Earlier this week I was watching the Final Bosman on Gametrailers and for this week he was talking about Bloodborne. He brought up three things that he really liked about the game and one of them was the lack of a map. That one little statement somehow burrowed itself under my skin and I have been thinking about for the rest of the week.
Maps in games are one of those small details that we take for granted. It is not something that is put on the back of the box as a selling point. The few times that the word comes up in gaming media it is not about the map itself but the size of the geography. GTA V had multiple articles about how big San Andreas map was and recently there have been articles about how big the map is in the Witcher 3. That really is not about the map though it is more about the geography. So while the geography in GTA V is really impressive the map is just a thing that is there. It helps you get around and find the place you need to get to but it does not have any character it is just a thing that is there. The same can be said of the map in Skyrim, if you have been to an area before the fog of war lifts and you can see this massive expanse of land for you to explore and little markers pop up as you find new towns or caves. Half the fun in Skyrim comes in from finding new areas, exploring the environment and seeing them pop up on the map. The developers know there is a little part of us that loves the idea of exploring the unknown and rewards us by marking it on the map to say that you are slowly uncovering everything there is in the game. The map however is not a very interesting map, it is basically a bird eye view of the environment to help you fast travel. There is no character to them to make them stand out and stick in your mind. This is not an indictment against them though, the maps serve their purposes well and make navigating the world accessible and easy for anyone stepping into the game fresh.
In direct comparison the Souls games and Bloodborne have no maps at all. Depending on how much you are willing to invest in the games this is ever the dumbest decision the developers could have made or the best. By not giving you a map to start with or even tools in game to make one for yourself these games force you to be aware of the environment. You have to look at everything around you not only to avoid being ambushed but to slowly connect how every passage in these worlds connects together. These games even award you for exploring by giving you shortcuts so instead of taking thirty minutes and fighting a horde of enemies to reach area B you just climb up a ladder three minutes away from the start and you are there. The lack of a map makes you get intimate with the environment as well, you start to notice all the little details visually that you would normally just walk past if it were any other game. It also helps that you will most likely be walking past these areas many, many times throughout your playthrough of any of these games.
While I can appreciate that line of logic I cannot be the only one who would appreciate a good map of these games that I did not have to draw up myself on paper. This does not mean I want something that tells me where I have to go in meticulous details, just something that gives me a rough idea of the layout. Considering how well the Souls games (And by the sound of it Bloodborne too) insert details of the world’s lore into item descriptions I’m sure that they could do a good map too.
By this point you may be wandering what I mean by a map with character. Maybe you do not even believe that is possible. With enough imagination though a few developers have made looking at a map interesting, something that stands out when you think back on these games. Two examples of these types of maps are the constructed maps and the narrative maps.
What I mean by a narrative map is something that can be found in Silent Hill. I am not the biggest fan of the Silent Hill games, no matter which one I am playing I will normally finds something to grumble about. The one thing I completely loved about each one of these games though was their maps. None of these maps came off a phone or just magicked into existence when you pressed the right button. They were all things the characters either had on them when the game started or picked up as they went along. Every one is a physical piece of paper and the way each character marks off a locked door is so incredibly basic and makes me love it.
Every time you come across a locked or broken door it is marked on the map with a little squiggle from a marker. Whenever there is a point of interest a circle is drawn on the map with the same marker. I love this not only because it effectively cross off areas in the map you cannot go to but I can completely see James wandering through the town of Silent Hill taking out his map and marking off areas that are shut off to him. Not only does it add character to the map by making it feel physical and used by the player it also personalises the main character a bit without having to do much. When Heather is thrown into the nightmare mall at the beginning of Silent Hill 3 the fact that she marks off areas she has already been to establishes her mindset without having to say or do anything taking up the players time. It is easy to imagine Harry, Heather or James thinking “This is some freaky bullshit, I am not going back to the place with the twitchy monsters, marking that off on the map so I never go down there again.” These maps fulfils their role as a map but also helps add to the story and tone as well in a clever way.
They even put in creases from James folding it up all the time.
A constructed map is a map the player makes in game by visiting different areas and slowly constructing their own map of the environment. For example the map in Alien: Isolation.
While you are wandering through the Sevastopol each area you visit is added onto the map. The trick is that you do not get the entire area all at once. Take your basic area that we can argue is separated by an elevator or stair way taking you to a different floor. When you enter that area you map automatically marks off you are in the foyer area it does not however give you all the corridors, vent pathways or connected rooms. This can easily be about ninety percent of the map that is not available. You have to walk into each area and get them marked on the map to complete it. Just like how you need to make contact with save points, computer terminals and junction boxes. None of that is on the map originally, it is up to you to find them. This by itself is a neat feature but it helps elevate the tension in a game like Alien: Isolation because the focus is on stealth.
In one of the earlier segments of the game you have to sneak by two androids who will try to kill you on sight. My first thought is “I have ten bullets in the revolver, maybe I should kill one to make it easier.” It unfortunately takes about ten head shoots to kill an android so while I did get a trophy for killing one the second android then killed me a few seconds later. Trying to sneak around was a little bit harder after that since I had no bothered to fill out the map the first time I had gone by here meaning I only had roughly half of it at my disposal. Getting out of that was tough and very satisfying when I did, now try and imagine the kind of tension created when you go into a new area with no map and the knowledge that the alien is actively hunting you down.
The constructed map is similar to the map in Skyrim in that it is rather blank to begin with and when you slowly piece it together there is some satisfaction there in knowing you pieced it together. In a game like Alien: Isolation the constructed part is a bit more literally and much more necessary to make. Even when you plot out an area there are still plenty of hidden rooms for you to find so it also incentives you to keep an eye out for any nooks and cranny’s you may have missed the first time going through.
Even when it is only a game no one wants to be put in this situation and not know where they are.
Every game has a way to deliver where everything is and it normally comes down to a map which is never the part of a game people get hot and heavy over, even when the focus is on exploration. So when you see that little bit of extra attention put into something that you normally do not notice you have to appreciate just how many little things have to come together to make a fully functioning and effective game. Especially the multitude of things you are never meant to notice.