I downloaded Three Sprockets’ Cubemen the other day, and I’d be lying if I said it was anything but its aesthetic that drew me in. That’s surprising, because I’ve played my fair share of tower defense games and at this point I’m a bit bored with them, looks and all—there’s a limit to the surface-level makeovers developers might use to prop up its sagging appeal (Dungeon Defenders notwithstanding). But hey, Cubemen is different, they said: your “towers” have arms and legs, little cubey heads, agency, (family, friends?) and they’ll soldier around the map for you, shifting all sorts of dynamics and things.
But all that fell flat, and honestly it was “the look” that opened my wallet. In that Cubemen revealed my embarrassing, enduring affection for the clean lighting and crisp geometry that can of course be traced to a single source: Portal.
… Which can be traced back to the simplicity and symbolism of the games of yore, classics like Marble Madness.
Now, some rambling: back in the proverbial “day,” games made the best of their technical constraints by conveying complex ideas with idealized shapes. Marble Madness married a very basic visual geometry with a clever imitation of 3D movement, and voila — a “physics-based” game emerges years ahead of its time, and it just feels so right. Because I looks so right for how it feels. Am I making sense?
The visuals are powerfully and directly symbolic; they’re just stand-ins for the more expressive systems that make up the real meat of the game, namely friction, gravity, inertia. To convey phenomena like that convincingly (without the benefit of modern physics engines) the game needed to streamline its visual presentation to underscore, to somehow make more real-feeling the central system. Form empowers function.
Like I said, that streamlining was partly out of necessity. As technology progressed that approach became less necessary — complex systems could be presented and understood without enthralling the entirety of the game’s aesthetic.