RPS Asks: Maps In Games?

By Jim Rossignol on December 1st, 2009 at 12:09 pm.


People of the readership, I need your help. I need to know what the best in-game maps are, and why. To be specific: I need your reason. Is the map you mention best because it’s the prettiest? Because it maps things in a unique way? Or is it just a fun piece of design? Or is it something that is actually so integral to the game that it makes the game? Your nominations, please.

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239 Comments »

  1. Ed says:

    Operation Flashpoint in Veteran mode. I like the fact that reading the map requires actual player skill and observation/orienteering-esque activities, and annotating the maps as you go along was always very useful in co-op.

    I liked the simplicity of Thief/Thief 2′s map, I also liked the fact that the map could (and frequently did) bear no relation to the way the level was actually set out.

    Sadly the map in most games these days consists of “You are here, quest marker is here, go directly to quest marker, do not pass Go, do not collect 100 angry boar pelts”

  2. Ninja Dodo says:

    I like how Assassin’s Creed lets you turn off the GPS mini-map. It makes the exploration more agreeable. You feel less obligated to head straight to the next checkpoint or whatever and stumble upon things more casually. In AC2 it’s also pretty nice how you can customize the map to your preferred level of hand-holding (like showing only story-critical markers, or showing all treasures, hideouts, important NPCs etc).

    Outcast had an interesting map, though I don’t know if I would rank it among the best. It was well-integrated into the fiction, certainly. Was pretty cool how it scanned the landscape the first time you open it up in a new area.

    • roryok says:

      or less obliged even.

    • Sunjammer says:

      Outcast is still next-gen to me. The world wasn’t ready for that game.

    • Ninja Dodo says:

      Indeed. Open-world games still have much to learn from this ten-year old title.

      @roryok: I stand corrected.

    • Manley Pointer says:

      The feature you mention for the AC map is indeed pretty cool, but when you are actually trying to use their minimap I found it quite frustrating. Perhaps it was designed for those playing in HD, but in standard definition I found the symbols on the map very hard to tell apart. I remember the icons for “Official” and “Poster” in AC2 being annoyingly similar, to the point where I kept having to pause and use the full map to check.

      The decision to turn off the “memory start” icon — I think it was “!” — whenever you were being chased was also extremely annoying. I know that you can’t begin a mission unless you’re anonymous, but is it too much to ask that you be allowed to tell if you are TRAVELING TOWARD one or not? Ditching or killing the guards was always easy, but it was irritating to discover I’d been running away from my objective after it finally reappeared on my minimap.

      Unless there was some option to adjust this that I failed to discover, in which case…shit.

  3. P.T. says:

    The paper maps I made of Bard’s Tale 1 and 2 were great. Really part of the game to make a useful, readable and correct map of the dungeons. Wasted a lot of graph paper on those … (If you enjoy that, check out Etrian Odyssey on the DS as some other folks have mentioned.)

    I remember being amazed by the original Doom auto-mapper. You could actually zoom around in the top-down mode and often could find “hints” (I don’t think they were intentional?) about secret doors and walls in the colors and extra lines on the automap.

  4. Melf_Himself says:

    You have to be able to walk on the map!

    If you have not played Sword of the Samurai, I recommend that you do so immediately:

    http://www.abandonia.com/en/games/264/Sword+of+the+Samurai.html

  5. ./ says:

    Battlefield 2

  6. threeheadedmonkey says:

    The in-game map feature implemented in Diablo 2 has to be one of the less intrusive map systems ever devised. It used to overlay the entire game screen with a semi-transparent outline of the area being explored, marking only a few core locations: player’s own position, the position of his companions and the location of certain landmarks.

  7. Swiftasaurus says:

    I’m totally drawn in by the map in Silent Hill 2. I love how you might not even find the map for the area you’re in… and that’s cool, no big deal, you’re just going to have a harder time of it. If you did happen to actually pick up the map thouh, you realise it’s utterly useless at first. Sure it maps out the area, like any good map, but it doesn’t show what doors are locked, what doors just won’t open, what areas might be blocked off by some weird interdimensional growth. However, when you reach an impassable object, or something of note… or even when you’ve been given some kind of an objective, good ol’ James Sunderland pulls his trusty map up and scrawls on it with black marker pen. I always thought this gave the game a real sense of loneliness, his trusty companion IS his map, any people he meets along the way just aren’t helpful to him and 9/10 times are trying to kill him. It looks like real marker pen as well, which is pretty funky.

    Damn… I really want to play Silent Hill 2 now. :/

  8. tigershuffle says:

    Lords of Midnight map…………….if my slightly rosetinted glasses of yore are working…….

    not sure if it was included in the game or was a freebie in Crash! magazine that I stuck together with sellotape

    • Edgar the Peaceful says:

      Yes indeed – Lords of Midnight – what a fantastic game (in 53k or whatever it was). I mapped its sequal Doomdark’s Revenge, lovingly on graph paper. I remember pulling a sicky from school to get on with it.

      Magnificent games

    • Iain says:

      There was a map supplied on the back of the manual for both LOM and Doomdark’s Revenge. A few years later Crash! had both games on the covertape and printed a large, glossy, double-sided map which gave a location square-by-square breakdown of the terrain – one game map on each side.

      It was a thing of beauty.

  9. dingo says:

    Usually I don’t care much about maps and they don’t break my immersion in games.
    However 2 stand out mainly because of the way they are presented / made.

    1. Fallout 3 map
    The whole Pipboy interface rocks. Only sour point: The game is paused while using it.
    I would prefer an option to let it run while using the Pipboy.
    Feels a bit like cheating to be able to med up and switch weapons mid-fight while the situation is freezed.

    2. Marauder’s Map from the Harry Potter games
    The map simply rocks (the idea behind it). “I’m up to no good” to make it visible and “Mischief managed” to hide it again. Genius idea to have such a magical map in Hogwards.

    I’m very criticial towards using GPS every da since it really makes us stupid and less able to find the way ourselves although I use those devices once in a while, too.
    I hope that most games will have an option to disable this so I can find my way myself in them, too if I wish to.

  10. Hyoscine says:

    Man, I couldn’t agree more. About the map, and now wanting to play Silent Hill 2. Also, what other game gives you story and flavour the way the SH2 maps do? Finding the map that an older, deader you had started to mark up with the “Meet me at Bar Neely” thing was an incredible plot device, underlining the cyclical nature of the town in a way that a cut scene would probably be much too heavy handed with…

  11. Quentillius says:

    Far Cry 2′s map is lovely, but games with real ink+paper maps are the best. Role-playing in Oblivion ( If such a thing exists, http://gamingphilosophy.wordpress.com/2009/11/06/first-meditation/ ) I decided not to use the in-game map or that disgusting thing called fast-travelling and relied completly map I had. Oh, what memories….

  12. Martin Coxall says:

    Dwarf Fortress’s maps are a thing of beauty. Minimalist and yet hyperdetailed. As they should be.

  13. Sunjammer says:

    In terms of look and functionality the Metroid Prime maps are absolutely stunning. But to draw me into the world? Thief. Those maps not only inform you, but make you curious. You see a big block marked “Storage”, you’re going to want to find out what’s in there. It strengthens the illusion of the world.

  14. Sunjammer says:

    I think the use of a map as a navigation tool is secondary to its usefulness as incentive to go explore. I know games today are all about rapid checkpointing and leading you by the nose, but for that you don’t need a map. You just need a waypoint on the hud. A map should make you curious and make you wander. This is why the Monkey Island maps were so rad too. First time i saw the Melee island map i wanted to explore the hell out of that island.

  15. roryok says:

    Can’t believe no-one mentioned Interstate 76?

    Maps for each mission were a different scribbling on a bit of paper (a napkin, a menu) – no features but what u needed, just like someone had drawn it just for the mission.

    Best of all (if I remember right) when you looked at the map, it didnt pause the game, and you could easily veer off the road if you werent careful, or didnt stop before checking out the map.

    That game was solid gold… I miss it so.

  16. Edgar the Peaceful says:

    Bit of a tangent, but does anyone else but those lovely ordenance survey Explorer Maps at 1:25000 scale? I buy one everytime I go away on holiday in Britain, whether I’m planning on doing a lot of walking or not. Truly things of beauty.. Give me contour lines and I’m a happy bunny.

  17. chesh says:

    I have not yet played it but Quinns suggests that the map in Pathologic is pretty amazingly integrated into the game and the story (spoilers, obvs, but if you haven’t already read the series, shame on you!).
    Otherwise, I’m incredibly fond of the map in the Etrian Odyssey games for the Nintendo DS. Which is to say, the touch screen is a sheet of graph paper, and you have to draw the map. The only concession to auto-mapping it gives you is shading ground that you’ve walked on.

  18. Rhade says:

    Anything that’s practical and easy to interpret. I am so sick and tired of games trying to make their maps fancy or realistic at the expense of practicality. It’s a tool, dammit!

    I remember being insanely frustrated with the map in Fallout 3… oh pip-boy. I hate you with a vengance. So that’s an example of a terrible map system.

    And right now I can’t think of a good one. All I know is that I want detailed and easily interpreted information about the terrain and important areas.

    • Manley Pointer says:

      Agree about being frustrated with the Fallout 3 map, despite its nifty integration into the Pip-Boy. The worst thing about it was that when you got into the city, it was often very bad at representing where you actually had to travel — which is sort of the point of a map, right? You would consult the map, decide to head N because your destination was to your N, and then hit an impassable wall of junk that prevented you from going down the street that would lead to your objective.

      I’m not saying there was any way to integrate an “impassable wall of junk” symbol onto the Pip Boy map — it wouldn’t have made sense. Those walls made no sense either, though, and broke immersion for me; I could hop over objects of their height elsewhere in the game, but in the city that apparently wasn’t allowed. Really that map was only useful for setting destinations so that the Magic Arrow would guide you through the correct subways. Then later it was useful for fast traveling so you didn’t have to deal with those bullshit walls.

  19. Tiki says:

    I have to agree with the ArmA 2 Map on hard mode, so you had to actually orienteer your way through it, navigate past landmarks, and get lost in the forest etc etc. But for games that are all about the action, Diablo 2 nailed the map problem perfectly non intrusive, not too simple, or stupified and it doesnt feel like cheating, although i always used maphack, because the Light Radius used to piss me off. And I disliked Far Cry 2 so much, played it once, haven’t touched it since, horrible run & gun game.

  20. Jakkar says:

    Morrowind paper map! That thing was wonderful.. -everything- was visible on it, beautifully sketched in a slightly scratchy ink style, and pleasantly coloured. So many little black crosses marking hidden secrets all over Vvardenfel (and often under it, or in the waters surrounding).. You could spend forever staring at that map, and then another eternity following it.

  21. Jakkar says:

    Ah, forgive the second post – I wished to provide the ‘why’.

    Why is the Morrowind paper map so damn good? Because it makes the game a multimedia experience – I sit at my desk with a sketchbook and pen noting down names, rumours plans and ideas already – now I sit with a map unfolded beside me, propped against a chair – I refer to it as I walk, looking away from the screen but never feel that I’ve lost my sense of immersion, for I am looking straight at an authentic, beautifully painted/sketched map that feels like something a rich man might own on Vvardenfel. It’s not just reference of location, either – it’s showing me secrets that are not hinted at in the game. So many little symbols and crosses – the basic architecture of a ruin depicted in miniature, mixed with some bizarre spiky runic phrase suggests this is a Daedric Shrine. I compare it to the world I see around me onscreen and decide “Yes, this is the place.. Daedric, hm?” and select a silver shortsword, and place magic arrows into the quiver of my bow – then drink a potion of chameleon specifically because this map has hinted that the location is dangerous and likely to be inhabited by dangerous creatures.

    The map wasn’t an addition to the game – it was part of it. Morrowind’s map enhanced the actual gameplay and significantly broadened the appeal of the experience by bringing the game into the real world with you. It had significant connection to the gameworld, it held great value both tactically and in terms of discovering secret riches and exploring unsuspected hidden locations.

  22. Doctor_Hellsturm says:

    Ah! Huge ups for reminding me of the great Interstate 76!

  23. the wiseass says:

    Guild Wars has one of the best maps every. Well not so much the actual map, but the in-game radar which allowed players to draw stuff on it and share the information with the group. That was just pure awesomeness, simple and effective. You could convey complex information without typing lots of text or be in a voice-chatroom. It’s still a myth to me as to why this features hasn’t been copied by other games.

    Also Zelda: Phantom Hourglass as mentioned already. Being able to take notes on your map quickly became a main feature of the game (especially to quickly find your way around the temple).

    The Freelancer map. Simple, beautiful, effective and yet it got you around a whole universe.

    MY own hand drawn map for Metroid on the NES. Yes back in the old days, the first Metroid did not feature any in-game map at all. So in order to get around without getting lost it quickly became MANDATORY to draw your own map. Unfortunately my scale was a little off when I started doing so and by the end my map was composed of more than 30 single Din A4 pages taped together. It was a beast!

  24. Urthman says:

    One of my favorite game maps was a mod for GTA: San Andreas that used overhead screenshots of the game world taken from this awesome video game map webpage to make both the onscreen mini-map and the full-screen map look like the Sattelite View option from Google Maps.

    Since I was playing GTA:SA about the same time that I first started using Google Maps, it gave the game a really cool extra layer of verisimilitude.

    I also really liked the map from Duke Nukem 3D, because you not only had the cool Doom-style vector-line map, but you also had the option to add floor textures which looked really impressive.

    Finally, I have to echo the praise for the Descent map. Rotating that thing around and zooming in and out made me feel like I was living in The Future.

  25. Zerahl says:

    Agreed, Defcon’s map is so subtle in its sanitised portrayal of the deaths of millions upon millions in such an alarming context.

  26. SomeCallMeDave says:

    Battlefield 2 had the best mapping system IMO, it showed everything you needed to know about and even a live feed on full zoom, perfection!

  27. Seth says:

    Sins of a Solar Empire! The best part of the game was how succinct and fluid the map was (mind you, that was a great part of the game)

    Far Cry 2. The map never made much sense to me, but it’s the only game of its kind I can think of that lets me have a truly comprehensive map while still playing the game, i.e. not jumping to an otherwise non-interactive screen. Best of all, I can put it away when I don’t need it. An excellent example of managing space in the game interface.

    But the best map is in Homeworld, period. I can’t believe no one’s said it yet. That ancient map you found in the ruins is your guiding motive throughout the game. It’s not informative and only shows up during load-screens, but its emotional importance within the context of the game is incredible. I wasn’t just at war with the Taiidan. At the load-screen to each new level, the game reminded me that I was a little closer to the Homeworld, and that made all the difference for me.

  28. Frosty says:

    I fondly remember unwrapping ultima VI (yes, this was a long time ago), to unfold a nice map of Brittania, printed on something not-quite-canvas, but with a nice sturdy feeling (not like those glossy paper sheets some new games have). This map WAS the in-game map. I played the entire game with it on my lap, wondering about all the strange markings/notes on it. Much of it was written in that runic language the Ultima universe uses, and I had lots of fun exploring/translating the runes and generally puzzling it all out. More than anything this felt like a real map, of a real world and it invited exploration. And so that’s my definition of a good in-game map: It makes you wonder about the places you haven’t been yet and invites exploration. Not to get that sense of completion, but because you want to really KNOW what lies over those hills.

    Ofcourse there’s something to be said for a real, physical map, which you can hang on your wall and study, even while playing other games. I dont see how any purely in-game map can ever hope to compete with that.

  29. Bob Bobson says:

    The (complete lack of) maps in Wurm online help it enormously. The wiki has a couple of out of date only roughly accurate maps and the inside of my head has a map growing up around the area I’ve settled in but I can still get impressively lost Even with a compass (and getting one of those rather than navigating my sunrise/moonrise was a heck of a moment of acheivement).

  30. Shadowcat says:

    Here’s hoping this doesn’t wind up as a double-post. After about an hour, I’m going to assume that the original post genuinely did fail.

    This is mostly just reiterating what others have already said, but:

    Anything with paper or cloth maps in the box. (It still happens occasionally, but the days of awesome documentation are well and truly gone.)

    Vietcong (obviously)

    Looking Glass did really awesome in-game maps:

    Ultima Underworld & Thief (both awesome)
    Terra Nova (well integrated into the gameplay)
    Honourable mentions to System Shock 1 & 2.

    Irrational carried that trend of believable and non-comprehensive maps into SWAT 4. They’re just static images — as far from a dynamic in-game map as you could get — but they’re appropriate, and immersive.

    Test Drive Unlimited (only just got this a couple of weeks ago, and the first time I hit the map key, my jaw dropped)

    Mafia (probably the best overlay map out there)

    Little Big Adventure 2 (if largely just because I love that game so much :)

    Interstate 76 (thanks roryok)

    Populous: the Beginning (thanks duel)

    And of course, Descent. Which has had some mixed reviews in this thread (some people even claiming its map was useless), so I wanted to say something about it.

    Sure, Descent’s map wasn’t the easiest to use, but that was mostly just a consequence of the complexity of the game environment. The reality is that Parallax clearly worked hard to make that map feature as good as they could, and their efforts paid off.

    Descent’s map was great for several reasons.

    Firstly, you used the same controls to move the map as you did to fly your ship, so panning, rotating, and zooming the map was immediately intuitive.

    Secondly, it was an automap which built itself up as you explored (and some of those levels turned into really amazing structures), and it shaded the lines of the map intelligently to make the layout as legible as it could without hiding any detail.

    Thirdly, if things became too confusing you could easily remove the more distant details to improve local visibility.

    It really gave you everything you needed, and it did its job well. And as much as I loved the Guidebot in Descent 2, manually planning and memorising your escape route in the original game before hitting the reactor was always a fun exercise :)

    Descent 3′s brand new engine meant a brand new map feature, and it probably warrants a mention here as well. D3′s map ditched the wireframes for solid shading with cut-away walls. It’s fairly impressive, and possibly again a necessary consequence of the increased complexity of the environments, but it was certainly harder to navigate in many ways, even if individual portions of the map were more immediately recognisable.

    My major complaint about D3′s map was actually that (like Thief in the pre-DDFix era), it forced a resolution switch. Unlike Thief, there was no particularly good reason for that — the D3 map was still rendered by the 3D hardware… it really should have been resolution independent, and they could have ditched that bitmapped framing to enable this. Resolution switches being slow and noisy on my CRT, this kinda sucked. Ah well.

  31. Spork says:

    Not sure if it’s been mentioned, but Silent Hunter 3 on realistic with modded in nomographs. With all the pencilled courses you really feel you’re hunting something.
    FC2 for the sense of immersion, as has been said it’s a pity they swapped the compass for GPS.
    Arma2 for being able to take bearings and do things properly, though would be nice if it didn’t break the immersion a la FC2. Pencil marks would also be nice, but not realistic.
    SWAT4 for the sketch maps.
    EDIT: just realised thread got bumped from wayback by spambots. Oops.