Fantastic Cartography: Memories And Maps

By Adam Smith on October 13th, 2011 at 2:23 pm.

I well up a bit looking at this. So many memories.

Some of my earliest memories of gaming are not of the games themselves but of the things that came bundled in the box with them. Whether it was a hefty manual, full of lore and encyclopaedic listings, or a little extra something. Most of my games don’t even come in boxes anymore, although sites such as Steam Covers can help to keep the physical alive. Recently, I’ve been thinking about the shelves in the house where I grew up, full of big cardboard slabs with none of this DVD case finery. I’ve been remembering the excitement of opening the box on the bus, surreptitiously because my parents always thought I’d lose the manual or disks before we reached home. And I’ve been thinking about what else I sometimes found inside.

When it came to exciting extras, Infocom were the kings. The Lurking Horror was a good one. The player is a student at G.U.E. Tech, which has a great deal in common with Lovecraft’s Miskatonic. Inside the box, my excited boyish eyes discovered a student ID card, a guide to the campus and, horror of horrors, a rubber centipede! It’s easy to mock but it was genuinely exciting, not only because owning things was still quite novel for me back then, but because it was an attempt, no matter how crude, to make imaginary worlds easier to believe in.

There’s one physical object that came to define the area around my computer desk though. Not tiny figurines, as with many of my friends. They’ve never interested me particularly because they have an opposite effect to the Lurking Horror’s student ID card. Figurines highlight the imaginary nature of the world. If I am holding a statuette of the player character, no matter how finely crafted, it serves to emphasise that the people of that world are collectible objects in the real world. It places me, as the player and collector, in a different relationship with the game world and it’s an entirely different sort of buzz to owning things that appear to be from that game world.

So, no figurines for me. The items that dominated my childhood gamespace were maps.

Taffers do not appear on maps

If I looked up from my monitor, I could see, pinned to the walls, many of the lands I’d explored, as well as the new ones that were still nothing more than ink on paper, great unknowns populated by who knows what or who. Like a good manual, a good map primed me for the game. I’d wander digital realms and discover locations only to realise, I’ve read about this. I’ve seen it. Being able to connect the map on the wall to the city on the screen added a layer of integrity that I felt but didn’t understand at the time. Even when I wasn’t playing the game, I could see the map, over my mum’s shoulder as she busied about while I prepared to leave for school in the morning, one last look back to confirm what I knew. Other worlds were always waiting.

I’ve still never seen a finer collectible than the cloth map from the complete Ultima VII collection. I studied it so much and played that game so long I could probably draw it from memory, and every location, every building and every fork in every road, has a hundred tales associated with it. All my own.

Then there were other kinds of maps. The ones that I drew by hand on countless sheets of notepaper and in school exercise books. I used to play Dungeon Master and Eye of the Beholder with my sister and we’d take turns controlling the action. While one person took control though, the other wasn’t just watching, they were playing as well, pencil in hand, drawing corridors and rooms…annotating. Not only was it a social experience, it added another level to the game. We were essentially roleplaying those characters, one the leader, another the scribe. There were no cutscenes to show it, but we knew they huddled around a campfire whenever they rested and took out the parchment to fill in the blanks. In Dungeon Master particularly, seeing those labyrinth later levels scrawled out on a WHSmith notepad often filled us with a sense of horror. We were so far from safety and anything resembling home.

look a little closer and you can make out rust-covered internal organs

Those are all physical maps though. What about in-game maps? They can be rather special too. There are user-generated ones, as in the please-God-why-won’t-they-port-it-to-PC Etrian Odyssey series. And there are those that the user can modify through the addition of notes. Ultima Underworld springs immediately to mind. I do talk about Ultima a lot when I’m waxing nostalgic. But my favourite map ever in-game map is the one in Silent Hill 2.

If you haven’t played it, it goes a little something like this. Nothing works like it should in Silent Hill (the town, not the game), so streets end in chasms and a hole might casually appear in the floor of an apartment. The lead character, James Sunderland, doesn’t work quite like he should either. He’s slightly confused but not as confused as you or I would be. It’s as if he almost expected all the rotten wrongness he’s experiencing. That’s reflected in the way he annotates his maps.

James doesn’t automatically have a map of each area, he has to find it. In an apartment building it might be stuck to the wall in the lobby, as may be the case in the real world. The problem is, that map shows the place as it should be, not as it is now that reality has shifted. It doesn’t reflect the space as you experience it. So, when a door suddenly ceases to be a door, James scribbles it out on the map. When a room takes on physically impossible proportions, James just scribbles out the walls. He does it quietly, without reaction to the madness of it all, so there’s no prompt to inform the player. But the next time you look at the map, you can see that he’s been updating it while you weren’t looking, taking the irrational and imposing what order he can on it. It’s brilliant because it takes a tool that’s primarily there to assist the player and makes it part of the psychological narrative.

admittedly, this particular map was never attached to my wall

I think there’s a reason my love of game maps is mostly fuelled by nostalgia and that’s because I couldn’t just jump on the internet to find information back in the day. I had my experiences in the game, the trinkets in the box, and that was it. Everything I could ever know was in there somewhere and I’d have to explore to find it. I’m not complaining about the vast swathes of information on the internet, especially not while I’m contributing to it, but there’s something about that sense of discovery, when I was the first to step into a world. Now, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that the legions of Gamefaqs have already been there and that I’m walking paths well-trodden.

A couple of weeks ago I saw this, which provides yet another way of exploring the fictional. Many of us are already familiar with Street View as a tool for finding directions or indulging the morbid fascination of staring at childhood homes and dwelling too much on the past. Because of that, I find there’s something uncanny about skimming through an unreal place using it, enhanced by the fact that, in a sense, I have walked and driven through the streets of Liberty City. There are other examples of created worlds being transposed onto Google Maps and I’m particularly interested in how this changes the way we view procedurally generated spaces. Displaying virtual spaces in new ways recaptures a little of those maps on my wall many years ago. There are still cloth maps to be had but I’m happy to see new ways of investigating the worlds I escape to.

history in the making

We asked you about maps once before and it’s a subject lots of you had obviously thought about. I’m sure I’m not the only one who finds the world generation in Dwarf Fortress a source of wonder almost as great as the complex machinery of the simulation itself, or who enjoys strategy games partly because it’s joyous just to watch the map change colour as borders shift and factions crumble. Any game that shows a replay of events on a map afterwards becomes seven times more pleasing when I get to the end. They tell us stories, these imagined topographies, and they become repositories for the stories we create. And there’s something pleasing about the fact that what is designed to ensure we don’t get lost is often the thing that helps us lose ourselves completely.

Here’s to maps. Not just for their utility but for their position at the foundation of so many worlds.

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77 Comments »

  1. Duffin says:

    I thought the Witcher 2 map was a step back in the right direction. Heres hoping the Skyrim map might be suitably sexy.

  2. SirDimos says:

    I still have my BG2 cloth map lying around here somewhere…

  3. Fwiffo says:

    I adored the A3 starmap for with Star Control 2.

    Strangely it was included in a copy of Star Control 3.

  4. Dariune says:

    Not a map but on the topic with stuff you got in the box, i loved Elite 2: Frontier. It came with a book of short stories based in the frontier universe.

    Also liked the Morrowind map, it was only on paper but it looked pretty stunning.

    • Unaco says:

      The Morrowind map was actually useful… you could see pretty much every ruin, and feature, and cave, and dungeon entrance on the map, and then find them in the game.

    • Ovno says:

      I loved the map that came with Frontier too…

      Bah replay fail

    • John P says:

      The Morrowind map was good because it was actually useful for playing. You weren’t shown where to go by a big yellow arrow like most games throw in your face nowadays, so you could consult a physical map like an actual human being, and there were little X marks showing shipwrecks and things you could go and explore if you felt like it.

    • MadMatty says:

      yeah thumbs up on the Frontier map and also the Ultima 7 one was awesome- the Frontier Map was only about 1,2×1,2 metres- i calculated at the time, to bring the entire ingame map into print, you´d need a sheet of 44×44 Metres! thx to pretty stunning procedural generation

    • Gnoupi says:

      The Morrowind map was on my wall, along with all the post-it’s necessary to keep track of the quests, with arrows pointing to the directions.

      Yes, I was playing before all the improvements to the journal.

    • IDtenT says:

      You think your Morrowind map helped you? Well, considering that I didn’t even have the ability to look at the in-game map*, the physical map came in real handy. I did however also get myself a few interactive digital maps to find places I needed to go to.

      * I had a DirectX 7 card or something and the DirectX 8 stuff were just a bunch of artefacts. My character portrait also didn’t show besides my map being one black box.

  5. djbriandamage says:

    I loved in-box bundleables as well. Good riddance to code wheels and manual lookup DRM, but I’ll miss Police Quest’s law enforcement handbook and Infocom’s Wishbringer’s glow-in-the-dark rock. Although I remember these trinkets fondly I really don’t need them and they take up space today. My younger self is disappointed in me for saying so, but given the choice I will always choose digital distribution as the most hassle-free, ecologically responsible medium.

  6. Untruth says:

    I used to love the maps you got with copies of the original GTA – they were actually genuinely useful!

  7. Adekan says:

    Oh my god, I immediately recognized the layout of the second map. It’s been so many years since I played that. I used to see just how many places I could stash the body of the guard after i’d snuck up behind him and whacked him with the Blackjack. My favorite was definitely down the well.

    On the subject of maps, I still have the original cloth map that came with Everquest. It hangs proudly on my wall, only slightly marred by coffee stain.

    I’ve also got probably 15 pounds of printed and handmade maps from The Realm and Gemstone still stowed away in my desk for that day I get sufficient nostalgia to actually play those games again.

  8. Sepulchrave76 says:

    Another insightful, nostalgia-inducing article. I really treasured the map that came with Morrowind. It was brilliant just to be able to look a part of it, at the colours and the terrain, be it wetland or caves, and just strike off for it in the game and watch it all come alive

  9. Theoban says:

    The map that made the biggest impact on me (other than my cloth Ultima map and my Morrowind map that was on my wall for YEARS) was the Rings of Power in-game map on the Megadrive.

    It was the first time I’d seen a big world, and after the starting area it was an open world. This isn’t the map but it’s the world itself:
    http://caverider.com/temp/rings_of_power_genesis_world_map.png

    It was stunning, and I could go everywhere, ride boats across the water, cross the desert, get a dragon to fly up to the top of a mountain, I loved it. It really made me want to just explore, and is probably why I love RPGs/open world games to this day.

    Stuff your other games Naughty Dog, make me a new Rings of Power!

  10. ninjapirate says:

    I have that Ultima VII cloth map!

    • Horza says:

      I have it too!

      Had to buy U7 from ebay for it but it was well worth the money.

      Also, back in the day all games were collector’s editions :(

    • pauleyc says:

      Same here, still got it after 19 years. Also the cloth map from U7-2, Serpent Isle. Those two, the maps from Morrowind and Oblivion (the latter hanging on my wall since 2006) and Bioshock’s Big Daddy figurine are my most treasured gaming gadgets.

    • Laephis says:

      My Dad bought Ultima 7 for me shortly after it was released. I was 14 and I can still remember the excitement of standing in line at Egghead Software, holding that beautiful, black box in my hand. It still sits on my shelf, cloth map and all the notes I took while playing.

    • adonf says:

      My 18-month daughter sleeps with my U7 cloth map. And we watch videos of conferences by John Carmack when her mum’s out. There, I said it!

  11. Bhazor says:

    Sounds like a chance to plug one of my favourite nerd sites.

    Remember how magazines in the 90s used to have screenshot maps of levels? Well heres a couple websites featuring thousands of them.

    http://www.snesmaps.com
    http://www.vgmaps.com/

  12. danbojones says:

    Lovely stuff. As much fun as it was, as Adam says, sneaking peeks at the cartography of freshly discovered realms on car journeys home, it was always the shaded corners, the undiscovered secrets of maps which intrigued me most.

  13. MrThingy says:

    I always loved the maps in Midwinter, Midwinter II, Ashes of Empire.

    Being fractal, you could just keep on zooming in and your imagination filled the gaps.

  14. phlebas says:

    I still have Vvardenfell, Cyrodiil and The Zone on the wall over my computer. The most recent addition is a postcard-sized map of Flauston, from 91. I’m running low on space, so Skyrim may well replace Cyrodiil.

  15. OrangyTang says:

    As the author of Tectonicus ( http://triangularpixels.net/games/tectonicus/ ) this is Relevant To My Interests. Putting our minecraft server world into google maps add *so* much to the game, without removing the joy of exploration.

    Always loved the vauge hand-drawn maps in Thief, added to the atmosphere and gave you some general clues without giving everything away.

  16. Brumisator says:

    I had the map from Oblivion set up on the wall next to my computer when I was playing it.

    Awkwarness ensued when a lady friend dropped by and asked what country that was…..
    “ermm…it’s…erm…imaginary”

  17. aego says:

    Speaking of which, anyone knows a good site with a collection of game maps? And I’m not referring to the generated in-game maps or pictures of entire levels or screen collections (like the ones on vgmaps.com), I mean the nice hand-drawn or painted maps, like the ones from World of Warcraft, or Morrowind, or Witcher 2 ?

  18. Drake Sigar says:

    We gamers were professional cartographers while our ages were still in single digits.

  19. JackShandy says:

    Massive coincidence! I’ve been making a map at precisely this moment.

    Maps are absolutely amazing. You must play board games, right? That’s where the true components show their glory. Stuff you can chew on.

  20. onomatomania says:

    Not all figurines destroy immersion. I’m reinded of the stunningly lifelike and utterly tangible Official Microscopic Space Fleet that shipped with my copy of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

  21. Bodylotion says:

    Maps are cool but these days u first have to buy the special edition for it.

  22. chabuhi says:

    What’s that star map screenshot from? It looks familiar … Freelancer? Master of Orion? Not Starflight, is it?

  23. owenj says:

    My favorite recent video game related map is definitely the one from Dishonored.

    The game takes place entirely in one city but the designers created a whole world to give the player context. That of course requires creating a physical world as well. I love this kind of holistic-design, where everything is thought of. Makes game worlds feel much more lived in, even if its fully superfluous details like the other continents on this map you will never visit.

    I feel like Morrowind was exceptional at this kind of detail as well.

  24. Chaz says:

    The map I remember most is the one from Boiling Point: Road to Hell, which was all folded and presented like a typical pamphlet you might find in a tourist information office. It was one I also used near enough just like you would in the real world too; pulling up at the side of the road in the game and then unfolding the map on my lap to check which road I needed to take next.

  25. Dervish says:

    I enjoy seeing the comparative sizes of maps for game worlds. One of the better ones (I don’t see any obvious scaling errors like on some other attempts):

    http://i114.photobucket.com/albums/n241/PretzelsJay/Justcause.jpg

  26. roryok says:

    I’m forever talking about Interstate 76, but what a game for maps! Each one was a hand drawn set of directions on the back of a coffee stained napkin or a piece of paper.

    But I’d have to say, my favourites in terms of nostalgia and sheer beauty were the gorgeous Island maps from first two Monkey Island games, which were also an actual game screen. Do they count?

    Other highlights for me were Daggerfall and Morrowind

  27. CMaster says:

    The mission maps in SWAT 4 are pretty cool. They range from official building plans acquired from city hall, through to estate agent office layouts with notes added by employees, to at one point a map drawn on a blood-stained napkin by a barman who didn’t know what was off to the left hand side of the bar he manned. Even though it has line of sight, and is the direction to the main entrance…

  28. roryok says:

    speaking of maps when is someone going to combine all of HalfLife 1 into one single map, playable without intermittent loading? It’s about time people started doing that kind of stuff with old games.

  29. JackDandy says:

    Maps are a very substantial part of some games. In games that have automaps, I feel compelled to “complete” them to the final bit.

    I’ve just finished playing Ultima 4, and traveling Britannia with the game map I printed out was a pretty awesome experience. And it wasn’t just “fluff” either- If I didn’t use the map, I would get lost quite easily. Writing down all sorts of notes on it and translating the Britannian signs on it was quite immersive, helpful, and fun as well. Back in the days, people got those maps printed out on some kind of faux-leather or something, right? It must have been real fun to get all these little freebies with your games.

    I also tried playing games like Dungeon Master, and that kind of Cartography challenge didn’t fare so well with me, I’m sad to say. The dungeons are a bit too twisty for me, I soon enough found that I’m just taking too much time, drawing up maps that go over the page borders. That kind of stuff just rubs me the wrong way, so I couldn’t progress… Maybe I’ll try again sometime. The biggest problem was on “where should I start drawing the map”.

    • Wizardry says:

      Ultima IV was especially neat because the actual game introduction references the manual, the spell book, the cloth map and the ankh trinket. It’s like the protagonist in the introduction is actually you with your goodies straight out of the box.

      With regards to self-made dungeon maps, as I’ve played almost every single CRPG ever made, I’ve got a huge repository of maps for CRPG dungeons. I recently converted them all to spreadsheet documents with square cells. The great thing about it is that I feel like I can go back to older games and explore them again at a much greater speed as I don’t need to do the mapping again.

    • JackDandy says:

      Got any tips on Dungeon Master-style mapmaking?

    • Wizardry says:

      Yes. Use a spreadsheet application. Set the height and width of the cells to the same size to make it all square. Then fill the squares in as you move through the dungeon. Have a key on the left side of the map to add information. You can use the different pages of the spreadsheet as different levels of the dungeon.

    • JackDandy says:

      Will give it a try- thanks.

    • unlimitedgiants says:

      JackDandy says: “Got any tips on Dungeon Master-style mapmaking?”

      Graph paper. Accept no substitutes!

    • epoxy putty says:

      unlimitedgiants says: Graph paper.

      And a box full of erasers.

    • BeamSplashX says:

      There are a good deal of old CRPGs that have contrivances which exist only to make physical mapping harder. If I stepped on a trap that had spun me around, I think I’d still have a decent idea of which way I was originally going.

      Also, a trap that just spins people? They should at least let you hit a piñata afterwards to disable them.

  30. Davie says:

    I love maps. Love them love them. Before I got into games, I drew maps of imaginary places all the time–twelve years later, some of them are still hanging on my wall. I painstakingly copied the map of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, so I’d have something big enough to hang on my wall (and in the process, learned that the man knew fuck-all about topography and geology).

    I save an image of every Dwaf Fortress world map I generate. I find these comparisons inexplicably fascinating. I must have spent a couple of hours in Just Cause 2 appreciating the subtly 3D map. My biggest regret of this month is that I’m too poor to preorder Skyrim and won’t get the awesome cloth map.

    So yeah, maps are awesome.

  31. Reapy says:

    Anyone remember the eq atlas maps? I loved me some of the old ultima maps and things, but I think the maps I really got into were those. I think the grand feel of EQ when it first came out coupled with the sort of romantic notion of this guy traversing dangerous areas to come back with lovely hand drawn, yet highly accurate and useful maps were awesome. I even went out and bought a binder where I printed everything out and had the whole world at my disposal. They were great maps.

    Thinking back this reminds me of the huge amount of paper I used to go through with my dad playing the older games. I recall he had several huge manila folders full of notes and maps for several of the ultima games. Even for some adventure games we had box maps of each screen trying to plot out how to get from room A to b.

    It’s interesting how now a days the thought of even doing something like that seems downright horrible. Maybe because the world has moved along to in game maps and quest journals (which is a good thing) but the memories really do take me back.

    The last map I had on my wall was for rome total war, since I found it very handy to plot out where I was going next. Even though it was a somewhat flimsy paper map compared to the grand cloth maps of olde, it was still appreciated.

  32. sonofsanta says:

    [enjoy] strategy games partly because it’s joyous just to watch the map change colour as borders shift

    This is the sort of thing that sucks me in so much. Viking: Battle for Asgard was an alright third person action game, but the chief task in the game was slowly reclaiming a series of three islands back for the side of Good Vikings. Seeing it all slowly turn My Colour was all too addictive.

  33. BathroomCitizen says:

    Nice write-up, Adam!

  34. Fiyenyaa says:

    Best map games ever: Paradox grand strategy games. They are maps that you can change the colours of. Ace!

  35. Wooly Wugga Wugga says:

    It may seem underwhelming but the map that I spent most of my time with was the patrol map of Sierra’s Aces of the Deep. I spent many an hour plotting submarine patrols on it. The idea that 50-60 years prior to that real U-Boat commanders had done the exact same thing on a copy of the exact same map just made the game so much more real to me.

  36. MrEvilGuy says:

    World of Xeen had an awesome map.

  37. pertusaria says:

    I’m having great fun at the moment with UnEpic, which has an in-game automap. It’s really useful when you hit a “what do I do now?” moment – you can look at the map and see which rooms have exits you haven’t taken, then work out the best way to get there. You can also make notes in each room of the map.

    Most of the games I played as a kid were shareware aside from a couple of Sierra kid games (Mixed Up series), so no physical maps. Myst required drawing a map for one puzzle, which was part of what made it difficult to finish.

  38. jankenbattle says:

    I remember drawing my own map as a kid with annotations for Ultima IV! It seemed so vast and mysterious at the time.

    Then a couple of years ago, in a friend’s basement, I found a complete boxed copy of Ultima IV, with the cloth map and the spellbooks. It made my day! Every now and then I get it out and look over all those mountains and oceans I spent weeks memorising.

  39. TinyPirate says:

    I’ve started a website dedicated to the maps players draw – http://www.8bitcartographer.com – anyone can come along and submit a map they’ve made. Only a few submissions so far, but I hope to see many more!

  40. sneetch says:

    I remember spending so long making maps for the games I played on the Spectrum and C64, hours with graph paper making a map for the latest Ultimate Play the Game title. It was fun and you had a sense of achievement afterwards, now we just Google it. The kids today! Well, I also just google it now. The me today!

  41. oatish says:

    Thanks for the nice article – I have been reading your postings as soon as they have been popping up in my RSS feed and gotta say great stuff.

  42. epoxy putty says:

    Buying a game back then was some sort of “material” pleasure. Heavy boxes, smelly cardboard, nice inserts. Ok, nowadays we have collector’s editions, but years ago the additional swag was usually included in the standard edition…
    For those who missed Ultima VII (Serpent Isle) back when it came out, here’s a video showing what was inside. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=beyWcu_J_mw

  43. BeamSplashX says:

    I thought the in-game maps in Gothic II looked nice and ye olden, but they were better as references for places you’ve already been versus helping you find where to go.

    Though the in-game map for the PS2 game Blood Will Tell was pretty basic, there were more than a few hidden boss battles that required you to compare the map’s area to the space you were in to find them.

  44. RetaSchm4451 says:

    seo service
    I realize biome rendering is already in your possible upcoming features list, but mark this down as one more vote to add this feature sooner rather than later. Would love to be able to render a biome map that looked something similar to the style used when using biome mode in ‘rei’s minimap.’ (although with better colors, some of his are too similar at times.)

    While I’m at it, let me add to the praise for this program and for Gameslinder for providing it. I can’t properly express how much I enjoy seeing worlds laid out before me in full

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