I was doing some draft clean up and I came across a still fetal post by MM linking to a site that purported to identify “the best and worst game maps of all time.” This made me very excited, considering my long-standing fascination with maps, both physical and virtual. Unfortunately, the author meant the term as an RTS player would, describing the lay-out of the game’s world, rather than the in-game representation of the same (geography not cartography). It was still an interesting article, but since I don’t want to steal MM’s thunder, I will save the link and my thoughts for when the article makes its way to our minor spit on the blogoglobe.
But that still leaves unanswered the question I originally thought was being raised: what are the best and worst in-game maps out there? Though my pop-culture experience base is generally too meager to consider putting together a best-of list of any sort, this is at least a subject in which I am semi-competent, especially since in-game maps are sparse in genres with which I am least familiar (sports, shooters, platformers, plus puzzle, racing and fighting games) and fairly profuse in the genres which I have spent more time (strategy, action-adventure, RPGs and the like).
It seems to me that most developers produce serviceable, if a bit humdrum, maps. They clearly display obstacles and goals and, less clearly, depth, points of interest, and your position and orientation; enough information to be usable, without diverting too many resources from more vital areas. However, I have come across some particularly good (and bad) maps over the years. Thoughts below the fold:
5. Mass Effect 1 & 2 (Galaxy Map)
More of a menu screen dressed up to look like a map than the genuine article, the galaxy map puts up a very convincing and seductive facade. Much of the industry for a time was trying to make space-faring epics, but they rarely felt like more than the string of cloistered setpieces and hubs that they really were, even the ones with free roaming planet-hopping, like Metroid Prime Corruption or Bioware’s own Knights of the Old Republic. Only Mass Effect (and sequel) deceived me sufficiently to believe that the games were truly expansive and deep affairs and I think the galaxy map does all the heavy lifting to achieve that effect. The displayed Milky Way is massive and filled with dozens of planets to be discovered, each with their own little history and tidbits, even if you can’t land on them. It’s all organized rationally (galaxy>star cluster>solar system>planetary system; take note EAD Tokyo) and unveiled slowly to keep the multitude from overwhelming. Plus, the music is just inexplicably intoxicating.
4. Phantom Hourglass (Overworld Maps)
I was tempted to include the Windwaker’s nautical chart on here, but then I remembered that PH has the same thing but better. Both Phantom Hourglass and the Windwaker have these great, gridded and overlapping charts to break down their vast oceans, but the ones in PH are more detailed, more colorful, and more useful, despite the vastly lower resolution and smaller size. I also liked that the islands are distributed across the maps zones more irregularly, making the world more believable and the map itself more interesting.
But, by far, the best thing about the Phantom Hourglass’s maps is that, using the DS, you can write all over them and everything you write lasts for as long as you want. Find a little island whose secret you can’t unlock now? Just make a note and return later. This is the basically the ideal use of the DS, as far as adventure games are concerned. I have no idea why the myriad PC adventure games (with a perfectly good text input system) never attempted something along these lines. The game’s (somewhat unfairly maligned) repeated dungeon is entirely built around this conceit. Writing on maps also great for plotting ship courses and keeping track of hazard and puzzle elements (like doors and their respective keys), enlivening even some of the more mundane Zelda elements. Sure the rest of the DS controls work well enough, but a map you can annotate is like a revelation.
3. Super Metroid
Super Metroid was the first game in the series to actually have a map; previously players were expected to whip out the graphpaper and make their own. Though simple and uncluttered, the UI is thus quite clumsy and it’s usability is lacking. But it takes, from its hand-drawn roots, a rather unique feature. When you enter an area in most games, its entire expanse (minus, maybe, some hidden elements) is revealed or a line of sight circle is used to determine what you can see and where you have been. R&D1, however, built Super Metroid’s map on a grid, as if still using graphpaper, with each box about 2 Samus lengths high by 2 Samuses long. As you crossed into each square , it was revealed on your map, so that by travelling through the world, you built up your map square by square. Even if you found the map stations, they just revealed the outlines of some (though far from all) of the rooms in a certain area, leaving you to piece together the innards. Not only does this enhance the feeling of exploring an utterly alien world, it makes the Metroidvania item scour a breeze. Since you know exactly where you’ve been by looking at the map, you can see what parts of each room hold potential for untapped goods. Also, since the game clearly displays where rooms finally end, it also helps deal with Metroid’s penchant for false walls and high ceilings. Finally, whenever you find an item, the game marks its location on the map, so you have an even clearer sense of which alcove has been fully exploited. Like with almost everything else it attempted, Super Metroid’s map system set the high bar for years to come.
2. FarCry 2
Sometimes, I think Clint Hawking is the only major game designer to have ever used an actual map before, since FarCry 2 uses a number of basic techniques to make things more intuitive and informative that real mapmakers have been employing for years. Most notably: contour lines! It blows me away that so many developers decline to make their maps topographical to display elevation change, especially since, unlike for actual cartographers, all that data is already known and coded into the game. It’s not even as if developers don’t care about conveying elevation to the player; more often it seems they try to simply draw the prominences and valleys (inaccurately, mind you) using shading or texture. Ubisoft Montreal fortunately realized that contour lines display the same information with greater precision, a higher level of detail, and increased readability.
But this was far from the only thing borrowed from modern maps. FarCry 2’s map uses distinguishable and consistent color choice to display terrain information, as well as roads and obstacles, and large, discernible and repeated icons to identify the common points of interest. It is absurd to me how often game artists see map-making as personal free expression projects rather than a medium through which they communicate geographic information to the player. This of course also lends authenticity to the map (and the game world), as it resembles an actual topo map you’d find for the region, rather than something cooked up by the developers for use by the player. Additionally, like many of the other entries on this list, FarCry 2 uses series of nested maps, dividing both main maps 3×3 into nine squares and and then layering maps for each notable location off of those smaller grids. The game then allows for quick shifting between all of the nested maps and defaults to the smallest magnification level for each location so that things switch automatically as you walk into a new area.
This leads us to the best part: there is no map screen. You simply whip out your map (and GPS)* out with the click of a button in real-time and can wander the game world, map in hand. It’s one of those rare conceits that improves both immersion and usability. This is especially true when driving, hurtling about with one eye on the road and one eye on the map in your lap. It really is just a perfect fit and its a shame more games haven’t tried something similar.
1. Metroid Prime
Metroid Prime’s map screen, at first glance, looks mediocre. It lacks its predecessor’s abstracted simplicity or FarCry’s level of detail and ease of use. It is bland and polygonned, with a mass of controls and a hulking key. But it employs one brilliant idea that trumps everything else on this list. Retro Studios had the perspicacity to represent 3d worlds with a 3d map, using polygons instead of lines to reconstruct the entirety of Tallon IV, in miniature. Every room is recreated with all of its structural intricacies intact, though the game uses a standard color theme and simple, translucent polygons to prevent the glut of detail from inundating the player. The whole construct can be rotated gyroscopically, with any room as its axis, as if you were holding the model in your hands. You can zoom in and out liberally and, if shrunk sufficiently, the map reflexively abstracts into a series of interconnected hexagonal prisms, making navigating across wide areas or seeing how the whole world fits together a breeze. Additionally, if you allow it, the map will also occasionally dole out hints, plopping a question mark over an unexplored room, along with some innocuous text, if you ever start wandering in circles. It will never tell you how to get from point A to point B, but it does ensure at least your wanderings will be well-directed.
The most important aspect of Metroid Prime’s map, though, is its direct effect on the kinds of worlds the developers could create. Many developers, it seems, shy away from rooms that are too convoluted, as they difficult to abstract or properly convey their space to the players. Thus, most modern games, even those like Bioshock that emphasize their architecture, structure their worlds using a collection of rectangular rooms joined by narrow hallways with occasional kink or twist. Not Metroid Prime. Its rooms are oblong and irregular, punctured with crevices and alcoves, with hallways and tunnels billowing off in all directions and, importantly, at all levels. Its worlds feel organic and believable like no other game I have come across, in no small part thanks to a map that allowed it all to be possible (certainly Retro’s talented artists and their approach to level design also played a role). When you consider how many developers struggle to build believable worlds or convey depth and layering on a 2d map (see many of the Worst entries), I am mostly surprised that, two years away from its decennial, virtually no one has tried emulating Metroid Prime’s approach.
Bioshock’s map resembles a lot of the middle-of-the-road, serviceable maps. It takes the top-down blueprint approach and plops down some useful icons and an arrow for the player character. Leaving aside whether this made sense in the first place for some of the more nonlinear parts of the game, the map designers bizarrely decided to make one deviation from the norm when it comes to multi-leveled areas. Instead of layering them in some fashion, either with different screens for different floors or having the area you are not in go transparent, Irrational chose to disconnect everything completely and then just string different areas together with a maze of arrows. I can kinda see why they went with this approach (it is certainly simpler than making a good map), but it is also incredibly confusing. Boundary lines become necessarily vague, adjacent rooms are on opposite ends of the map screen, and the arrows themselves crisscross frequently, so it’s often hard to tell which room leads to which. To make matters worse, Irrational employs the arrow inconsistently. Small spots are frequently layered instead of arrowed (or even worse, they jut out in the wrong direction), which thankfully cuts the clutter but makes these rooms incredibly easy to miss. Also, since areas where there is a change in depth but no layering (you go up a flight of stairs but not over the room you were just in) are displayed as one continuous construct, these areas then need to be arrowed to other rooms on the same floor but over something. Speaking about stairs, the game also has a “stairs” icon, which should have helped sort things out, except that it only uses the icon about 1/3 of the times there are in fact stairs. Thus Bioshock’s maps are just needlessly confusing, departing from standard practice wantonly and falling short of even Irrational’s modest aims.
4. Legend of Zelda series (Dungeon Maps)
Just like virtually everything else in the Zelda series, the dungeon map has remained virtually unchanged since 1993. You would think that a map that you have to physically find and pick up every time you enter a dungeon would be more robust, but then you would not be thinking like a Zelda designer, because if something worked well for ALttP’s spartan 2d dungeons, then it must work for all eternity. Zelda is hardly the only series to keep their outdated map system long past its sell by date, but it is by far one of the most egregious. The maps themselves are incredibly devoid of detail, invariably just green smudges and rectangloids that somewhat resemble the room you are in. The maps will also be inset within the larger menu, with little option to move around or zoom, as any techniques developed after the early nineties are verboten. Though the maps are by default unadorned by any icons, finding the compass allows you to see Link’s current location, as well as that of all treasure chests and the boss (because that’s how compasses work). Of course, this is hardly an exhaustive list of things one would want marked on a map, but at least it is something. But wait! Compasses do not function outside of their respective dungeons so, if you actually want to have a marginally useful map, one must also hunt the compass down in every dungeon as well as the map itself (hint: its just before the middungeon item).
The stupid build-a-map system is not the only egregiously antiquidated aspect of the Zelda dungeon map. In ALttP, everything was 2d, and thus depth changes could be contained to the handful of floors the designer wanted to include and discretely connected by stairdoors. But since the series invaded the third dimension, the line between different floors has become far more nebulous and navigating between different layers on the map more frustrating (excepting the occasional stairdoor revivals you could stumble upon in the N64 games). More importantly though, the move to 3d allowed for developers to use a wide array of elevation changes that were less than a whole floor height and they do so frequently, but the Zelda map simply does not represent these obstructions at all. There has been a lot of buzzing about how the next Zelda game will shake loose all the silly barnacles the series has accumulated over the years, but if the dungeon map system is not at least somewhat overhauled, then EAD will have failed in that goal.
3. Cave Story
This one is pretty straightforward. The maps in Cave Story are just plain bad. They are terribly small, allow for no interaction (including switching to a different map) and look like they were rendered on a TI-83. I cannot even comment on whether their level of detail is sufficient because they are basically impossible to read. Even worse, it commits the sin of only making the maps accessable through using the “map” item in the inventory screen, making the map that much harder to get to. All this in a nonlinear game that openly apes the Metroid series (you know, where you will want to use a functional map frequently). I understand it was made by one guy, so perhaps the creator Pixel deserves a pass, but the WiiWare port had a whole staff of people who completely redid all the graphics, but the maps were still awful.
2. Mass Effect 2 (Hub World Maps)
A lot of videogame cartographers have a tough time representing change along the z-axis with just two dimensions to work with, but Bioware has stumbled upon by far the most confounding solution. Instead of layering things on top of each other or even borrowing Bioshock’s spider web, Bioware decided to represent things that are actually on top of each other in-game by displaying them next to each other on their hub maps. This is despite the fact that they are in fact not next to one another at all. A solution like this quite naturally leads to further complications when these stacked-not-lateral rooms connect to other sections of the world and the map maker must link everything together, despite the map no longer matching reality. Thus the whole map gets basically shot to shit, with hallways going off in the wrong directions or plain not existing (either in-map or in-game) just so that everything looks like it might be real. It is a good thing Bioware neglected to put in an icon for the player character or the game would have just broken.
The hub maps also accomplish the seemingly impossible task of being too busy and having an extreme dearth of detail. If you look at the map above, you will notice that it is plastered with all manner of space-agey designs (note: the numbers were added after the fact by a fan desperately trying to make something useful out of this map). Would you like to know which of those correspond to actual elements in the game world and which are just haphazard clutter to remind the player that Mass Effect is in the future? So would I. The hub maps in Mass Effect 2 are the epitome of form over function. The art department simply wanted to make a map-like image that looked really cool and expressed their ideas of how the future should feel, utility be damned. The maps do end up looking pretty slick; just don’t use one to actually navigate, because you will get yourself lost.
It says something that, in a game as rife with bad design decisions as Fable 2, the horrible quality of the maps not only stand out but threaten to ruin the entire game (SPOILER: the entire game beats the map to the punch). The first thing you notice about Fable 2’s map screen is that there is no map screen. Instead, occasionally while navigating through the game’s menus, a map appears off to the side. This map is inset in a compass which is inset in a window which is inset in another window, and thus is very small and illegible. There are icons for your character, your dog, your quest objective and some miscellanea, but they all might as well have been not included, as the icons are very similar in shape and the colors are blurry and indistinct. There is also no indication of how much of each little circle worlds is traversable, perhaps because the answer is very little. Most of the time, you will just be able to differentiate between water, land, and building (note: not between individual buildings) and have to make do from there. Even then things get a little iffy because, in order to enhance the effect that the map is sitting in a compass (GAH!), all maps have the top quarter covered in the faux-reflective sheen you see above, making that section much harder to read. Further, since the map is not an actual part of the game but instead a reward for hanging out in the right part of the main menu, it is completely non-interactive. Though the game does allow you to see more than the current map if you shuffle through the appropriate menus (still through their respective portholes), the only time you can access the overworld map, which shows how all the little saucers of Albion come together is during the loading screen.
But having a terrible map was not enough to solidify Fable 2’s position on the top of the heap. What separates them from even ME2’s failed-art-project hub worlds is that Lionhead intentionally de-emphasized the in-game map so that people would use the “breadcrumb trail” pathfinder, which is supposed to draw a line in real-time towards your next destination. That’s why there is no minimap and no map screen and the little bit you do get is indecipherable (especially on a CRT). It is all to funnel you towards the glitchy fairy dust that often runs you in circles and intrudes whenever you want to chart your own course. But the idea that people should blindly follow a yellow pollen road around than poke around the game on their own seems to defeat the entire purpose of creating a putatively nonlinear, openworld game. It all points to the same trend we cited earlier: like an informercial salesman, Peter Molyneux has a knack for devising solutions in need of problems. Fable 2 was filled with a panoply of features without purpose (like real estate and marriage) as if people were clamoring for the ability to bang that one villager who looks and sounds like all the other villagers (except this one like pie and dancing!) and buy a house/furniture for them and start a family with them and schlep to spouse/spawn between and even during missions to keep them supplied with all the sex and pie and dancing that they demand. But the map situation, for diminishing a feature that had a purpose and shunting players toward a rickety experiment in search of one, is the worst of the bunch. Even Peter Molyneux himself has come around to a similar opinion, of course in the process of hyping Fable 3’s selection of inevitably poor design choices:
Molyneux hated Fable II’s map: “It was boring and tedious and no-one even knew it was a map.”
I couldn’t have said more succinctly myself. And that is why Fable 2 has the worst map system I have come across thus far.
*I think I am the only person who was sad that the map and compass got cut from FarCry 2. At very least it would have helped EAD and Lionhead figure out how to properly use a compass.