Game Maps and Conventional Maps

Games and game narrative have more to do with maps than some might realize. In the development of game worlds, each distinct area is referred to as a map. The usage of the term is interesting, as the game may or may not provide the player with a viewable map. Calling these areas maps seems to have more to do with the way the developers view them as they create them. In this sense, maps, in the game development process, are not a source of information, but a tool for creation. They achieve a certain means rather than being a means in themselves.

The manner in which games separate areas into multiple distinct maps flies in the face of the logic behind how we use real-world maps. With the exception of world maps, the maps in games don’t inform our understanding of the relationship between different locations. Quite the opposite, game maps focus on the experience of a game world on a more discrete level. Games may even include multiple slightly different maps seemingly of the same area in order to facilitate large changes in the area at different points in time (this is by no means required for smaller things to change). These game maps, rather than providing information from a broader perspective, instead create a sense of being in a place unique to this form of storytelling.

It’s probably fair to say that maps in the conventional sense are something different, as conventional maps zoom out beyond the perspective on the ground rather than in. But, of course, it is far from rare for these types of maps to be incorporated into games as well. Despite being “conventional” maps, however, these maps in games do not tend to function in the same way. The closest corollary outside games would be GPS navigation, but even that can lack the same variation in scale.

In class, some of us mentioned the maps included in fantasy novels such as The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Chronicles of Narnia. This use of maps in storytelling is fascinating in how they attempt to do much the same thing that games do in incorporating maps. The key word, however, is attempt. Flapping back in forth between the map at the front and your place in the text is not necessarily intuitive. This setup also make the reader as responsible for their current place on the map as their current place in the text.

That games can remember both these things for the player is only the tip of the iceberg. Novels miss one of the fundamental characteristics of maps: nonlinearity. Linearity is an aspect of time and very much the assumption behind timelines. Maps, in their focus on space, do away with timelines’ focus on time, and vice-versa. Games make tremendous use of that focus on space, even in the most linear games that exist. Interactive storytelling is, by definition, nonlinear regardless of how small the possible diversions become.

The way games build up a sense of space likewise opens up possibilities to convey a fractured sense of space, more clearly than any other form of storytelling, for specific narrative purposes. This has been done in different degrees and different ways with interesting results. Where maps provide additive possibilities for this form of storytelling, they likewise provide subtractive possibilities.


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