You have been eaten by a Grue.
Year Zero for video game cartography is probably 1976, which saw the creation of Adventure\Colossal Cave
, a text adventure created by Will Crowther. Text adventures, also known as interactive fiction, present the game world to the player through descriptive prose passages, and the player progresses by entering simple phrases such as OPEN DOOR, or GO NORTH (shortened to N). These commands were interpreted by a parser and translated into action in the game. The player opens up new areas by solving puzzles, using items in his inventory, or often by merely hitting on the correct combination of verb and noun expected by the parser. The game world was sketched sparingly, and so existed to a large extent in the player’s imagination, and an important part of both visualising and navigating that world was through mapping it. Making a misstep or losing your way in these old games generally had one result – a sudden and instantaneous death.
Of course, mapping the game really did mean mapping it - taking out a sketchpad or graph paper, and physically drawing that location on the page. It helped to annotate all the available exits, which corresponded to compass points, and perhaps any noticeable objects or features in the location which might assist in solving puzzles later. There might be stairs leading up or down, or a tree to climb, or a portal to another part of the map. There might be an actual puzzle that you should make note of, such as a locked grating or a rope dangling just out of reach. There might be a strange symbol etched on the wall, or an NPC or quest-giver to talk to. All this meant that making a map was not only vital to playing the game, but had the effect of turning the player into an amateur cartographer
subconsciously wrestling with problems of scale, projection and symbolisation. Starting in the centre of a blank sheet of paper and extending the boundaries of the known world outwards in all directions fed both the imagination and the practical need for progression through the game.
This physical act of making a map resulted in both player progression and the simultaneous reinforcement of the ‘reality’ of the game world. It also had a number of other effects, the first and foremost of which was immersion. If the player was creating a map, then he was also creating a world which was deeper and more personal to him than that conveyed by just the words on the screen. He took ownership of that world, and the game space existed in large part because of the player’s actions outside the game. So as well as engaging in a virtual journey, with his game character (not really an avatar, in those days) discovering the world, there was also the important task of physically translating that space onto the real-world medium of paper. It seems reasonable to infer that this physical act resulted in a much greater emotional investiture in the game world.
Adventure\Colossal Cave Map. Source
It must be remembered however, that this means of engaging the player was specific to the genre – the act of mapping the game supplemented the sparse text through which the world was presented, and I am not claiming that these games presented a level of immersion which has never been surpassed. The early Eighties – the period during which the text adventure was most popular - was a golden time for user-created maps across all genres, as can be seen in this map for Jet Set Willy
, an addictive platformer. This type of map, however, was more of a game guide than a tool for aiding immersion. For text, and later graphical adventures, making the map was an important component of world creation, and the player had a role equal to the developer in the creation or visualisation of that world. If we fast forward to the modern day, we can’t say that those worlds were more immersive than the world of Bioshock, for instance, in which Rapture is sumptuously realised and the means of traversing that world is so different. The point is rather that the reliance on the player’s imagination, and the leveraging of that imagination, led to a unique type of interaction with the game world.
The next section will deal with a particularly nasty subdivision of game mapping, that of the text adventure maze, and the challenges associated with mapping these places. In the meantime, let me leave you to ponder this
user-created map of Doomdark’s Revenge, for which words are not enough.