Object Oriented #02: Maps
Object Oriented can only continue with your support. To help make this series and the other work I am doing at getObject viable, please consider making a one-off donation via Ko-fi, or signing up to support me on Patreon.
Games mentioned: Assassin’s Creed series (Ubisoft, 2007 onwards) , Colossal Cave Adventure (William Crowther & Don Woods, 1977), Dark Souls (FromSoftware, 2011), Dreamfall: Chapters (Red Thread Games, 2014-2016), Eidolon (Ice Water Games, 2014), Fallout: New Vegas (Obsidian Entertainment, 2010), Firewatch (Campo Santo, 2016), Grand Theft Auto V (Rockstar Studios, 2013), Metro Exodus (4A Games, 2019), Miasmata (IonFX, 2012), NeoAtlas 1469 (ARTDINK, 2017), Red Dead Redemption 2 (Rockstar Studios, 2018) The Long Dark (Hinterland Studio, 2017), The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (CD Projekt Red, 2015), Thief: The Dark Project (Looking Glass Studios, 1998).
As we continue our journey into the world of videogame objects, what better object to help us orientate ourselves in these early stages of exploration than the map? This is an object laden with symbolic power, an object that can define our relationships with the virtual worlds they chart, hurt or hinder our connections to the landscapes we explore, and even an object that can be read in such a way as to reconfigure our assumptions about what that object does.
What Is a Map?
Let’s start out with a bold claim: a map is not what you think it is. Videogames provide us with a way to bring this into focus, there perhaps being no better game to illustrate this than NeoAtlas 1469. By most accounts, it’s not a particularly good game, but it is a fascinatingly unusual take on the videogame map that mirrors the way maps are used in the real world far more accurately than we might instinctively assume.
NeoAtlas 1469 is set at a time where our idea of what the world looked like was foggy and contested. The game places you in the role of master of a trading company. You send out admirals, they come back with reports of what they’ve seen, from new land to sea monsters. You choose to accept or reject them. Accept a report and whatever it contains is added to the map, becoming a part of reality that you can then engage with. Reject it and the experiences of your admiral will be struck from the map, the “real” world reshaping itself to match your dictate.
Our instinct is to assume that maps function in the opposite way. Rather than a map creating reality, reality is our starting point, from which we transpose an objectively existing territory into the symbolic form of the map. This can be the case, but things are often not so simple. Consider the multiple cases of map makers becoming embroiled in border disputes: in 2005 Taiwan reacted angrily to Google labelling Taiwan as a province of China, demanding that it be corrected and suggesting that the change had been made at the behest of China’s government;(i) in 2019 Apple redrew the Russian/ Ukraine border to show Crimea as being under Russian control in response to pressure from Moscow.(ii) Google will even redraw its borders depending on where you are looking from: the extent to which Kashmir is under Indian control, if the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus exists and if the island over which the UK and Argentina fought a short war in 1982 might be known as Islas Malvinas, as well as the Falkland Islands, depends on who is asking.
Long before nations started petitioning Silicon Valley giants to redraw borders, maps have been used as a tool to help enforce new “realities”. Think of colonial powers invading Africa, drawing up new borders and then enforcing them, marking these places as being “owned” by their empire and creating new nations where their previously had been none. Borders still work as a kind of collective fiction represented through the medium of the map: as you travel across Europe, you’re not going to encounter many borders that exist as a physical entity. They exist only so far as we all agree that they do and/or there is a power enforcing them.
These are all examples where we do not have a fixed objective reality being transposed onto a map, but have states exercising their power to get their version of reality onto the map to help legitimise or formalise it. Sometimes, as in NeoAtlas, the map precedes reality.
The map's straddling of the border between truth and fiction, objectivity and subjectivity, marks it as an object that expresses duality. We find another example in its associations with the mundane and the magical. We use maps in our everyday life, driving with sat navs and navigating cities with our phones. Yet we also associate them with the fantastic, with buried treasure and secret cities, as bearers of legend and launchpads for adventure. Maps tell us what to expect, yet also they do not – a map might tell us where we can find a cave, but what, exactly, might we find in that cave when we get there?
These dualities make maps a powerful object for games to play with. Our familiarity with the map as an everyday object gives us not just an intuitive understanding of what to do when we get a map in a game, but provides a grounding to that fictional world; it is a means through which to conceptualise it and a maker of its authenticity that allows us to engage with it as we would a real place. It is alluring in the sense of possibility it grants to a game, acting as an invitation to explore, teasing us with promises of unvisited cities and unexplored wilderness. It gives us enough information to know where we might encounter new people and cultures, or find adventure and danger, but, in its abstraction, leaves a sense of mystery intact that enhances your desire to visit these locations.
Games that pay heed to the possibilities these dualities can offer and situate those within their particular fictional context and intended experience can do fascinating things with maps. Thief: The Dark Project offers a fantastic example.(iii) The game’s maps are hand-drawn, indicating that they’ve likely been sketched by our protagonist, Garrett, in preparation for his stealthy heists. We might imagine him drawing them while casing his next target in preparation, or scribbling in information obtained from his network of underground contacts, fitting the fiction of the game perfectly.
His annotations illustrate the idea that maps can simultaneously communicate information, while gesturing to unknown possibilities. In the image of this map of Constantine’s mansion above, the labeling of the “front door” and the “balcony” encourage the player to consider the possibility of different points of entry, offering the intriguing possibility of finding your way up onto the balcony and circumventing the likely better guarded main entrance in this specific case, and encouraging us to think flexibly and creatively when it comes to the game at large (there is always more than one option, it suggests).
While the outer area of the mansion is well-documented in this map, the inside is sparse and lacking in detail, annotations punctuated with question marks indicating Garrett is not sure what he might find inside. This serves a number of purposes. It peaks our curiosity, prompting us to ask, “what might be in there?". It creates a sense of the forbidden – we are not supposed to know. The forbidden is, of course, as tantalising as it is foreboding. The map’s blank spots emphasise the fact that we are a thief, risking our lives as we enter spaces where we should not be. Finally, the map articulates dynamics of power at play in this world. We are entering a mansion, the domain of the wealthy. In a medieval-like city context where most people live in cramped, squalid and insecure conditions, this maps marks out the privilege of the elite – not only their ability to enclose vast spaces for themselves, but to separate themselves from the masses and enjoy the privacy and protection denied the general population, represented in Garrett's vague guesswork about the internal dimensions of the mansion. “Our world is above and beyond you”, this map says. “You do not belong here”. Doesn’t that make you want to disrupt it?
Survival games offer another example of a genre that’s traditionally done great work when it comes to tying maps to the kind of experience the game is trying to cultivate. Given that the setup of a survival game usually dictates that you are lost, maps tend to be absent at first, requiring you to do the leg work to get one. In The Long Dark’s survival mode, you use charcoal from burnt out fires to sketch out your surroundings – doing so from higher altitude will fill in a greater area of the map. In Miasmata, you have to triangulate your position from known landmarks, to mark unknown locations as “known” and gradually fill in the map. In Eidolon, you can find a variety of maps in the game’s world, from rough sketches, to official-looking maps. However, none cover the whole game area and they do not show your position on them, requiring you to orientate yourself via natural features and landmarks, as you might with a real paper map. In all these cases, maps are tied into the survival experience – collecting resources, exploration and a sense of progression related to a mastery of your environment. It is a tool of survival than can only be obtained through the survival mechanics those games want you to engage with.(iv)
Curse of the Minimap
Operating in stark contrast to all the maps we’ve mentioned so far is one of the most prominent examples of the map in modern videogames: the minimap. That little square or circle in the corner of your screen where you can see a little icon representing yourself moving around an abstract version of the space you are playing in. You’ll have seen it in Red Dead Redemption 2, Grand Theft Auto V, the Assassin’s Creed series, The Witcher 3, and pretty much every other open-world game you could think of.
I want to be clear that I do not wish to make the argument that minimaps are inherently “bad”. However, I do think they come with potential problems and that the degree to which they’ve become a de-facto standard shows both a lack of imagination and a lack of thought about how maps connect to the spaces they are mapping.
When I play games with minimaps, I frequently find myself staring at the minimap rather than the environment I’m playing in. Instead of taking in streets, architecture, people, mountains, trees, or whatever else, I’m looking at the abstracted, and therefore often more easily readable, minimap, guiding the little icon that represents me towards whatever destination I’ve selected, probably following a line guiding me along the most efficient path to my waypoint. When I get there, I haven’t taken in the things I’ve passed and I certainly don’t feel like I know my way around any better. Minimaps are very good at getting us to our destinations in a friction free way. That might be very desirable for a map in the real world, but is that necessarily a good thing in a videogame where you want your player to develop some connection or have some kind of response to the world you have created for them?
Here, I think the diegetic map tends to be far more effective. In Firewatch, a game that sees you trekking through Wyoming’s woodland, every time you whip out your map and compass to help you find your way, you end up referencing what you see on the map to the trails criss-crossing the forest you are exploring – you don’t wander through the map ignoring the landscape its mapping, as the minimap allows you to do. The same goes for Metro: Exodus. You pull out your map and compass, then make connections between your location on the map and the place you can see before you – train-tracks, buildings, coastlines. This forces you to take in the features of the post-apocalyptic world you are exploring, build a conceptual picture of its contours, and, as a byproduct of that practical act of navigation, consider the story of this new world and how it relates to the one that came before. In the sci-fi sections of Dreamfall: Chapters, maps are found on street corners just like those “you are here” maps you get outside train stations and at popular tourist locations in big cities. You must then navigate the city as you would a real place: “take the second left, then the first right”. Navigating a place in this way might make it easier to get lost than with a minimap in the short term, but makes it far easier to learn the place in the long run. I would argue that knowing how to get around a place is part of what makes a city feel like home and that, therefore, this approach is far better at fostering a connection to the virtual place you are visiting.
The diegetic map builds connections to places. The minimap too frequently severs them.
Even if we disregard that argument about the power of the diegetic map, who among doesn’t honestly just find them more aesthetically appealing? Give me the monitor hum of Fallout: New Vegas’ retro-futuristic Pip-Boy over a sterile minimap any day. Give me worn-out old pages torn out of a road atlas, give me fraying and faded treasure maps, fuzzy building blueprints on stolen microfilm. That maps are abstractions of our world doesn’t mean they aren’t also a part of it. I want games that recognise that.
When talking about what maps add to a game, we should also consider what we might gain from their absence. We were frequently asked to act as cartographers in the nascent days of videogaming, sketching out our expeditions on paper a near necessity to get to grips with text adventures like Colossal Cave Adventure. That many people speak so fondly of this experience suggests there is something compelling in it.
In the world of modern big budget game development, however, there is a paralysing fear of doing anything that might risk alienating the player. If we feel lost in any way, even for a minute, there is a risk we might give up and let our attention wander elsewhere. This compulsion has probably been dulled somewhat by the success of Dark Souls, which sparked a renaissance in the idea that making players struggle might actually offer some benefits, but the continued dominance of the aforementioned minimap and the friction-free navigation it offers shows that conservatism still reigns supreme when it comes to navigation.
I don’t know if a big-budget open-world game without a map could be a success. Perhaps it would be too frustrating. I would still like to see someone try it. Why not have us rely on directions from an NPC we don’t quite trust? On waiting for night and following the stars? On instinct? On rumours about a lost place floating around a frontier town? There are all kinds of avenues for finding our way open to be explored and all kinds of potentials in what might emerge if we were allowed to get lost.
A Cognitive Map?
There’s one final suggestion I’d like to make when it comes to how we think about games and maps, which will require you to indulge me on a flight of pretension.
The literary critic and theorist Fredric Jameson has argued that fiction has the potential to operate as a form of “cognitive mapping”. The idea is that, in the face of the overwhelming complexity and global nature of late capitalism, it is literally impossible for us to conceptualise the system we live in as a totality. In that context, Jameson suggests that fiction can provide a representation of this unknowable totality that allows us to situate ourselves within it. That orientation can help us bridge “the gap between the local positioning of the individual subject and the totality of class structures in which he or she is situated, a gap between phenomenological perception and a reality that transcends all individual thinking or experience”.v It can help us move from the crippling paralysis of being confronted with the incomprehensible, to having some kind of conception of our situation that enables us to respond politically.
Jameson does not specifically talk about videogames, but they too are representations of our world. They can help us conceptualise it and our place within it. As a medium of systems, we might even consider whether games might be able to play a uniquely powerful role in representing the system of late capitalism that Jameson is so concerned with, but that’s too big a question for today.
I would not call games “maps” per se, but can they do the kind of mapping that Jameson talks about? Why not?