How do we convey scale in 2D games?

What methods can one use to let the player experience the size of a game world in a 2D game, be it Isometric or Orthogonal?

When playing an open-world game in 3D, the player often is able to rotate the camera to see a building or mountain they can walk to. This creates (at least for me) a feeling of scale, the desire to go there and a feeling of accomplishment, as soon as the desired location is reached.

Is there a technique or game-mechanic that can let players have a comparable perception of scale in a 2D game?

• This is an interesting question; I suggest you wait a bit until you accept an answer, as this may deter other users form providing other interesting answers. Feb 11, 2020 at 15:02
• Loosely related topic, about space environments in 3D: Creating a sense of scale Feb 13, 2020 at 6:39

Large, open areas do not work very well in top-down 2d. Putting the player in such an area just disorients them. It is much better to use more complex areas which limit the way the player can navigate.

So you need some other way to communicate the scale of the world to the player. A common way to do that is by providing them with a world map they can access at any time and which shows them their current location in the world as well as all the locations in the world they can explore:

That map might even be navigable itself. A common JRPG trope is to have lots of small-scale local area maps connected by an overworld map in a much larger scale. This allows you to place locations in your game world at plausible distances without having to create lots of high-detail low-relevance maps in between them the player needs to explore up close: Final Fantasy 4, ©1991 by Square

You might even use a different camera perspective for traveling between locations than you use for traveling within locations. Even if 99% of your game takes place in an isometric or orthogonal 2d perspective, your travel mechanic might still use a 3d or pseudo-3d perspective which does a better job at conveying the scale of your world:

Secret of Mana, ©1993 by Square

• Thank you for the detailed answer,Philipp. I like the idea of guiding the player with the help of a map, since one still can hide visual clues for interesting locations there, without slamming it into the players face with a marker. Although i never have played FF4, their walkable map is great, thanks for the pointer. Feb 11, 2020 at 14:46
• @trimoq Those walkable overworld maps were actually very common during the 16 bit age of JRPGs. I actually can hardly remember one which didn't have one. They were in all the Final Fantasies, all Lufias, all Dragon Quests, all Phantasy Stars, Chrono Trigger, Romancing SaGa... damn, I played a lot of those... Feb 11, 2020 at 15:14
• @trimoq I think the reason why they fell out of fashion in the early 3d era was because with higher graphic fidelity it didn't look good anymore to have a player-character who wasn't in the same scale as the environment. So they switched to more abstract fast-travel maps or no overview maps at all. Feb 11, 2020 at 15:28
• @trimoq Regarding the Zelda map: Yes, I really like the subtlety it uses to visualize potential points of interest without using explicit markers which spoil what exactly the player is going to find there. That makes exploring a lot more rewarding. Lots of objects seem intentionally hard to identify from the map alone. That encourages the player to go exploring and find out for themselves what those locations are. Feb 11, 2020 at 15:32
• @Philipp actually I think the reason for dropping the walkable overworld map wasn't because of 3D, but the switch from cartridges to CDs. If they made a reasonably detailed map the loading would be insufferable. Feb 12, 2020 at 1:09

I believe the answer lies in 2.5D

If your game is a 2D sidescroller, then you may rely on parallax scrolling, shadows and lighting to convey size and scale better.

If your game is a 2D topdown or isometic, your scale will benefit from assets that get drawn above the player (such as trees that extend above their own tile). Once again, shadows and lighting are what convey actual scale perception.

Artificial camera work might also be worth looking into for cinematic sequences that you can use to force the player to look at certain things.

• Thanks for your answer Natalo. Your mentioned techniques of using light, shadow and multiple layers will definitely help to create deph in a scene. I was rather looking for something like the second part of your answer, to increase the viewable content. I like the idea of forcing the camera to move but do you by chance know of a game that lets the player control this? Feb 11, 2020 at 13:16
• It really depends on the type of 2D game you want to create? Feb 11, 2020 at 14:25
• We aim for a open-world RPG experience. But as Philipp pointed out, large areas as I like them in 3D games might not be the best choice for a 2D game. Since I am not that talented in art, I aim for a simple, top-down orthographic projection. Feb 11, 2020 at 14:51
• In that case, you're definitely going to want to go the route of animation, proper lighting, shadows, and 2.5D draw layers to achieve better depth Feb 11, 2020 at 17:09
• You can use parallax in top-down too, stuff like caves that go into the earth or clouds that move above the world would add some depth Feb 13, 2020 at 20:06

Conveying scale accurately can be tricky in 2D games. There are other ways of conveying that "go this way to reach this objective" feeling, but you have to think about it within the medium itself, instead of trying to translate 3D methods into a 2D world.

A 2D view gives you a better awareness of all nearby objects than a 3D one - you don't need a mountain in the distance for the player to orient themselves when they spin the camera around, because they can see around themselves at all times. Instead, you'll want to scatter smaller environmental clues around them to let them know that they are going the right way.

Many open-world adventure games divide the world into "crossroads" and "paths". At the crossroads, place a clue that can help the player identify what they will find in each direction. For example, let's say there's a crossroads, and one path leads to the town, one leads to a lake, and one leads to a forest. Put a tree or two near the forest path, have a river leading toward the lake, and a paved road leading into town, and make sure they are all visible from the same screen. Each "path" can be more variable, but once the player has chosen a path they will usually keep walking that way unless there are obvious clues that they are going the wrong way.

One tried-and-true method that works in both 2D and 3D is to scatter "breadcrumb trails" leading toward interesting locations. This can include small pickups like coins, but there are other, more subtle methods - anything that the player will want to check out can help guide them, without feeling as restrictive as a walled-off path. One tactic I like using to help players find their way through towns (which usually allow the player to wander in any direction) is to always have at least one new NPC (or other obvious "object of interest") visible from every other NPC location. Even if the player can walk anywhere, until they get the "lay of the land" they will tend to follow the "trail" of NPCs in an attempt to check everything out. (This also lets you reveal information to them "in order" without being explicit about it - the player feels like they are wandering freely and talking to people at random, but they really aren't).

Landmarks are key. It's better to have a smaller world where every single screen has an interesting object or formation than a sprawling world where everything looks the same. This is true in all adventure games, but doubly so in 2D where the only clues the player has to their location are nearby objects.

If the destination is towards an enemy stronghold, you can place stronger enemies as they get closer. This not only helps the player find their way, it also keeps weaker players from traveling too far until they become stronger, without explicitly locking them out of high-level areas, and creates a feeling of progress and accomplishment when they have grown strong enough to survive in the more dangerous regions.

Finally, if you want to create the same feeling of "awe" you get when walking toward a vast mountain/castle/etc in a 3D game, create "lookout points" such as cliffs or the top of towers where the destination is in the background, using parallax and lighting effects to create a sense of distance - this is where you focus on those artsy single images. The use of this will restrict the orientation of your world somewhat - for top-down Zelda-esque games, you can pretty much only have lookouts showing objects to the north - but generally in games like these, mountains and castles are approached from the south anyway.

In addition to all the great answers, here's another part in the mix that can expand the perceived scale -- content clues:

• A horse cart is racing by, apparently towards some grand destination
• A signpost points to "Castle 5 miles this way"
• A "Traveler's Inn" by the road has people resting from the "long road from and to Landmark"
• A flock of birds travel by, apparently they have a destination far away
• The townspeople in dialogue warn you of dangers afar, or mention treasures ahead
• A group of citizens hurriedly walk past you
• Your own character when idling holds up a binocular to look at something out of sight
• Objects and particles from further away places get blown into view by the breeze, like desert shrubs
• A burned house shows charcoal footprints leading away
• The travel guide at the town hall talks of glorious distant places
• Sounds like far-away shrieks introduce distant themes
• Moving clouds and a storm slowly brewing up, from little rain drops to a big shower, convey an overarching large system of moving weather phenomena
• Ponds mirror the clouds, and -- with some creative freedom as to how reflection works -- maybe they even mirror a far-away castle
• Windows in houses, similar, reflect far away landmarks
• Your character could pose and gesture in awe when they are idling and see something exciting outside the screen

... and on top, maybe the game is literally called The Vast Lands, Infini-World, Endless Roads, Gigantic Continent, or any variation thereof, priming the player for huge scale!

One way of conveying distance in any game is to make it take a long time to get from one place to the other.

One of the largest game worlds in my memory is a MUD I used to play that artificially separated provinces by sea voyages that took anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours. Within each province, it was fairly quick to walk from one place to another, so when one thought about going to another province-- particularly one with a couple other provinces in between-- there was a sense that it was very far away. There was one province in particular that took a very long time to travel to, and whenever one went there, it felt very remote. The areas there were not well-documented and always devoid of people, and so they felt very awesome and mysterious when you finally came upon them.

Some find artificial time delays to be an obnoxious game mechanic, but that is one way you can add a sense of scale to the world, independent of graphics.

• Something like that. In a mud I played, the sense of vastness was also by shipping lines, but inside the continent it was a lot of rooms that depicted, eg the Great Eastroad from Bree to Misty mountains. In addition, travelling on foot was tiring there, so you couldn't just copy/paste your path and expect to reliably arrive at a destination other side of the continent in one go. Feb 13, 2020 at 22:27
• The idea of hard to reach destinations is tempting. But, as you mentioned, it is a risky path to add time delays. But you got me thinking on how we could incorporate a feeling of the toughness of travel itself. Basically introduce hurdles to overcome to get to a location and thereby increase the time (and material expenses?) needed to reach a destination. Spontaneously things come to mind like the need to change between sailing boats, enemies on the path (like the high hrothgar troll?) or a requirement to obtain a ticket for the ferry from an NPC. Feb 14, 2020 at 9:42

Fast travel is often used to convey scale, in both 2D and 3D games. As this answer mentions, time is an effective substitute for scale, but with a graphical game you do not want artificial delays, so make the delays the real effect of having a large world.

Most games will have a smaller "intro" area, and if this area is large enough it can take some time to walk from one side to the other. This will make the intro section seem like it's large enough to hold a whole game. Inside this area NPCs or other exposition can mention places far away that seem unreachable, until the intro section opens and allows the player into the larger world, and the player quickly realises it would take unreasonably long to just walk everywhere - but outside there are faster forms of movement.

You can repeat this as often as you can come up with novel barriers and forms of movement to overcome them - perhaps you need horses to move effectively outside the intro section, but then you find yourself stuck on the continent, which doesn't seem so bad because the continent is large - but then you discover you can board a ship, which lets you visit places further away, etc.

A good example of this is Zelda Breath of the Wild, where everything you can see you can travel to, but it doesn't seem that way at first while you're stuck on the plateau - you don't realise the full scope until you start the long walk towards something in the distance. You can achieve the same thing in 2D, by making travel times long (requiring other forms of transport) and by having in-game exposition (NPCs, books, map fragments, legends) mention far-off places as if they're far-off and unreachable - until you do find a way to get there.

If what you want is the a similar feeling to a open world 3D game, you can make 2d assets of your mountains, castles and such and have a "look around" mode where you arrange all that in a set of parallax layers. I don't remember seeing that in any game so maybe it has some obvious flaw I'm not considering. You'll also want to use fog of war in your world map, otherwise the look around feature won't have any gameplay-related usage.