Cardboard Computers: The Obscure Legacy of Play Books in 2.5D Games

Research output: Conference Article in Proceeding or Book/Report chapterBook chapterResearch


The contributions to this publication give an impressive account of how diverse and complex the legacy of toy books in digital games is. Physical books, toys and other play materials are nearly omnipresent in gameworlds. They are very efficient elements of worldbuilding, on different levels, be it by marking spaces of leisure or by conveying backstory about the world and its denizens. By comparison, direct adaptations of toy books are rather rare. Their complete remediation (Bolter & Grusin 1996) in an example like It Takes Two! (Hazelight,
2021) is an unambiguous reference to the medium and the modalities of its use, but it is one of the very few examples of its kind, especially compared to the ubiquity of other toys and books.

There is, however, a less obvious legacy of toy books to be found in what is commonly referred to as 2.5D games. This colloquial term has found wide use among players as well as developers, and is therefore (unsurprisingly) applied to a broad range of phenomena that are not unproblematically identified as two-dimensional or three-dimensional (Sharp 2014). As a medium originating on two-dimensional screens, digital games have a long history of suggesting and simulating three-dimensionality. This concerns both the visual dimension,
where axonometric and perspective projections increasingly replaced flat two-dimensionality (Larochelle & Arsenault 2013), and the gameplay, where the depth-axis became a fundamental part of many game design concepts (Wolf 2008).

2.5D games generally stylize both the visual and the playful dimension. While this design principle is found in all types of games, it is most common in indie games. Originally an absolute and primarily economic category for games published independently instead of through major distributors, indie has developed into an aesthetic category (Grabarczyk 2016). The indie ethos of working fast, in small teams, and in direct collaboration with players, usually goes hand-in-hand with an aesthetic of “handmade pixels”, as Jesper Juul so
poignantly put it (Juul 2019) – simple, stylized art that does not strive for realism, but instead foregrounds its artificiality and technicality.

As such, 2.5D is a natural fit for indie games. Where mainstream games often strive toward an illusion of boundaryless, open virtual worlds, indie games tend to choose a smaller scope and embrace the constraints of small budgets. The use of inert backdrops, for example, has become exceedingly rare in big budget productions, while it is absolutely central to indie games (McGregor 2007).

How immediately indebted 2.5D indie games are to toy books is quite apparent in a number of examples, of which I have selected Darkest Dungeon (Red Hook 2015) and The Legend of Bum-Bo (Edmund McMillen 2019).

Arsenault, Dominic, and Audrey Larochelle. “From Euclidean Space to Albertian Gaze: Traditions of Visual Representation in Games Beyond the Surface.” In DiGRA Conference Proceedings. 2013.
Bolter, J. David, and Richard A. Grusin. “Remediation.” Configurations 4, no. 3 (1996): 311-358.
Copcic, Amra, Sophie McKenzie, and Michael Hobbs. “Permadeath: A review of literature.” In 2013 IEEE International Games Innovation Conference (IGIC), pp. 40-47. IEEE, 2013.
Corstorphine, Kevin, and Matthew Crofts. “The Crawling Chaos: HP Lovecraft, Closed Gothic Spaces and ‘Dungeon Crawler’ Videogames.” In Lovecraft in the 21st Century, pp. 213-226. Routledge, 2021.
Gowler, Chad Phoenix Rose, and Ioanna Iacovides. “‘Horror, guilt and shame.’
Uncomfortable Experiences in Digital Games." In Proceedings of the Annual Symposium on Computer-Human Interaction in Play, pp. 325-337. 2019.
Grabarczyk, Pawel. "Is every indie game independent? Towards the concept of independent game." Game Studies 16, no. 1 (2016).
Igarzábal, Federico Alvarez. Time and space in video games: a cognitive-formalist approach. Vol. 9. transcript Verlag, 2019.
Janik, Justyna. “Negotiating textures of digital play: Gameplay and the production of space.” Game Studies 20, no. 4 (2020): n-pag.
Juul, Jesper. Handmade pixels: Independent video games and the quest for authenticity. Mit Press, 2019.
McGregor, Georgia Leigh, and Baba Akira. “Situations of Play: Patterns of Spatial Use in Videogames.” In DiGRA Conference. 2007.
Piero, Mike. “Gaming Under Biopolitical Sovereign Power: The Chronotope of the Abject in The Binding of Isaac.” Eludamos: Journal for Computer Game Culture 11, no. 1 (2020): 55-70.
Sharp, John. “Dimensionality.” In The Routledge Companion to Video Game Studies, ed. by Mark JP Wolf and Bernard Perron, pp. 117-124. Routledge, 2014.
Wolf, Mark JP. “Z-axis Development in the Video Game.” In The Video Game Theory Reader 2, pp. 173-190. Routledge, 2008.

Edmund McMillen. The Legend of Bum-Bo. 2019.
Hazelight. It Takes Two! 2021.
Red Hook. Darkest Dungeon. 2015
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationPlay it again : Vom Spielbilderbuch zum Videospiel
EditorsChristian A. Bachmann
Place of PublicationBerlin
PublisherStaatsbibliothek zu Berlin
Publication date2023
Publication statusPublished - 2023
EventPlay it Again: Vom Spielbilderbuch zum Videospiel - Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, Berlin, Germany
Duration: 22 Apr 202327 Aug 2023


ExhibitionPlay it Again
LocationStaatsbibliothek zu Berlin


  • toy books
  • digital games
  • worldbuilding
  • 2.5D games
  • indie game aesthetics


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