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In almost all 2D platformers I've played, your avatar always starts off on the left side of the world, and continues on to the right. Is there something designers gain by doing this?

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Because its the natural direction of choice. Its what feels right. This most likely comes from the direction of writing. Or possibly from the fact that most people are righthanded. – Daniel Carlsson Sep 22 '12 at 14:28
Because in western countries we write from left to right. It's OBVIOUS. – gd1 Sep 22 '12 at 19:28
I don't get how such an obvious and trivial question gets 13 upvotes. – houbysoft Sep 22 '12 at 19:43
@houbysoft The point is, did you think about it before the question was asked? Likely not. As Lo Sauer put it, it's thinking outside the box. Even if you think the answer is obvious, the question wasn't. It's sparked some interesting answers. Overall I think that's worth an up vote. There's so many things that are obvious, but only after someone else thought of them :) – Byte56 Sep 22 '12 at 20:36
@houbysoft I think that's an interesting question. Top to bottom, but why red to yellow to green? Why those colors at all? And why not left to right? Seems like it'd be easier to hang on a horizontal cable... I'm sorry you're not interested in exploring why we do these things that seem obvious. But I think analyzing the "every day" is a worthy venture. If we never questioned why we're doing things the way we're doing them, we'd never find better ways of doing things. And that sounds pretty uninteresting to me. – Byte56 Sep 23 '12 at 1:49

12 Answers 12

up vote 58 down vote accepted

I'm not sure if there's any technical reason, but a large portion of the world reads from left to right (and many early games were made in the portions that do, i.e. Pitfall!). So starting left and going right may seem more natural. Once enough of the early games did this, it became standard practice.

Additionally, it could be from the roots of design. If these games were first designed with paper and pencils, it would feel more natural to go from left to right, as that's the way the designers were used to writing.

So I suppose by continuing to do this, developers do gain something. Player familiarity.

The likely history behind this would go as follows:

  1. Reading/Writing develop a left to right (LR) convention, thanks to the Greeks.
  2. The development of hardware is heavily influenced by #1. Display technology included.
  3. Software follows hardware. The design of games, influenced by the LR read/write convention and the hardware lead to a LR convention for side scrollers.

In summation, we can give thanks to the Greeks for their contribution to modern gaming.

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An explanation for down votes is typically the polite thing to do. – Byte56 Sep 22 '12 at 16:37
@MrBeast Likely the same reasons as my original answer. It seems you agree since your answer covers the exact same idea. But the question is not about the hardware. We could keep going back and say "Well then the question is why were western languages written/read from left to right?" – Byte56 Sep 22 '12 at 16:43
@Byte56: And the answer to that would probably be that right-handed people have an easier time writing cursive from left to right than from right to left. But yeah the answer to Bane's question is just that people who designed those games were used to thinking from left to right, like you said. – Joren Sep 22 '12 at 16:59
@Joren That's possible, but I think your answer implies that cursive pre-dates left to right style of writing. Additionally, I think that discussion is outside the bounds of the game dev site. – Byte56 Sep 22 '12 at 17:05
If one would make a platform game where a character goes from right to left, he would sometimes face same problem as designers of 'horizontal road signs' - do you write multiple-line text top-down as usual, or bottom-top, as bottom line is closer to the driver and he will usually see it first? – Markus von Broady Sep 23 '12 at 20:05

It might be worth looking at film theory for an explanation. Cinematographers within Europe and the US often work under the assumption that left-to-right movement suggests power, whereas right-to-left movement suggests tension, something to fear, or awkwardness.

Game designers most likely unconsciously adopted the conventions of movement suggested from other media, including print and film. The hero character generally moves left to right, facing enemies and conflict moving counter to that direction; if the hero has to retreat, moving back toward the left is awkward.

It's certainly possible that some consideration was made as to which direction was the most natural, but I know that even preceding the Super Mario era, it was pretty common to see left to right movement as the starting point (Donkey Kong, Pac Man's starting direction, Defender, Parsec, etc).

As for cultural context, one of my college professors in Japanology suggested that Japanese and Chinese film convention actually adopted the opposite convention from what I described above, though I'm not sure I see it in practice. It's possible that Hebrew, Farsi and Arabic films have the opposite convention from the US and Europe, though I'm not sure I've seen enough Arabic language films to notice.

Lazy references (not quite formal reference material, but at least corroborating):

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This is interesting, do you have any sources on the left-to-right/opposite is used to mean power/tension? – Matsemann Sep 22 '12 at 18:07
Intredasting... will monitor the question. – Shiki Sep 22 '12 at 19:08
I've added a few, though they don't quite reach scholarly quality, they at least show that the notions exist in teaching or talking about film kinematics. – JasonTrue Sep 23 '12 at 16:08
kinetics link is 404 – v.oddou May 29 '15 at 0:52
@v.oddou I found an link with the original text content (some images are likely missing). – JasonTrue Mar 2 at 23:19

Maybe it is just the natural way to implement it: Assume you start at position x = 0 and since x coordinates of pixels normally increase from left to right on a display the end of a platformers level is on the right side...

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There is nothing saying that x=0 is at the left and not at the right. – API-Beast Sep 22 '12 at 16:24
@Mr.Beast Well, it's typical in mathematics for the x=0 to be on the left, with increasing x values going to the right. I don't remember seeing it any other way when drawing graphs in math. Additionally this is likely the way that the hardware addressed the pixels. – Byte56 Sep 22 '12 at 16:26
you hardly will find hardware or software where the x axis is not going from left to right. but it seems there are some controversies on the direction of the y axis... – Dirk Sep 22 '12 at 16:41
IIRC, screens have a y(0)=top/left because of old scanlines. The top line was the first to be displayed. And math doesn't have such restriction, and it seems obvious that something which increase should go up (except if there is a fairly good reason, like for screens). – Nison Maël Sep 22 '12 at 16:55
I was going to say this about the X coordinate, but also time is usually plotted as increasing to the right, so moving to the right could imply progress in a sense. – Kylotan Sep 22 '12 at 17:03

The hardware on computers and console machines addressed the screen pixels from left to right. Just like writing or mathematics. Simply look at a graph:

enter image description here

Typically the natural thing to do is to increase the position of a character from 0 to higher positive numbers.

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Or decrease the position of everything but the character. – Wok Sep 22 '12 at 21:39
...which basically redirects the question to "Why does the first dimensions axis typically go from left to right?" – Tobias Kienzler Sep 23 '12 at 10:14
Maybe, but that's not a question for game developers, whereas the direction of a player's travel is. :) – Kylotan Sep 23 '12 at 12:38
Interesting approach. However coordinate systems is a matter of choice, or point of view. Consider coordinate system for locating pixels on computer screen - a jumping actor would actually decrease it's vertical position. – Krzysztof Jabłoński Mar 2 '14 at 22:30

I don't really think so. It's probably just because Super Mario Bros. 1 did it, and everyone followed suit. I have heard somewhere, however, that things to the right look comfortable and thinks to the left and weirder looking. So maybe if everything scrolled to he left it would just be too weird.

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"Super Mario Bros. did it." is, in fact, the (often subconscious) reason behind a lot of our gaming conventions, not necessarily limited to platformers. Not even "... did it first." or limited to the first game only, really. – Martin Sojka Sep 22 '12 at 15:06
The convention predates Super Mario Bros. by a long time. Pitfall which substantially predated SMB allowed the player to move in either direction, but by starting the player at the left of the screen implied that the player should move to the right; also, it's much easier to jump over the logs when moving left to right, though if one moves right to left one can often avoid having to jump the logs at all. Incidentally, Jungle King/Jungle Hunt, which predates Pitfall, uses right-to-left motion. As I noted in my other answer, I think the roots go back thousands of years before that. – supercat Sep 23 '12 at 23:02
Oldest I can find is Scramble from 1981, a full four years before Super Mario Bros (And a year before pitfall) – Mooing Duck Sep 17 '14 at 21:09

It all derives from the western writing system most people are used to, it reads and write from the left to the right and due to the amount of text nowadays this order is linked in our mind, from sketches, to coordinate systems, to visual flow. After a time it's perceived as natural flow, even though left and right actually plays almost no difference in nature.

This of course finds itself into technology and everything else human made, such as games.

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The obvious answer is that Western people have a left to right and top to bottom reading system, which is learned very early on in our childhood. Text is the primary form of how we access stored information, and as such reading plays a paramount role in our lives.

There is also no physical reason why the Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) writes from left to right and top to bottom, other than that this came most natural to the western scientists which developed it.

The same holds true for how initially console-graphics updated its contents, and later on other more sophisticated computer graphics contraptions. Additionally, we also learn to read matrices from left to right and from top to bottom, so we design our loops iterating over the elements the same way. Graphics is a lot about linear algebra involving lots of matrices.

The interesting part is that, this hypothesis should be testable. People from cultures who do not read from left to right and top to bottom,, yet are just as computer savvy, should have initially slower reaction times in platformers which start off from the left. Indeed I just proposed this to an acquaintance working in neuroscience.

There was an interesting publication on how different cultures scan and recognize images and their contents, measured through iris trackers. (I am not up to date, and this is not my field of expertise, so I am sure there is much more to be discovered on this topic)

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Then why do you usually go from left to right or from bottom to top, but not from top to bottom? – Wok Sep 22 '12 at 21:41

I think the convention goes back a lot further than people have alluded to. On a race track where contestants (people, horses, chariots, or whatever) orbit in a counter-clockwise direction, the contestants who are the side of the track nearer to any particular spectator will be moving left to right. Many artworks depicting races thus show contestants racing from left to right. I'm not sure that chariots were raced counter-clockwise 2,000 years ago, but that certainly is the common direction today and I have no particular reason to believe that it has changed over the years.

While I don't know that right-to-left motion suggests "tension", narrative films generally use the left-to-right direction of motion to suggest the first forward progress, and use right-to-left motion to suggest movement in the other physical direction (films will generally avoid reversing the physical directions associated with screen directions unless a shot is included where the the camera crosses the "imaginary line" which establishes the directions).

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Im pretty sure this is a convention that was made implicitly by developers along the years.

Its all about how we learn to think when we are little, while people in oriental countries usually learn to read and write right to left, and are able to think that way for other things, people from the western part of the world are usually tought to think of the concepts from left to right, and only that way everything makes sense.

With games, probably it was just a matter of sticking with one of the ways, for the same reason, for example, that space is the jump key very often, its all about intuition at the end. It would be very hard to individuals to be good players in both settings, or at least as good as they would be if they learnt only one.

That said, if the platformers happened to be in the opposite direction since the beggining , im sure everyone would find it natural.

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The common concept of moving right is visualized in the Go right video. In Metroid, one of the the first upgrades is located to the very left of the starting location, but most players will not discover it until the game eventually teaches them that you eventually have to go left. This twist was made possible by the strong convention that right implies progress. – Lars Viklund Sep 22 '12 at 20:56

Early computers came from a number of places, all of which preferred left to right writing.

Apple (from the Homebrew Computer Club in California, USA).
Timex Sinclair (from Brittan)
VIC 20 / PET / Commodore 64 (from Canada)
IBM PC, 5150 (from the USA, designer from Boca Raton, Florida)
TRS 80 (from Tandy Computers, Fort Worth, Texas)

Other countries did have early computing efforts; however, they typically started their efforts by importing a computer and then using it as the basis for their understanding and improvements. For example, the Japanese NEC computer came with a QWERTY keyboard, and used English "Basic" as its primary programming language. China started by importing a computer (to keep up with their Russian counterparts). And the Chinese motto "innovation after imitation" led to mostly adopting left-to-right computing patterns.

By the time that right to left processing became a real player, the chips, graphics cards, memory ordering, disk layout, and other items were firmly entrenched in left to right ordering. It doesn't have to be that way, but if you produce a chip set that assumes right to left ordering (or top to bottom ordering) you now effectively design yourself out of the market, as you would need an entire marketplace of like-minded chips to build a computer.

At the software layer, bidi text processing and other technologies emulate non-left to right processing on top of systems that are oriented with left to right assumptions. If you feel very strongly about the screen position, you are free to write a software layer above the graphics positioning like so...

void drawPixel(int x, int y) {
  realDrawPixel(screenWidth - x - 1, screenHeight - y - 1);
  // the "extra" minus one is to ensure that pixel 0 is on the screen
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Not all platformers do go left to right, but one reason most do many do may have to do with control orientation. Nearly all controllers have the joystick/d-pad on the left, and other control buttons on the right, and it feels more natural to have one's thumb nearer the middle of the controller then to have it hanging off the edge. The only real counterexample I can think of is the N64 controller, which had the joystick in the middle. But even that had its d-pad on the left, and by the time more symmetrical controllers came into use, it was already an ingrained habit.

Note that there are some games that go right-to-left, for example, Final Fantasy has had the players on the right in battles for a long time (although FF has never been a platformer).

Nearly all right-to-left platform levels have been ones based on either sneaking/infiltration or returning from wherever you went in previous left-to-right levels.

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-"it feels more natural to have one's thumb nearer the middle of the controller then to have it hanging off the edge." - does it? I don't think so. – Markus von Broady Oct 14 '12 at 15:05
@Markus von Broadly What I meant is that it is more comfortable to hold the left joystick/d-pad to the right, rather than to the left, because you get more thumb support farther in, and thus less manual fatigue after extended periods of use. – AJMansfield Oct 29 '12 at 14:12

It is likely because the world zone taught to think left-to-right (the direction of writing), the Western world, has "colonized" of sorts practically everywhere in the world. Even lands of right-to-left writing systems are at least very aware of our left-to-right culture, if not catering to it. That said, not all games are strictly left-to-right. I don't know if I agree much with the answers above saying that it is more comfortable to press movement left-to-right the way our controllers are set up. At least to me it could work either way, right or left.

Metroid has its share of going right-to-left: Not only is the first and easiest-to-get item left of the start, but reaching the final boss is a right-to-left journey, all the way to the escape! The retold story Zero Mission "corrects" this by adding more to the story with one more final boss, the second escape being left-to-right.

Metroid II (Return of Samus) and Super Metroid both have their final bosses to the left on the map, but that means their escapes are left-to-right. That is, from the boss close to the map's far-left, to the gunship closer to the middle. In Super Metroid, the gunship is still noticeably far left of center.

The Mega Man Zero series is as much left-to-right as any other series, but it has its many exceptions. The first Zero game has its right-left-right missions in the desert (Find Shuttle) and Underground Lab (Retrieve Data). All other desert missions are purely right-to-left, starting in the desert by the Resistance Base and ending either in the desert far left or in the ocean cave with the hidden base. The mission to save the Resistance Base from being bulldozed is another right-to-left. In Zero 2's boss fight in the second-to-final stage, Zero is being chased right-to-left.

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How does giving a few examples, answers the question? – Kromster Aug 31 '14 at 12:17
Just expanded on the answer. I added that paragraph on the beginning. – Bassball Batman May 28 '15 at 21:47

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