[I don't know whether anyone is even interested in this type of thing, and my points are perhaps overly obvious, but I'll put it out there anyway. I was thinking of a series of articles about mapping/maps in video games - for example follow up articles would be one about the extraordinary maps\worlds in Fallout3 and F:NV, and a slightly retro one about mapping out text and graphic adventures on graph paper and what that added to gaming experience and so on. Anyway, for the introduction, read on...]
I first became aware of maps and what they could contribute to the enjoyment of fiction when I read The Hobbit as a child. I was fascinated by the map of the Wilderland
printed inside the cover, and frequently referred back to it as I followed Bilbo through the Mirkwood. The map made the world more real to me, it allowed me to track the progress of the protagonist towards his goal, and by the time the heroes escaped the Halls of the Elven King in empty wine barrels, I was so immersed in the tale that I immediately traced the route of the Forest River and where it led, in anticipation of the next stage of the journey. To this day I find fantasy novels much more enjoyable if there is a good, detailed map included at the start.
In this and subsequent articles I would like to discuss the role of maps in video games, and examine the different ways in which the map can impact a game and the player. To do this, I need to define my terms, as the concept of a ‘game map’ deviates from the normal definition in some ways.
A treasure map from Red Dead Redemption.
A video game map can be one of several things. It can be an in-game map, which serves as a navigational aid when traversing the game world, and which highlights points of interest. Secondly, the game world itself can also be referred to as the game map, whether strategic or overland map, and the player traversing the map and traversing the world are synonymous here. There are maps which exist inside games, such as treasure maps, or subway maps, which are graphical representations of the game world within the game. Red Dead Redemption is an example of a game which combines all three of these elements – a beautifully realised game world with mountains, rivers and towns, a 2d representation of that world in the game map, and a fusion of the two with the hand-drawn treasure maps which the player matched to physical features on the terrain.
My (somewhat loose) definition of a video game map therefore, is any representation of the game world in-game, including the game world itself, which explains that world, or offers a perspective on that world to the player, represents physical or political points of interest, enhances navigation and planning, or pinpoints the player’s position in the world.
Star Ruler's galaxy map. Each circle is a star system, complete with its own sun.
There are almost as many map types as there are game genres. RDR has an open world set in the fictional West. Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas have open world maps which are recognisably based on real places. Older games, like Zork or the King’s Quest adventures, relied on the player mapping the game himself, on graph paper. For strategy games, the map occupies a position front and centre, combining the game world and critical game information, sometimes shrouded in a fog of war. Choke points, resources, and supply lines need to be identified. Space operas have galaxy maps, which need to represent three dimensional space. Level maps for action games, though perhaps less complex than the previous examples, also qualify as game maps. On the opposite end of the scale are the procedurally generated maps in modern rogue-likes such as Dwarf Fortress, which are both the map and the game world, often needing further interpretation in the form of a character map or tileset as a result of being represented in ASCII. The modern shooter comes with multiplayer maps, designed with very specific principles
A dwarf fortress.
Not only does the map in each of these examples offer a distinct view of the world to the player, but each affects the game in different ways. World exploration is generally of utmost importance, whether it is to lift the fog of war and reveal enemies and resources, or whether it is to access new locations, which are the basis for receiving new quests in RPGs. Imminent threat can be identified on a minimap. Routes from A to B can be planned – for example in Fallout: New Vegas the player finds the most convenient routes north from his starting location to be blocked by enemies several orders of magnitude tougher than he is, and must plan an alternative route which funnels him towards early-game quests. The player’s place in the world can be visualised through gradual discovery of important locations which are marked on the map. For real-time and turn-based strategy games, conquests can be planned and executed, and success is often measured in territory claimed. City building games let the player create the map, while rail and truck simulators mimic real-world routes. There are even instances of fan-made maps created in other games, such as this recreation of Ultima 6 in the world of Minecraft.
The Hex-based map of Solium Infernum.
In short, maps in video games can approach a similar level of importance to the UI in that they govern the player’s physical interaction with the world through in-game actions. The traditional concepts of map use – navigation, communication of information – are utilised, but game maps also fulfil many of the same functions as The Hobbit’s map did, such as adding verisimilitude to a fantasy world, aiding immersion, and allowing the player/reader to plan or track forward progress. I hope to show in some follow-up articles how different aspects of game maps affect the player experience in significant ways.