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Old 01-18-2011, 03:10 PM   #7
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Re: Rate this 'article': Video Game Maps (i)

[Golem, I intend to write about self-mapping and the old adventure games in the next part of this if I get to it - I even have my old Zork maps ready to scan ;-)

Below is part II; again, it's hard to say if I'm saying anything interesting here. It would be nice to be profound and original, but I'm learning about the gap between having a general 'Durr, I liek maps' feeling and being able to translate that feeling into something intelligent

Mapping the Wasteland.

Contains mild spoilers for Fallout 3 and New Vegas, including the world maps with all locations revealed, though generally illegible.

If you drive from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, you take the I-15 freeway out over the Mojave desert, gaining altitude all the time. Eventually, having passed the World’s Largest Thermometer in Baker, and the memorably named Zyzzyx Road, you crest a hill and start a long, straight descent to the Nevada state line. If it’s evening, and if it’s your first trip, then it’s easy to mistake the glittering neon carbuncle of Primm, a thousand feet below, for Vegas itself, and your heart soars in anticipation.

It ain't Vegas.

At the start of Fallout: New Vegas, the video game, I made my way south through Primm, pausing to shoot some villains from its decaying rollercoaster, and struck out towards Mojave Outpost, looking for work. Just as it was getting dark I laboured to the brow of the hill, and having examined the impressive statues of two rangers shaking hands, I turned around to look out over the wasteland. I instantly had a flashback to several years before. The Interstate, or what was left of it, descended in a long straight line to the basin floor ahead of me, and in the fading light Primm twinkled gaudily in the distance. For a moment, reality and video games merged, and it felt like I was having an epiphany.

It passed, of course, but it made me wonder. Why would the worldmakers of Bethesda\Obsidian make this insignificant corner of their map so like its real world equivalent? Elevation, road layout and the view from that vantage point all matched reality. Perhaps this is unsurprising with a ‘fictional-but-real’ location like New Vegas and its surrounds, but the attention to detail here is only surpassed by the realisation of another real-world location - Washington DC in Fallout 3. Surprisingly, the map work was done by a different team for each game, and it is interesting to see where their methods diverge.

The Grand List Of Console Role Playing Game Cliches includes the Law of Cartographical Elegance, which states that the world map always cleanly fits into a rectangular shape with no land masses that cross an edge. While this is generally applied to entire worlds, such as the Two Worlds II map, it applies also to the more regional Capital and Mojave Wastelands. Both are reproduced below with all locations revealed.

The Capital Wasteland The Mojave Wasteland

The most noticeable difference between these two maps is around the borders. Fallout 3 utilises the whole space, with locations distributed evenly right up to the edges of the map. The player can visit these locations, but if he tries to walk off the edge of the map, he gets a ‘Turn back’ message. Fallout: New Vegas’s map on the other hand, shows a much more naturalistic game space. The Vegas basin is bordered on the west by bluffs, on the east by the Colorado River and more cliffs, to the southeast by Searchlight Airport and to the northeast by Nellis Air Force base. In other words, the player is kept well away from the edge of the map by seemingly-natural obstacles. How well this works is debatable, as I’d imagine many players were as nonplussed as I was to encounter a vast and empty Searchlight Airport, the only purpose of which was to block progress. It took a while for this to register, and when it did it perhaps took me out of the game more than a ‘Turn Back’ message would have. But kudos to Obsidian for trying the more realistic approach.

The other big difference between the two games, map-wise, is the role of roads. In New Vegas, the player is encouraged from the start to stick to the roads, and most of the main action takes place along the thoroughfares. A cursory look at the two maps illustrates that roads feature strongly in New Vegas, and not at all in Fallout 3. The point has been made that though New Vegas has the larger map, the game space feels smaller.

I also feel that there’s more of a channelling effect at work in New Vegas because of this; the player is being funnelled towards Vegas itself, whereas Fallout 3 was more of a sprawling setting, to be explored at one’s leisure by setting off in any direction. I should note that once the player made it into Washington DC, there was a heavy emphasis on subway systems linking discrete areas, and some of this open world atmosphere was lost as the city became more oppressive. Which approach is better is a matter of personal preference, but it’s evident that the player experience is subtly, and sometimes not so subtly, affected by this way of mapping the world.

One thing the two games do have in common, and which is done extremely well, is the way the setting affects the characters who inhabit these worlds, and influences the quests available in each. The state of Nevada was a frontier state – the southern, California branch of the Oregon Trail crossed it in the north, the economy was built on prospectors and miners and it is dotted with ghost towns. In the time of New Vegas, it exists still as a frontier, with the NCR and Caesar’s Legion both attempting a land grab of nineteenth-century proportions. Talk to any of New Vegas’s NPCs and they will show the independence of the frontiersman, with neither political alternative attractive to them. They rebel against governance of any kind, even if it will bring safety and stability. The political reality of the Mojave Wasteland is conveyed with skill and sympathy, and is tied into both the setting and the strategic landmarks such as the Hoover Dam.

Similarly, Washington DC in Fallout 3 is as well-realised a combination of the setting and some of the cultural touchstones associated with that setting – freedom and liberty – as one could hope to see in a videogame. There’s a visceral thrill to stepping out on the Mall for the first time, and seeing the ruin of the Capitol, and using it as a backdrop to the conflict between two potential governing bodies in the Enclave and the Brotherhood of Steel. The quests that the player is given tie in with these ideals also, and are each tied into an iconic landmark for extra resonance – fixing the radio transmitter on the Washington Monument for the free radio station, recovering the head of Abraham Lincoln and the significance of that to the freed slaves.

Though it sounds facile, in each of these games the world map is not merely a map. It fulfils the needs of a role playing game, by providing a navigable world to the player, with new places and characters to discover, and guides progression through the game. It provides a starting point for exploration and a framework for the imagination. But the world map also gives expression to the deeper resonance of each location through the glorious realisation of the landscape and the monuments to liberty and idealism, slavery and venality, that are strewn about it. One of the great achievements of the Fallout games is not only the marriage of fantasy and reality to produce truly unique worlds, but the deep-rooted link between the games’ themes and the landscape the player traverses. That, and the wonder of Primm in a video game, of course.
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