Fantastic Cartography: Why Videogame Maps Matter

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

Every Sunday, we reach deep into Rock, Paper, Shotgun’s 141-year history to pull out one of the best moments from the archive. This week, Adam’s celebration of videogame cartography, from cloth maps to digital records of procedural worlds. This article was first published in 2011.

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. My games don’t even come in boxes anymore. 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.

33 Comments

  1. SpacemanSpliff says:

    Wow, that U7 map takes me back. Games back then might of lacked some of the digital magic that we have today but they found genuine physical ways to connect the game to the player.
    I can still remember bringing my cloth Ultima maps and quest notes to junior high and trying to explain PC gaming to the Sega Genesis crowd.
    It’s a shame that as the technology has advanced these awesome artifacts only exist now as prizes in overpriced collectors editions.
    (Space sim keyboard overlays were also cool.)

    • thekelvingreen says:

      It is funny how what are marketed as collector’s editions of games nowadays are what every single copy of a game looked like back in the day, even though the industry is bigger and more successful now than it was then. Something’s not right there.

      • drinniol says:

        Yeah, it’s that while the games themselves moved backwards in terms of inflation, physical products have not.

  2. Incredibly_Shallow says:

    I couldn’t agree more. Maps were an important part of the ritual of coming to know a game and a world. The obtuse nature of learning how a given world worked back then compared to the Google assisted present was a real challenge and the maps were a tiny piece of the structure you were trying to uncover.

    How I miss my Tandy with 256MB of RAM.

    • ZPG Lazarus says:

      This.

      Anyone remember Betrayal at Krondor? The map was something of simple beauty; I remember tracking my little red dot as it crawled across the map, hoping and wondering what lay in town X.

      link to notendur.hi.is

    • Emeraude says:

      One thing that changed I guess is that the whole heuristic process of learning how to play (and navigate) the game was part of the game for us.

      For better and worse, modern design is more about making all that process as transparent,and, I would argue, insignificant as possible. It is perceived purely as a negative nowadays, not as some added value inherently part of the process of playing.

      If one of the natural aspects of play is learning, modern manufactured games can be defined in part by their deliberate intent to extinguishing that aspect of play.

      • Yglorba says:

        I’m kind of divided on this, because the vast majority of ancient games were, I think just frustrating in that respect — it usually really was a negative.

        But I did really love the few games that did it well — games like Deuteros and Sundog: Frozen Legacy really made good use of it. I think that there’s some of this in indie games (which is really where it belongs), but not enough.

        Another part of it, of course, is that the Internet changed things; nowadays, if your game is frustrating at first, people will look up how to play on the Internet (partially because it’s hard to distinguish games that are opaque because that’s part of their design, and games that are opaque because they’re badly-made.)

        Still, there are games like Starseed Pilgrim out there.

        • Emeraude says:

          I’m divided too.

          Since we’re talking Cartography, if you’re interested in the historiographical aspect of it, there’s something odd to observe: a lot of early maps of a territory are made from hearsay. They contain a lot of false information. When those first maps get revised by proper exploration, most of that false information is getting removed, but so is a lot of true information that cannot yet be confirmed, and which will be added back later as the exploration gets more precise.

          It’s something I’ve been convince of for a long time, that we did many things right in the early years with games because of constraints, that we are going to have to discover again.

          And this is going to be one of those things we have to re-learn, complicated by the issue that one player’s frustration is another’s necessary friction. Once we have proper idea of that moving territory, we can try and see where and how to put it again.

  3. Berserkben says:

    Things like nice cloth maps and other feelies are why I’ve supported Kickstarter RPG’s at higher tiers, I care just as much about the inserts as I do about the actual game. Maybe even more than the game.

    • LintMan says:

      I got the physical copy of Wasteland 2 from its kickstarter just for the cloth map. The game itself is very good so far, but I’m pretty disappointed by the map itself. It looks like someone spilled several cups of coffee on a napkin, let it dry, and then marked in some locations with a black pen.

      • PoulWrist says:

        Maybe that’s what it’s kind of supposed to be? :p a soiled napkin from a wasted future that someone used to communicate an area with?

        I got it myself and was slightly underwhelmed by the quality of the material, not the quality of the illustration.

  4. thekelvingreen says:

    I have played Silent HIll 2 umpteen times and I will go on about it being the best horror game at considerable and boring length whenever I’m given the chance but I don’t think I’ve ever noticed the map. Oops.

    • Faxanadu says:

      The article paints the map-system a tad too amazing, but it was neat – like when all the roads were cut off, you were like searching for a house, that bridges the gap, and through which you can travel. That was a really neat way to get across.

  5. captain nemo says:

    In ‘Miasmata’, completing the map by triangulation was essential to the game play.
    Truly a map to remember :
    link to youtube.com

    • Jalan says:

      Was reading the comments specifically to see if someone brought up Miasmata. Likely to remain the closest thing to a map aficionado’s dream of “Cartography Sim” as they’ll get for a while, bar some developer doing a jam game or taking a joke and running with it like Goat Simulator.

  6. welverin says:

    Every game that doesn’t allow you to put note all over it the way the Underworld games did is a disappointment.

  7. Faxanadu says:

    Ironfell game universe and map is nowdays based on Google earth map, here:

    link to ironfell.com

    Go play it. :P Has too little players, no surprise though, the game is still tough as heck for beginners.

  8. SomeDuder says:

    But that Morrowind map, eh? Oh boy.

    Other things of beauty:

    – Homeworld manuals (Well, the first and the expansion anyway)
    – Dungeon Keeper manuals
    – Age of Empire manual (They should just put this on the reading list for your high school’s history class)
    – Operation Flashpoint special edition (Maps, T-shirt, canteen, etc)
    – Half-Life 1 + expansions box art (Matching set! nnnnng)

    • Awesomeclaw says:

      I bought a boxed version of Morrowind just so that I could get the map to pin up next to my Oblivion and Skyrim maps.

    • Kaeoschassis says:

      Morrowind’s one of my less well-loved TES games and even I can agree that map is just gorgeous.
      The amount of depth and detail in the manuals for the first Homeworld probably takes some of the responsibility for my sci-fi obsessions.

  9. shagen454 says:

    I definitely had that map on my wall as a child. And also, the map for The Magic Candle… that was also a great game that is very under-rated.

  10. big boy barry says:

    I think the Morrowind map was my favourite as that was around the time I got back into PCs and could afford one since the Amiga had died. When I began to see the sheer scale of the game the map was never more than a foot away from me.

  11. Josh W says:

    I could of sworn I commented on this last time, but maybe not. I remember bringing a game manual with me into school once, not for the content exactly, but for a kind of focus for daydreaming about the game, getting into the mood for it. I think the manual was something really minor like the box insert from unreal or something, or maybe it was more like one of the classic wing commander in game magazine things. Anyway, I didn’t really read much of it, I just snuck it out in boring sections of lessons and started imagining being in that world.

  12. hewhosayszonk says:

    I still have the map of the Western Front which came with Red Baron (1990) as well as the beautiful manual, which combined installation instructions, principles of flight, dossiers on famous aces and dogfighting tips.

  13. dropstring says:

    “The Lurking Horror” – now that brings back memories… I was a little late to the Infocom party, so I picked up the re-release when it came out: two boxes of collected text adventure works by the best of the best. And even if they didn’t package each game separately, one opened the box and found two hefty tomes with facsimile copies of the original “game manuals” (each game had kind of two pages technical tutorial and an almost unlimited amount of world information like newspapers, medical charts, police dossiers, family trees of zorktastic dynasties and whatnot). And each game came with a large map, twenty-two maps at all, lovingly styled to match its respective game topic… a cartophiliac’s dream.
    I remember playing Suspended, where you have six robots but each one only has one “sense” – one can see, the other can only hear, the third one has an arm tool etc. The map for this came with six small paper cutout chips that you could use to mark the positions of the robots. You dearly needed this goodie because Suspended was a ultrahard text adventure that put you up against a move counter – if you acted too slow, Earth died in a clima meltdown. Either you exactly knew where the right robot was or it was game over. Hours of fun and curses guaranteed. Aaaah, good times!

  14. b0rsuk says:

    One of most squandered opportunities and best-looking game maps was those from Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory beta. The very early releases of W:ET had a minimap which looked like it was drawn with a blue pen on squared paper. It had a great, homemade look. It looked like an operation plan drawn quickly based on military intelligence or covert operatives. It fit really well with the dusty, bleak, analog WW2 aesthetic.

    And they’ve thrown it away.

  15. kael13 says:

    Where’s that starmap from? It’s definitely giving me fond memories of the Escape Velocity games.

    Ever since reading my mother’s old copy of Lord of the Rings, I’ve enjoyed having maps to aid my understanding of a narrative. It’s the sense of following along with the adventure they give.

    Probably the maps I’ve stared the most at are from WoW. Always awesome, even if they were a little misleading sometimes.

    • Amstrad says:

      I had to Google around a bit to figure this out. At first I thought it might be Ascendancy (my personal first experience of the 4x space genre) but it wasn’t quite right. Eventually I figured out it’s from Master of Orion III.

  16. Enkinan says:

    I still have my Ultima V map.

    I also remember really enjoying reading the story of Lord British going to the underworld.

    I really wanted the WL2 map, glad I didn’t waste the money if it is that poor quality.

  17. Bury The Hammer says:

    Granted, I’m probably younger than a lot of people commenting here, but I remember first having to make a map – at an early age – on Secret of Evermore on the SNES. A good 2/3 of the way through the game, there’s a massive forest level with an impossible maze.

    Apparently if you were keen enough there was a trick to noticing which way to go – something like the wind always blowing subtly in the right direction. I never got it, so I made a map. A really big one, took ages, but little 10 year old me was proud I’d thought to even do it. One advantage to making the map over doing it the ‘right’ way though, was that you’d get all the secret treasure hidden down some of the dead ends. Some spells you could only get in that forest, I think.

    I spent a long time on Morrowind with the map that came in the box pinned behind the computer screen, too. The ingame world map was next to useless and there was no fast travel – optimising quest routes was essential to get anywhere in a reasonable length of time.

    • Kaeoschassis says:

      While I love Morrowind’s physical map to pieces, I actually take issue with you saying the ingame map was useless. Well, not with you saying that – it WAS useless – but with you suggesting that was a problem. Getting lost in any TES game is part of the joy, and Morrowind’s ingame map started out as just a sort of vaguely island-shaped brown blob that gave you a general idea of where there was land to explore, but left you to explore it as you saw fit. When someone told you the location of a town or dungeon, it showed up on the map, but if you hadn’t been there or found a path there yet, then all that really gave you was a vague direction to go in. The bliss of discovery was still yours. I’d like to see that approach taken in other games, possibly even in other genres. Imagine a 4x game where your fledgeling kingdom knows ROUGHLY where the continents are, but nothing more than that.

      Actually, didn’t Alpha Centauri do that..?

  18. Ramzavail says:

    Just found this website and just spent over an hour on it.
    link to vgmaps.com

  19. AgoraphobicHobo says:

    Etrian Oddyessy is probably the best incorporation of maps into gameplay that I’ve seen, and one of the few instances where the Nintendo DS’s touchscreen shines. Actually having to draw your map makes the whole process of exploration FEEL like exploration. I’d say it’s worth picking up a 3DS just for that series.