Man, What Happened to World Maps?

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In my last post I talked about how what attracted me to Paper Mario: Sticker Star was something other than the storyline, however well-written it may be. That something was the fact that the game had a traversable world map. I don’t know why, but that feature is an instant attractor for me, and I’m a bit sad that it’s in decline on console RPGs.

Honestly, the first time I even became slightly interested in Sticker Star was when I saw a trailer that displayed the world map for about two seconds. That’s really all it took.

I think the core reason is that top-down world maps in games immediately tickle my thirst for exploration — my favorite thing to do in video games. In a lot of games, the first moment that actually sucks me into the experience is when I first see the world map and get an idea of how much space there is to explore. For me this has happened in various games from Dragon Quest IX to Assassin’s Creed II. Part of it is how rare classic overworld-style exploration is in RPGs these days.

Understandably it was necessary back in the old days of console gaming because the hardware wouldn’t allow for entire to-scale worlds. The miniaturized world map was a great way to quickly illustrate the fact that your characters were on a journey all over the world, discovering new locations. It’s a very easy way to make the player feel like they’re going on the kind of an adventure a Baggins would undertake.

Maybe I’m wrong about this, but from my view the overhead world map went into decline on consoles during the PS2 era and never really recovered. More and more games opted to illustrate relatively smaller traversable worlds and rendered them all to-scale, like Final Fantasy X’s straight path through Spira. Others simply have world maps displayed as menus. Many of these games aren’t exactly worse off for it, but they never really gave a great reason for abandoning the classic world map system.

The only reason I can think of is that since now games can render good-looking full-scaled character models, they don’t want to have them walking around on top of a miniaturized world. I have to admit having a character standing as tall as the icon representing a town is a bit cartoonish, but could that aesthetic choice really have that big an impact on gameplay?

One of the only console RPGs to have a fully traversable world map during the last console generation was Tales of Symphonia, and it was one of my favorite Gamecube games partly for that reason. The amount of exploration involved in that game set it apart from most other RPGs of the time in my mind, and it didn’t look goofy seeing the characters run across the map. Then again, that whole game had a straight-up anime art style.

Maybe the reason Ni No Kuni is probably the first PS3 game I’ve seen with a traditional world map is because Japanese console games in general have been on a decline on today’s consoles. As far as I know Western RPGs have never had a tradition for world maps in the same way, but I think even they can inspire exploration, if in their own way.

In my experience Bethesda games are extremely good at this, just on a smaller scale (today at least). Maybe everyone doesn’t want to write a story about a character who traverses the entire globe (a commonality in JRPGs), but rendering a whole country like Skyrim nearly to-scale inspires a similar sense of space. If you think about it, the Mass Effect games basically use a classic world map system, just with a space ship traveling the galaxy instead of an airship traveling across one planet.

Just from how games like that, and even non-RPGs like Assassins Creed or Far Cry, show off their world maps screens, I can tell that developers know the value of showing off a big world to players. Maybe they just want all playable areas of that big world to be shown to-scale. Maybe they see traditional miniaturized world maps as something beyond which they’ve evolved. I however think they’re just as effective as ever in their original purpose.

BULLETS:

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