We are all giving up on 3D too easily

I’m not a fan of 3D. Sure, my TV set ‘does’ 3D, but only as a pleasant side-effect of being the second best 2D TV in the shop. Yes, second best. Because the best one cost about twice as much. No, I didn’t want credit. Look, we’re straying from the point already, which is: I never use the 3D option. I also spend most of my time with my 3DS’ 3D slider at zero and prefer to watch 2D screenings of films at the cinema. It is safe to say I have not adopted 3D as my preferred viewing experience. So why am I starting to miss it when it’s not there?

Firstly, there’s my PS Vita, which I often wish had a 3D screen, especially while I’m playing games like Sine Mora. It just looks like it should be in 3D, probably because the OLED display is so inviting, begging me to step inside its vibrant worlds. Sure, I’d probably turn it off a few moments after turning it on, but I like to have the choice. That’s exactly how I feel about Pokemon X/Y, which eschews (gesundheit) 3D for the majority of the experience.

I’m sure I’m not alone when I keep reaching for the depth slider, thinking ‘oh, that’ll look great in 3D’, before realising the little indicator isn’t lit and there’s no 3D to be had. Then it’s like a little candle of joy goes out in my mind, or a little Toejam falls off the surface of the level deep inside my head. Bummer indeed.

“But… but…” (my subconscious stutters) “…I’m playing a 3DS and this is a game published by Nintendo its very self. What’s going on?” And the answer is I don’t know. Maybe it’s to save the developing eyes of Pokemon’s core audience, or maybe because the frame-rate already struggles in busy scenes. Either way, Nintendo has demonstrably abandoned 3DS’s Unique Selling Point for a significant portion of one of its biggest games. And that’s quite something.

But Nintendo isn’t alone. In fact, everyone seems to be abandoning 3D. Look at Sony. A couple of years ago, everything was ‘3D this’ and ‘3D that’. It was the Big Push of PlayStation, along with PlayStation Move, which was supposed to usher in the future of gaming. What have we seen born as a result of that brief era that made it to retail intact? Puppeteer. Oh and… well, mostly just Puppeteer.

And what a strange beast it is. Brilliant, but strange. Objectively, it’s superbly-presented but falls very slightly short in its actual gameplay. On the other hand, it encapsulates the potential Sony’s 2011 thinking had. It uses PS3’s power to create wonderful characters and a believable, magical, theatrical world--one that makes the prospect of 3D extremely exciting. With 3D enabled, the game looks like an actual diorama (admit it, we all learned that word from the Simpsons), to the point where you’re almost sitting in that front row, watching the magic happen first-hand.

It’s proof that the potential is great. But also, being a lone product of what already feels like a bygone era, it's ultimately proof that we’ve wasted that potential through running with it too early. Because it's almost perfect... but not quite. Images 'coming out at you' look amazing, but background walls have strange variations in depth and characters' edges appear to feature just two depths rather than many. However, it does have a brightness option to compensate for your dark 3D glasses, which is a big improvement. Basically, it's almost there. So very, very close to nailing it.

There are countless examples of premature 3D (re)births that aren’t just limited to video games. Cinema tried it without having the frame-rate to trick the brain into ‘seeing’ solid objects when moving at any moderate speed, nor the ability to shift focus points when you want to look into the blurry background. The Hobbit tried to fix the former, but then everyone complained they liked the old cinema frame-rate because super-smooth looked too 'real'. I despair.

Then games like Batman: Arkham Asylum's re-release included cheap 3D glasses that made the game ugly and the experience unsettling. Sony shoehorned 3D support into a load of games (whether they’d been intended to be played in 3D or not), instead of realising a concept behind the scenes then releasing it with a load of games designed to be used with it. Not just Puppeteer a couple of years later.

But the worst offender was Nintendo circa 2011. Have you played an early 3DS game recently? I have. Pilotwings Resort is a magical handheld title and one you really should experience with the 3D on. But not all the way to the top. Nosiree. I can only assume the thinking must have been to show off the sense of depth that could be achieved with the screen, but the reality is so extreme, the picture’s various depths become so detached, you can’t see the overall picture any more.

I said at the early 3DS preview event in Amsterdam that the games looked best with the 3D on at its lowest setting. Yet every time I picked up a demo machine, the slider had been left all the way up, demonstrating an effect that nobody could realistically look at and enjoy. It’s very telling that most, if not all, modern 3DS games now have comparatively modest 3D depth, even with the slider all the way to the top. In the rush to impress, moderation was completely forgotten at launch.

How ironic that Nintendo itself has now introduced the 2DS, which is effectively backpedaling away from 3DS’ sole USP. Without the 3D effect, it’s essentially a more powerful DS or a less-powerful Vita. Fortunately, the games are now able to sell the console on their own strength, but it took a while for that situation to establish itself after the console’s dreadful start.

Microsoft must be laughing so hard. Sure, it offered 3D in a few games’ options menus, but never shouted about it, instead letting Sony and Nintendo do all the developing and marketing, ready to jump on or off the 3D ship depending on how well it was sailing. Turns out it never really needed to get on board at all. Very clever.

But that 'Good Ship 3D' is clearly sailing away. And I find myself thinking ‘awww’ because I still hadn’t decided whether I wanted to get on it or not, stand on the bough and shout "I'm king of the world! Woooo!" Surely I should have that option. I don’t want a 2DS because I’m still willing to try 3D. I wanted to dust off my TV’s 3D glasses and immerse myself in Puppeteer's glorious world because I can see the potential. I wanted to peer into Pokemon’s world like it’s actually there behind the screen. Look at the difference between the Pokemon-Amie interaction on the 2D touch screen and the glorious 3D battle scenes on the top screen. Yes, it's a childish feature, but any adult can see that the characters on the 2D screen are not as appealing as the 3D versions.

I have no doubt there will be an Oculus Rift in the future where everything appears in 3D and sensors inside the device will be able to discern which object you’re actually focusing on and blur other depths accordingly. It will be amazing. But it looks like until that becomes a reality, it looks like 3D has had another resurgence, just like it has since the 3D cinemas of the 1950s, and failed once again.

I’m convinced abandoning it now, as it looks like we are, isn’t the right way to go because we’re giving up on amazing potential far too easily. I still must stress, I’m not a fan of current 3D. But when 3D does properly take off, I’m certain it will be amazing. I just fear we’ve just delayed that for at least another 10 years, simply by being so fickle.

You know that kid at parties who talks too much? Piplup in hand, way too good-looking, exceptionally well-educated in topics no one in their right mind should know about? Awesome at guitar? Well, that kid’s occasionally us. GR Editorials is a semi-regular feature where we share our informed insights on the news at hand. Sharp, funny, and finger-on-the-pulse, it’s the information you need to know even when you don’t know you need it.

Justin Towell

Justin was a GamesRadar staffer for 10 years but is now a freelancer, musician and videographer. He's big on retro, Sega and racing games (especially retro Sega racing games) and currently also writes for Play Magazine, Traxion.gg, PC Gamer and TopTenReviews, as well as running his own YouTube channel. Having learned to love all platforms equally after Sega left the hardware industry (sniff), his favourite games include Christmas NiGHTS into Dreams, Zelda BotW, Sea of Thieves, Sega Rally Championship and Treasure Island Dizzy.