the most common one, at least for games done by small teams.

With 2D, you have a few different ways to create your assets:

  • Pre-rendered from 3D
  • Hand-drawn (generally requires artistic skill)
  • Drawn in-game (vector, geometrical, etc.)
  • Photographs
  • Mathematically generated

2D games can be further broken down into a few genres depending on the gameplay and constraints of movement. Here are just a few:

  • Static single screen, cannot ‘go’ anywhere (ex: Tetris)
  • Horizontal scroller (ex: Mario)
  • Vertical scroller (conceptually same as the horizontal scroller, though gives a different feel)
  • User is only shown a small piece of a larger map, and can scroll around at will


  • Spend relatively less time on graphics, compared to 3D
  • Can potentially do all coding in-house without using a third-party engine (though you have that option as well)


  • Types of games that can be done is limited
  • More and more games are moving to 3D, so it’s easy to look dated with 2D


Writing a game in 3D means that a three-dimensional space is represented, usually with light sources, textures, and a camera of some sort. This is becoming the norm for more and more games, and more and more 3D engines are becoming available for no or low cost.


  • Nearly unlimited options for game types
  • Can polish graphics to the extent they are photo realistic
  • If done well, can be very intuitive to users


  • Almost always requires a 3rd-party engine (Unity, etc.), or spending significant time on developing an in-house one
  • 3D-related development and related issues typically take a great deal of time
  • Requires special skills to make textures, models, and animations
  • If done bad, can look even worse than 2D
  • Making intuitive controls can be challenging, depending level of freedom given to the user


Isometric is a unique perspective where objects farther away from the camera don’t get smaller. Q*bert was one of the first games with this perspective, and XCom 3 is one of my favorites. You can see a few screenshots of isometric games here.

Isometric can implemented either simple projections so that it is similar to 2D, or can be used by configuring a 3D Engine to appear isometric.


  • Has a certain ‘nostalgic’ feel to it for those who have been gamers for some time
  • Can look more realistic than 2D, while taking much less effort than 3D


  • Freedom of camera movement and world construction is limited.

Text only

This is a style for the most part extinct, but was headed by classic games like Zork        in the day.


  • Spent no time on graphics
  • Prototype very quickly


  • Severely limits the type of game which can be made
  • Small, niche audience

Sound only

This genre is pretty rare, even more so than text only, but I’ve seen one or two apps on the iOS app store recently that use a combination of high quality sound effects and stereo sound to create a immersive experience.


  • Spend no time on graphics
  • Can be seen as “creative”


  • Very limited
  • Requires special skills to properly record sound effects
  • Small audience

Combination styles

The sky is the limit for which styles you mix and match. For example, classic Sierra games used a good mix of 2D graphics with a text-based interface. The Super Smash Brothers series uses 3D but in a mostly 2D way, emulating true 2D fighters like Street Fighter. Some games also use a combination of 2D and 3D, either simultaneously (like showing a 2D map at the same time as traveling through a 3D landscape), or switching between styles in different areas.

Though it’s probably rare, you can even switch styles in the middle of development – starting with a 2D prototype to prove the concept then switching to 3D for final implementation, or falling back to 2D when you realize 3D is not worth the effort for the given gameplay.

One thought on “Visual styles for games

  1. The note about audio adventure games reminds me of the 2-XL (a cassette based storytelling game machine that looked like a robot). I played with one all the time in the 90’s. I bet with the advent of podcasts someone could figure out something interesting to do with the medium now.

    Liked by 1 person

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