Cartography in Gaming

To this day, I continue to get excited whenever I see a game map. I feel the urge to explore and my imagination goes into overdrive, creating stories for the areas depicted and quickly convincing myself that the world is more expansive and fantastic than it usually ends up being. This ‘runaway imagination train’ effect is something I always look to experience when I pickup a new game and hope to be able to replicate in future projects.

In games, maps tend to provide context. They show us where we sit in the scheme of things and sometimes allow us to gauge our progress en route to a terminal destination, be it a snowy mountain or the lair of a fire breathing dragon. It’s also the role of a map to further enhance the narrative elements, often through some sort of visual abstraction. To sustain the emotional bandwidth which keeps a player immersed is no simple feat, and the map is another tool the developer has at his his/her disposal.


A stylized map from Final Fantasy: The Four Heroes of Light

Cartography is a complex idea and goes beyond being a substitute word for ‘maps’. There are many different ways of portraying an environment ranging from photo-realism to more thematic approaches.

While a map is designed to convey information, it’s normally of one type. Whether it’s a depiction of political boundaries or the location of valuable resources, it’s rarely a good use of space to provide as much visual ‘noise’ as possible. The idea of complexity being synonymous with depth isn’t always right and often leads to confusion.


An example of ancient man getting things wrong again #easytarget

Maps in games are often romantic and, in the spirit of nostalgia, I created an homage to one of my favourite MMO games of all time ‘Ultima Online’, hereafter referred to as ‘UO’. Much of the content in UO was player generated and the real tragedy was that it was incredibly hard to find from inside the game. People would often spend hours on forums attempting to locate points of interest and the player experience usually suffered from this disconnect. The video below is based on some of the locations found on an unofficial player-run server from some years ago. I attempted to mimic the functionality of Google Maps with a view to further expanding on some of the features though, as time passed, this distraction lost its appeal (shortly after realising what I had gotten myself into)!

Accompanied by the OST

Games like UO and Everquest initially shipped with cloth maps depicting the game world. This, in addition to being a lovely collectors item, served to bewitch people by manipulating their escapist tendencies, drawing them away from their loved ones back into the imaginary world whilst leeching their life energies as they suckled on the poisonous, proverbial, teat of the fearsomely addictive early generation MMOs. There are even games which allow the player to create his/her own maps and this remains a hallmark feature of titles like Etrian Odyssey on the Nintendo 3DS.

That’s all I have to say on this subject at the moment. I’ve avoided talking about minimaps in games as that’s not what I’m exploring currently, though I acknowledge their importance. My curiosity lies in seeing how emotional conveyance can be enhanced by the use of visual aids and will no doubt be revisiting these ideas in the future.

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One comment

  • Beth Ghostraven

    Making inworld maps in Minecraft can be a great way of charting and sharing progress. (While Minecraft is really more of a virtual world than a game, it has some similarities.) Inworld maps may only be made of areas the avatar has explored, but they may be shared with other players and worked on collaboratively.

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