Maps in My Head

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

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?

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