By Mento 0 Comments
Dudes. Maps. They're awesome. ...Thanks for stopping by!
All right, I guess some further elaboration is warranted. Why are maps awesome? Back in the late Renaissance, around the 15th to 17th centuries when we still had world left to explore and record, cartography was the big thing. Navigation and map-making went hand-in-hand as the intrepid pioneers and scholars of the time made sure we had accurate records of the entire globe. This was an exciting time for adventurers; where they could make scientifically exact measurements of the rest of the unexplored world while we were checking it out for the first time. This wanderlust continued until the early 20th century when we finally conquered Antarctica and various other harsh regions of the world and then it kind of petered out. We'd run out of places to explore. Plus, technology had evolved to the point where aerial cameras could capture the topography for us anyway. It became a greatly romanticized period of our history, one of the few times where we banded together as a race for a mutually beneficial goal without a huge deal of conflict (not that it wasn't going on elsewhere), that would never happen quite the same way ever again.
However, the joy of exploratory adventure never left the collective consciousness. Through novels, films and - most relevantly for this article's purposes - video games, there's no end of narrative fiction that evokes the age of discovery to draw in their audience's attention, either recalling the actual historical period or crafting an entirely fictitious setting undergoing a similar period of exploration. While the actual hard lines and measurements part of cartography is perhaps less evocative, it's still a major part of any game that focuses on exploring a new world or dungeon or what have you and provides an in-game map tool to help you find your bearings. Because it has become such an ubiquitous feature, sometimes games will put a unique emphasis on their mapping tools to help set them apart, sometimes requiring the player to actively involve themselves in creating and filling out the maps for various rewards.
But I think a little more introduction to how maps apply to games is in order first, because there are no deceased equines I can't bludgeon into further submission. I'll use Mario, since that sets up a prime "Super Mario Cartography" joke that I will no doubt deliver with impeccable timing to the acclaim and adulation of my thousands of readers. Sigh.
The first Super Mario Bros didn't have a map. My theory (that is, one that simply ignores that the game was too elementary to either think or need to include a map) is that the Super Mario series has the same bewildering timeline that Zelda does and at this point in the greater Mario chronology, the little guy had pretty much memorized the quickest path to Bowser's castle and went as the crow flies by cutting through pits and lakes. Of course, the second game didn't have a map either, because everything was a dream and played out precisely as linearly and hallucinatory as a dream would. The third game gave us the classic level select map, letting players saunter around and find secrets and have a grand old time, which was one of the many features Super Mario World would pick up and run off towards the distant horizon with, with its many secret exits and all that crazy incidental territory you could obliviously waltz right past on the first playthrough.
In RPGs, you needed maps to tell you where'd you been, in case the trails of goblin and giant spider viscera you were leaving everywhere weren't enough. This was integral to the treasure-seeking aspect, where meticulous wealth-hoarders would want to make sure that they'd checked every nook and cranny for lucre before moving on, lest they miss a golden tchotchke of no doubt crucial importance. This is something that popped into my head recently when thinking about the new Legend of Grimrock game that the Giant Bomb PC gaming old guard have been fervent about of late; it evoked, to me (and I believe this to be entirely its intention), of my time with Dungeon Master and its myriad lesser peers (Bloodwych? Anyone?) and how I'd painstakingly craft my own maps so I wouldn't get lost and forget the whereabouts of that one room where the shrieking mushroom enemies would endlessly respawn. Fun place to be in when you hit the Sleep button, let me tell you. Mapping systems would eventually become the norm in those games, with in-game maps that would point out exits, treasures, secret walls, traps and as much as you could possibly want to know. Lands of Lore, the last major dungeon-crawler of this type that I've played, had some seriously detailed maps like this. It boggled my mind for a good few minutes before I realised that these maps were just as crazy in-depth as the ones I once made myself, and it was less the game revealing all its secrets than recognizing what its core audience would be doing and simply saving them the trouble. Sometimes it's worth breaking immersion (King Patrick Stewart straight up tells you it's a "magic map" when he tells you to go fetch it for him) to be aware of the fact that the designers of a game know precisely what presses your buttons. As long as that button isn't the sleep button when there are fiendish fungi roaming around.
Of course, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Etrian Odyssey when talking about maps in these games, since that series' major gimmick is to drop the map-making task back into the not-so-able hands of the player. At this point, though, I had already grown accustomed to the convenience. I'd also grown accustomed to games that weren't dastardly difficult too. My time had passed for that nonsense, which makes me wonder how much I'd enjoy Grimrock should I get the opportunity to try it. Similarly wizened gamers who have played both it and the classics it echoes are more than welcome to confabulate on the matter in the comments below.
Many modern games now do the RTS thing with a fog of war system: The map reveals itself gradually in a sort of POV radius as you approach it, with grey nothingness replaced with all the juicy topographic details your protagonist is close enough to see. This seems like a fine compromise for this era of gaming, where traversable landscapes are no longer designed to be a series of ten foot square rooms that branch off in any of the four cardinal directions, always. It's also paradoxically less interesting, which is why games like Etrian Odyssey and other Roguelikes exist to bring us back to those fun days of entirely quadrilateral questing. You will occasionally have games like Star Ocean 3 which attempt to make investigating the entire map of each region palatable by offering a sizeable reward for hitting 100% completion, though trying to squeeze yourself into every jagged contour of the geometry for that elusive last 0.1% turned out to be less than enthralling.
There's probably way more I can talk about regarding maps, including everyone's favorite Giant Bomb wiki page, Skies of Arcadia's deliberate Age of Discovery-esque landmark-spotting side-quest or even Vesperia's (doing that currently playing tie-in thing I do) sly dig at old-school dungeon design, but we all know this is already way more about maps and mapmaking than you either expected or wanted to read today. So instead it's time for some lines and circles to be put towards a different, less useful purpose...
Tales of Vesperia