Maps in My Head

Caro goes back to the days when games often required you to chart some truly uncharted territories.

by

I had to face it: I was going in circles.

The boss had been vanquished. It was time to move on to the next area of the vast subterranean network I was exploring. But that was easier said than done. Each room seemed to have multiple doors, and each of those doors led to rooms with still more doors. I couldn't keep it all straight, and my hunt for the door to Area 3 kept bringing me back to the same rooms, the same obstacles my tank wasn't yet equipped to overcome. And I was getting frustrated.

The battle tank S.O.P.H.I.A. comes with lots of useful features, but an automap is not one of them.

But it wasn't Blaster Master: Enemy Below I was getting frustrated with. It was myself. And it occurred to me that I was experiencing something I hadn't experienced in some time, something that more recent games typically prevent me from feeling. I was struggling to create an accurate map in my head, since Enemy Below, unlike so many games that involve exploration these days, wasn't about to make one for me.

The imprecise process of mental cartography used to be a frequently exercised part of my video game skill set. When playing games like Goonies II and Metroid on the NES, I had to rely on my own memories to guide me from one part of their mazelike layouts to the next. Sometimes I had the benefit of Nintendo Power, but while the maps on its pages might illuminate one part of a game's layout, I invariably still had to do most of the exploration and discovery myself. I have never had the strongest memory for routes and places, either in games or in the real world, but eventually, after spending enough time with these games, I became as comfortable with their layouts as I was with that of my junior high school. It's gratifying to take something that's initially unfamiliar and baffling, and make it familiar, to create a crystallized image of Metroid's geography in your head that's accurate enough for you to rely on as you blast through the game from start to finish in a few hours while a friend watches in awe.

But in the years since then, this skill has atrophied, because so few games of recent years have required me to use it. Most games these days with environments someone might conceivably get lost in give you maps and waypoints to keep you moving forward, ensuring that you don't experience the frustration that can come with getting stuck. That sounds like a good thing, but along with that frustration, I find that a certain kind of satisfaction has been lost. Many games try to strike a balance, providing you with maps that fill in as you explore, so that you're not denied the pleasure of uncovering places for yourself. You get the satisfaction of heading into the unknown, without needing to worry about having to remember what you're discovering and how it connects to everything else. Having things remembered for you is certainly a convenience (I never want to have to memorize another phone number as long as I live), but using an automatically generated map to help you figure out where the path to the next area is isn't the same as relying on your own knowledge. It's easy and mechanical to rule places out, to narrow things down, when you have the benefit of an automap. Without one, the unsettling feeling of being completely lost can take hold, and as you find yourself passing through the same tunnels over and over again, a sense of desperation can set in.

The caverns underneath the Fratellis' restaurant contain gangsters, Eskimos, mermaids, and superheroes, but no maps.

That's not pleasant or fun, but I'm a big believer in the value of frustration, when it comes out of a test of our own knowledge or abilities and not out of poorly designed challenges or broken gameplay. Frustration can motivate us to persevere. Case in point: Via the 3DS eShop, I've traveled back in time, to the days when we had to make mental maps. I'm currently alternating between 1991's Metroid II: Return of Samus and 2000's Blaster Master: Enemy Below. In both games, I've repeatedly returned to places I've already been, in the hopes that this time, I'll find the doorway or tunnel or bombable wall that will let me advance. Now that these games have their frustrating little hooks in me, I can't stop. I need to prove to myself that I can still do what I used to do when I played those NES games all those years ago, that I can maintain maps in my mind of these vast areas that are detailed enough and accurate enough for me to rely on them until I've defeated the final metroid and blaster-mastered the last subterranean monster to kingdom come.

I finally did find that door to the next area I was seeking. And stumbling on its location was much more rewarding than it would have been with the aid of a map. Now all I have to do is remember exactly where it is, and how it connects to everything else! No problem!

What are your thoughts on maps in games? Do you miss the days when you had to find your own way around, or are you thankful for automaps? Are there any games that you think handle maps especially well?

Discussion

65 comments
vaejas
vaejas

I mapped out Princess Tomato in the Salad Kingdom in its ENTIRETY, and GamePro didn't publish ANYTHING I sent them! :P

krazken
krazken

I remember mapping out the dungeons on Deadly Towers for the NES on graph paper. I think I did the same thing later, for Super Metroid, to make sure I came back to every energy tank or missile pack I didn't have the right tool for the first time I saw it. In contrast, I was playing Darksiders the other day, which mapped out every place I had been and placed all the treasure chests I hadn't opened yet on the map for me.

 

I think it does take away from the sense of exploration for the hardcore gamers, but is probably a necessity to appeal to the masses who don't have the time or patience to do it themselves.

AxiomVerge
AxiomVerge

I've been debating whether I should exclude a map screen from Axiom Verge. My intuition is that it would be too frustrating without it, but I somehow feel like a game world feels *larger* when you don't have a map. Perhaps there is some middle ground - like the original Zelda's overworld map that showed your position within the bounds without giving any details.

LeFeverBeaver
LeFeverBeaver

Caro, while I appreciate maps in games, in games like Final Fantasy XIII where you pretty much can play the whole game JUST by following the mini-map, I think the concept is broken. Of course, this game suffered notably from its linearity primarily because it may have looked like you could venture further but you constantly kept running into invisible walls so you end up just looking in the top right corner. TL;DR: mleh mleh mleh!

AtheistPreacher
AtheistPreacher

By far the biggest instance of me needing to figure out my own navigation for a world was the predecessor series of Demon's Souls... King's Field! I remain a huge huge fan of those games, and still play at least one King's Field title every year, and sometimes more than one. Those games could be downright confusing to navigate. But you're right in pointing out that it was very satisfying to finally reach that point where you knew your way around. That was part of the joy of the game. Let me leave with an excerpt from a CrispyGamer article that's since been taken down, which speaks generally to this sort of problem: Tutorials are, by and large, rigidly conceived and frequently absurd, having to necessarily oblige the thickest, least-skillful and most-stoned audience members. Some tutorials are so slobberingly accommodating you practically want to leave money for them on the dresser once they have had their way with you. Or think of a game like Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. During its puzzle sequences (and, really, these are "puzzles" along the lines of keeping straight the crucial differences between a square and triangle), if you cannot figure something out due to your recent stroke, the game drops a broad hint. You are then given a moment to act on it. If you do not, the game pretty much tells you exactly what you are supposed to do. While playing Uncharted 2, I sometimes had the distant thought of how much I missed the days of being trusted to figure out stuff on my own.

BSEE10
BSEE10

@Gelugon_baat Well, I'm not forcing it to you but I'm glad you have an open mind. Thanks

BSEE10
BSEE10

@Gelugon_baat its true though. Every gamers nowadays needs tutorial to play, internet to guide and quits on a slight difficulty. You know its true.

LoG-Sacrament
LoG-Sacrament

dark souls has an exceptional world to explore and no handy map. there are these great moments where you see a familiar landmark in the distance and manage to find your way back to areas you know. equally great is when you get lost and then somehow stumble back to a familiar hub and realize how connected everything really is. its kind of comforting getting back, but its also a little disconcerting to realize that you didnt venture quite as far away as you thought. still, im not biggest fan of map systems like the old ultima games where the player is expected to break out the grid paper and get drawing. my barbarian build wasnt too thrilled about the prospects of cartography.

gargungulunk
gargungulunk

Good read, and true point. I find myself simply playing the compass...not the actual level. It is a huge deterrent... that is like watching a movie with subtitles thats already in english...I can't help but read them. I feel it takes away from the adventure.

oldschoolvandal
oldschoolvandal

Just yesterday I started Demon's Souls on my PS3 again....and one of the things that hooked me the most in the game (aside from the badass old school dificulty :) ) is that it has NO MAPS (and no pause!!). It really is all up to you to memorize and navigate!! And anyone who played it before knows that if you die...you start over and that's it! It takes you a freakin'long time to do any real progress!! But everytime you clear an area or manage to save your (small) progress. Oh boy, feels so damn good!!!

TC_Squared
TC_Squared

Blaster Master...I remember that game. You know what's funny? When I was driving the Mako in Mass Effect, it brought back memories of driving the vehicle in Blaster Master.

GriffinBalls
GriffinBalls

@SkyeGuardian Thats how Zelda maps have been since the very first NES Zelda. The dungeons were also always extremeley linear, thats nothing new there.

sagara129
sagara129

Sometimes maps are useful, sometimes they can be feel like spoon feeding. I remember first person shooters way back in the day, when graphics were not the main theme. Going around endless similar looking corridors was frustrating but you certainly felt proud once you've found where you needed to go. I guess it all boils down to the type of game you're playing; if you would rather be in the heat of the action than stumbling upon one dead end after another, maps are useful. On the other hand, if you want to explore at your own will, then maps can be burdensome.

lordharding
lordharding

Someone mentioned GTA below. I really liked GTA3 and Vice City before they brought in the TomTom-like navigation. Even with a map in hand, you really were encouraged to learn the layout of the city and it made getting around more fun once you mastered the main routes. I remember going up and down Ocean Drive in Vice City because I knew all the right side turns. Kinda lost that with GTAIV where you just had to follow the yellow line. I never really got to appreciate how the city was laid out and the environment lost a little sparkle as a result.

SkyeGuardian
SkyeGuardian

I actually quite like the map system in the new Wii Zelda games. I'm sure this comment will cause some controversy, but I think the way the map fills in as you go is really good, and then when you finally find the entire dungeon map you can see where you are going to. It's s good system I think. In saying that, the dungeons in the new games are getting a bit linear, so maybe such a complete map isn't really necessary.

CISX
CISX

OMG!!!!! METROID, AND METROID II RETURN OF SAMUS, TOO DIFICULT THE FIRST TIME!!!!!!!!!!

Slash_out
Slash_out

I am torn on the subject. In one hand I love the hardcore side of games, which is why this gen is painful for me. But I've got to admit, I have terrible memory and not having a map can get frustrating. I used to try by remembering the way, but I just couldn't, so I had to draw maps which turned out worse because I kept forgetting important stuff and it was all out of proportion.. So I love the challenge, and it just feels soooo good when you achieve something with the proper challenge, but I still like my maps. I think the best compromise is a map that fills as you explore. You still have the challenge to find things and your way, but once you found it, you don't need to remember and you can concentrate on what's ahead. What REALLY sucks. Are those trail thingy in most recent adventure/rpg game. Like in Fable for exemple. Those that tell you where to go. It just ruins everything, the challenge, the exploration (you don't even look around anymore, you just look at the shiny trail) and any decent sense of achievement.

maaly81
maaly81

I still am mad I never figured out Castlevania on NES......MOved left of right and still didnt figure out how to get past a certain point in the game...

doorselfin
doorselfin moderator staff

I still have old hand-drawn maps from my fanatical Quest for Glory days back in the early 90's. Good times. I wish I had that much free time today.

ticklemonster1
ticklemonster1

how about metal gear or snakes revenge...getting lost in the woods or swamp, ah memories

stoner02
stoner02

My copy of GTA3 was missing the map in the box, I had to put this skill to use, that was hard work so I appreciate what you're getting at! Learned the streets of Liberty like the back of my hand!!

Silos911
Silos911

I don't think I ever played a game that didn't have a map. Either that or it didn't need one (Banjo Kazooie, Super Mario 64, among others). However, generally when games have maps I rarely use them anyway if at all, I can generally find my way around.

Wolf-5
Wolf-5

Man.... I remember the confusion navigating around those classic NES games like Goonies, Rambo and bunch others. Miss those days. Had to draw your own maps ;)

NightFox313
NightFox313

Goodness, Metroid Prime 2: Echoes was the most confusing game I've ever played... the maps were sure helpful in 3D, but since there were two different maps for the Light and Dark Worlds, it made it all the more confusing...

revryk
revryk

I recently went through and cleaned out some old notebooks, in one I found a rather odd, cryptic looking maze, that I realised was a map I had made for Bard's Tale 2.I remember that mapping out a maze, or even a town was just something that you needed to do if you wanted to find your way around. Most of the older games had nothing that could be easily callled landmarks,and the graphics were all pretty much green blob for trees, brown box for building.Though making a map by hand, or even writing down basic directions ( N/W/SE..etc.) , to me was a part of what made exploring a new game fun.I don't mind auto-mapping, and I even like that I can explore a game without stopping to draw a map, there is a nostlagic part of me that will always look fondly at discovering a new dungeon in Ultima IV , and pulling out the graph paper in preperation of exploring a new area.

solidsnake_cs
solidsnake_cs

If they want to make complex maps they should give u a static paper map, where you should guess where you are. Not a GPS.

Bensonator
Bensonator

@crushbrain - You picked up on something Mini maps & HUDS have killed the element of map reading. They're more like Sat Nav's than maps and make (some) games too easy to navigate. Having to load the map from either a sub menu or by some button on the controller, makes it feel like you are reading the map and you have to remember what you see, as it won't be on the HUD when you get back!! That made it FEEL like you were in control and YOU had to decide the correct path - not just follow the arrow on you in game Sat Nav.

jasonzilla11
jasonzilla11

I prefer games easier nowadays. I would rather have a good, fun time with a video game than a frustrating game that's really hard. But that's my opinion.

jjroma
jjroma

Dark Souls brings me back to the old gaming days, like you said. Mentally challenged. Games nowaday just keep you in a confortable position to enjoy the experience... more like a toy than a game.

carolynmichelle
carolynmichelle moderator staff

@mdboomer Indeed, I spent many hours adventuring in and around Skara Brae!

Hirasugi
Hirasugi

good feature. I have to agree, I do miss getting lost in games. A happy medium I've found is Fallout 3's map that highlights on the map in a rather unspecific way. It clues you in to what you haven't discovered while also not spelling out every detail. I remember getting infinitly frustrated with the maze-like subway systems. This however became a badge of pride later in the game as I traversed its caverns with ease!

Ni6htSorrow
Ni6htSorrow

I remember playing Symphony of the Night for the first time, even if it indeed does have a map, you are still required to find every place and secret corners of it. I haven't experience again the old sensation I had before when I discover a new place in SotN, and boy I'm so happy when I stumbled upon the Succubus room by my own in that game and also when I managed to get the full 200.7 percent completion rate or something.

mdboomer
mdboomer

@carolynmichelle Did you play any of the old Bard's Tale games. I remember mapping the dungeons with a piece graph paper and a pencil. Ahh the good ole days!

ClaudeLv250
ClaudeLv250

Blaster Master: Enemy Below threw me for a loop too...but that was because I had the original Blaster Master ingrained in my brain for so many years, I kept falling back on that mental map by mistake.

Voice_of_Wisdom
Voice_of_Wisdom

good old days... current games don't offer any challenge

syf82277
syf82277

Man this brings back memories for sure. I still have notebooks full of maps..Blaster Master for sure, Wizards and Warriors, Golgo 13/Mafat Conspiracy, Rygar, Zeldas....Castlevanias...Metroids...so many more. One game i could never figure out was Goonies II..just way too big and hard, and not even a great game, really. You needed a subscription to Nintendo Power for sure, just to get SOME maps, and a few hints here and there, or you had to call the tip-line, which was long distance so your parents had to pay, and you were on hold forever. Not sure if I would like that again either lol but that's the way it used to be. Man we are getting old lol... I remeber The Gaurdian Legend having a pretty decent map for that time period, and also that was one of the greatest NES games EVER hands down.

stonefish22
stonefish22

The game that I remember the most requiring map making was: ZELIARD I wonder how many people remember that game!

wavelength121
wavelength121

It was always a rule of thumb for me that any game that required you to write something down or draw something to remember it was a bad game. A play session should be confined to the screen-- you, the controller, and the screen. If a puzzle or dungeon is worth its salt, it will be intuitive enough to remember instinctively. I bought a game, not a hobby.

crushbrain
crushbrain

Kids these days, with all their fancy mini maps and HUDs. They just waypoint this or mission objective that. Why, I'll tell you what, when I was a kid, we had to use our noggins to navigate our way around a video game. Those were tough times, but it taught us character and the value of hard work.

ThePizzaBoy83
ThePizzaBoy83

I would add one additional feature to the map system described by 8-BitPenguin and Gelugon_baat. I enjoy games that place a marker at your final objective even if you haven't explored the area yet. It helps to know approximately how large the dungeon is, which aids in planning an attack strategy. Is it going to be a relatively small dungeon? Then it is OK to use some of my more powerful and costly abilities early. However, if the marker seems to indicate a sprawling dungeon, a more economical approach is best. * * I have also enjoyed the exploration in games w/o maps, but hate re-spawn! If I have cleared an area, then it is cleared I shouldn’t have to repeatedly kill things just because I don’t know where I am going.

climhazzard5
climhazzard5

Man I loved Blaster Master, still never beat it to this day.. I remember getting to a big crab boss that shoots bubbles at you and I got owned.. And to talk about crazy 'mind maps' .."Star Wars" for my original gameboy got pretty ridiculous when you got to the death star, which was a feat in itself, driving my speeder endlessly around tatooine looking for the right cave haha

Alnamus
Alnamus

I totally agree with what you say Carolyn, but I think as several other people point out here, sometimes it's a time vs reward vs fun thing. When GTA Vice City came out, I was in 8th grade. I spent every waking moment playing that game. I still know Vice City better than the street I live on now. I breathed it, bonded, vulcan friggin mind-melded with it. Didn't need the map. Sadly these days I don't have the time for that. I'd absolutely love to learn Skyrim the same way for example. But I don't have the 300+ hours to play it to that level, so having the map to fall back to is a blessing. Then again if one wanted to, it is always possible to turn off all the tracked quests and not use the map. At the end of the day, I'm still darn thankful to have the option when I only have an hour or two before bed and really wanna play something, not spend half that time figuring out where I'm going.

julianozuca
julianozuca

Reminded me of Simon's Quest (the second NES Castlevania); I just kept drawing maps in a notebook--to no help AT ALL, I must say. :P Maps that unfold as you progress are the way to go, I guess. Anyway whenever I'm stuck I just drop the game for a couple weeks--the solution appears like magic in front of me when I get back with a fresh mind. :)

ss6699ss
ss6699ss

If I had enough time to play games, I'd enjoy the game without maps. So, maps in the game can save the time.

SeptuagintXXX
SeptuagintXXX

We need more splatterhouse games!!!! Goddammit. Splatterhouse is the greatest franchise of all time.

SeptuagintXXX
SeptuagintXXX

why did Final Fantasy 13 have a map? The entire game you went in a straight line.

wolfbm
wolfbm

BSEE10 must not have grown up with NES difficulty...there wasn't an us and them it was most games of that day had a difficulty level that puts to shame many of the games today who consider them "hard". Meanwhile to topic....I still can't get through the first level of Super Metroid!

Skeet1983
Skeet1983

Game: Legend of Zelda (aka Zelda 1) Area(s): Any of the endless sections. Mainly Lost Woods :( ANGER! SMASH STUFF!