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Blueprint : The Road Ahead

VoxelArcade Blueprint #012

Remember the days when games didn’t have maps? Like, y’know, at all?

How on earth did we manage?!

At first, it was the odd flight-simulator or adventure game that featured a crude map, either on-screen or printed lovingly onto some fold-out A3 poster. But generally speaking, they were rare. In fact, most open-world games of the era put the emphasis on you, the gamer, figuring out where in the hell you were and what the hell you were supposed to do without any map whatsoever.

Anyone remember, for example, the rather amazing C64 game Mercenary? The whole point of the adventure was to locate the co-ordinates of a rocket ship that would get you off the planet. Only to crash-land again. For Mercenary 2.

And again, for Mercenary 3. The bastards.

And then maps slowly became ‘the norm’ in everything from driving games to action games, simulators, open-world adventures – the works.

“So what?” you might ask. “So it can completely ruin the experience”, I say.

Look, OK, some games would be near-impossible without some form of map. Sykrim, perhaps? But many more others would, for my money, benefit massively from their removal. Be honest: haven’t you ever found yourself spending more time looking at that mini-map in the top-corner of your screen rather than at the world itself? It’s just like using sat-nav: it completely takes away the joy of learning an environment like the back-of-your-hand through the age-old art of – SHOCK –  looking, learning and committing details to memory.

Driving games in particular have been ruined in this respect – not so much by the inclusion of maps per se, but by the dreaded, sinful, rotating mini-map.

Take Project Gotham Racing 2. The fixed mini-map in the top corner was useful enough to give you an idea of what part of the track you were on – over time becoming as familiar as the nuanced corners themselves. The combined power of the two was something that you only were bestowed with after hours and hours of trial-and-error. Yet for PGR3 & 4, although you could revert to a fixed map, the stock map was an auto-rotating mini-map – the staple feature of most new driving games. And what’s the end result? An overbearing crutch of a tool that drags your eyes towards it with annoying regularity, completely ruining the moment and the thrill of mastering the track on your own merits.

And don’t even get me started on those god-awful pointy arrow things that now adorn themselves over the track itself.


Must … not … think … for … one’s … self …

So the map, dear Voxelites, in all of its forms, is not something that we should blindly include in every game under the sun just for the sake of it. Neither should it be like some sickening, 21st century, pseudo-sat-nav experience that holds your hand at every step of the way, pointing you towards your destiny with all the subtlety of a drunken football hooligan.  It should, if it is used at all, be a background presence, there to be learned and experienced over time but not so much so that it detracts from the game at hand.

Less, as they say, is more. 

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  1. Good article. Exploration has certainly been taken out of games. A lot of modern day RPG’s have completely taken exploring out of the equation by allowing you to teleport between warp points or whatever. 
    I still remember how exciting it was for me to use the paper-based map on Fantastic Dizzy on the megadrive. Some games need a map feature but some would have been better had the map been taking out, as you said. 

    If I remember correctly. Dead space 3 provides a function that allows you to always know where you are supposed to go next. If I am right in saying Dead Space 3, then doesn’t that take away quite a lot of the ‘fear factor’ of the game? When playing either of the first three resident evils and you were lost, the amazing sense of accomplishment you get when you finally get back on route. Good talking point I think you have started here.

    • Sam Hewitt It struck me the other night when I was playing Borderlands 2 with the mini-map fixed as opposed to rotating. It added a noticeable layer of thought to my actions – just like driving a manual car does as opposed to an automatic.
      Sometimes ‘assists’ are useful, but if you go as far as we seem to have done in our drive to open games up to the ‘casual’ gamer, what you’re left with is anodyne bilge.
      Life does a good enough job of switching my mind off without my chosen escape doing it for me!

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