Random Thoughts Vol.1: Maps and Wayfinding

Have you ever noticed something about the majority of games – the fact that they all have maps?

The first time we log on, we navigate our way through these virtual worlds like tourists entering a new city. We are required to use maps, both virtual and geographical, in order to progress throughout a virtual world that we are exploring.

Virtual maps come in many forms: we have the one that often resides in a pause menu, for example. A virtual, cartographic depiction of the virtual world. You may have noticed that some games reward your exploration by ‘unfogging’ the map as you go. Additionally, there are often keys and markers on this map that aid the player during their initial travels. Over time, however, these are rendered unnecessary due to familiarity and experience.

With geographic maps, we typically draw upon our actual everyday knowledge of wayfinding. Recognisable landmarks are noticed and assigned a mental location. Take Times Square or the Eiffel Tower as an example. Common tourist locations that, once visited, signify a physical location in New York or Paris that one can use to situate themselves within the city.

It’s much the same in a virtual world. Fallout 4, for example, offers key landmarks throughout the world. Sanctuary, the aptly-named first base available to the player, offers a (relatively) safe hub in which the player can choose to build a base. From here, the new player can venture out into the nuclear wasteland at their own discretion. On their travels, the player soon learns to judge their location relative to their proximity to the landmarks, settlements and cities already discovered: spend half an hour walking south from Sanctuary, you know where you’ll end up if you do a 180° and head north. Easy right?

On a much smaller level, we can look at online multiplayer first-person shooters (FPS) such as Call of Duty or Battlefield. Regardless of size, the selection of levels that feature in the online segments of these games are usually called ‘maps’. This is on purpose. Here, players construct their own mental maps of a variety of levels through repeated play. Smaller landmarks are noticed and assigned a mental location. In FPS shooters, there is a limit to the field of engagement: knowledge of the map’s boundaries and key locations can make a lot of difference: familiarity leads to tactical advantage. Much like in the military, sound knowledge of a theatre of engagement can make the crucial difference between mission success and failure.

This phenomenon is something that occurs almost subconsciously while playing video games. Maps are everywhere. In most games, they can be present in the pause menu, on the screen, as items or even sometimes without our knowledge.

To expand:

  • Full Maps: Large maps often found in the pause menu of a game. These depict the whole area of play and offer a lot of information: think of your traditional maps: physical, road and topographic (to name a few) – the developers will fit a LOT of this info onto one menu.
  • Item Maps: Smaller versions of maps that depict an area of play. Often found in the world or an inventory. These may be used in-game to increase immersion and believability (ie. the character or avatar uses it) or be restrictive to challenge the player – treasure hunts, etc.
  • Mini-maps: Typically part of the heads-up-display (HUD), this is smaller, less invasive map that occupies part of the screen to aid navigation on-the-go. Will hold less information than the full map, but will contain all necessary information needed for the location currently occupied. Used heavily in FPSs to determine other players’ locations.
  • Mental Maps: Maps that we develop over time. As our comprehension and familiarity with a game grows, the less we need the maps explored above. Think of a game with a HUGE map. I’ll go for The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. The first time I played that game, I thought White Orchard was an integral part of the map. Turns out, it was an elaborate tutorial. Once I’d made it to the actual map, I was overwhelmed with the sheer size of it. Naturally, I relied heavily on the in-game maps available. Over time, however, I didn’t even notice the point in which I stopped using them. I didn’t need to – I’d virtually travelled the land so much that I had built up my own mental map. I knew where I was based on landmarks, memories and experience.
  • Controller Maps: Found deep in the settings, these maps depict the controls. You’ll find yourself looking for this map when: A) you’re new to a game, or B) you’re deeply frustrated and can’t figure out how to do something. Useful and, unfortunately, necessary at times.

That’s (probably) all you need to know about video game maps and wayfinding. Perhaps more than you ever thought you needed to know but, please, indulge my Random Thoughts for this week.

You may have read this thinking, ‘Ha, the game I play on doesn’t have a map, you’re wrong!’ As you sit smugly and laugh at my latest raving... I do have a counter-argument, I’m sorry to say.

So, you play on sports games more than open-world adventures. Or you’re a FIFA prodigy or the next NHL Pro and you’re thinking about entering an eSports competition. Better yet, you’re into button-mashing games like Mortal Kombat or Street Fighter. Think back to when you first started playing: you weren’t always this good. At some point, you’ve had to refer to a controller scheme or a combo list. You’ve undoubtedly played a tutorial or training session where the game maps out the controls and prepares you for the campaign or online multiplayer.

At some point, whether you know it, or not, the game as presented a map to you, in some form, and you’ve followed it, learned from it and mastered it. Think about it. Maps, as utilitarian and boring as they may seem are integral to gaming.

You made it this far, on a Random Thoughts post? Thank you! Please, let me know what you think.