How our perception of space in games changes depending on our maps
The first thing I loved about games was exploration. I remember the layout of The Legend of Zelda’s Hyrule better than that of my elementary school. I spent considerable time trying to reconcile it with the map of Zelda 2 just to understand the world better. I played through Doom and Doom 2 on God Mode because I liked walking around the 3D levels finding secret rooms. I discovered MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons), the Zork-like text-based precursors of the MMORPG, and spent much of my adolescence wandering around in them and furiously sketching up maps. I didn’t like fighting, I tolerated puzzles, but setting foot in some virtual place I’d never been was a thrill every time.
When I talk about exploration, I don’t mean movement in general. A lot of movement in games happens between a known Point A and Point B, with a clear expectation of what happens at Point B. For example, I need to get my paddle an inch upwards so it intersects the pong ball. Exploration, on the other hand, is the kind of movement where Point B is unknown or poorly defined and you don’t know what to expect when you get there. You wander around a bit and see what happens. It’s one of those mechanics that not every player enjoys, but those who enjoy it tend to think it should be in every game.
I am content to explore for exploration’s sake, but in most game design exploration is a means to an end. The purpose of wandering around varies according to the nature of the game world and the objects in it. In many RPGs exploring will reward you with side quests or unique items. The effect is to reward the player for a lack of focus on primary goals and to imply that the world is filled with interesting things just outside your field of vision. This is exploration used to bolster the illusion of a large and active world that doesn’t entirely revolve around the player character. By contrast, in adventure games, exploration mainly leads you to items and locations to be used as puzzle fodder. You learn to view the environment in terms of its possible functional properties.
Games use exploration for a variety of purposes, but a common theme is that the player is building up mental map of the world. This is what distinguishes free exploration from goal-directed movement. It’s like the difference between learning a route by walking it or consulting a map, or learning a route by following a GPS device. If you just follow someone else’s directions step by step, you don’t really learn the space. Games force you to explore when they want you to build up a mental map, and players explore when building that map is pleasurable to them.
That was me when I played text MUDs as a teenager, including AOL’s Dragon’s Gate (whose developers went on to create the early MMO Dark Ages of Camelot) and the hardcore-roleplaying ArmageddonMUD. I just wanted to see everything the game world had to offer. I walked around alone for hours, mapping the unpopular and lonely spaces that other players didn’t congregate in. In Dragon’s Gate I found a little village by the ocean, a charming but empty city in the treetops, and a vast desert devoid of all life except scorpions, which I diligently ran away from. Spending all my time walking around did not make my character much of a fighter.
I brought back piles of maps from these explorations. I scratched them out on graph paper with tiny, weird labels and annotations. In many ways, this was the point of my travels. Once I’d mapped an area I felt satisfied with it and was happy to go back to town and dick around with fairies some more. I kept the scruffy little maps in a folder somewhere, ready to be pulled out if I suddenly needed to check whether a store had any new rare hats, or to seek out any new areas that were rumored to have opened up. The rest of the time I just sat around some dense room in the central city, idly performing pointless roleplay macros and waiting for something to happen.
That these maps were drawn out on graph paper says something about the game worlds I was exploring in MUDs. These worlds were graphs. A MUD, like a text adventure or interactive fiction game, is made up of rooms with directional connections between them. These spaces are naturally represented as boxes with lines drawn in between. Each room is its own separate space. This is not unique to text-based games. Early graphical adventures borrowed the same basic structure from their predecessors. In games like those in the King’s Quest series, you could walk around within a room, but you couldn’t move smoothly to the next room. You were still choosing to go east, west, north, or south, and popping into a brand new space accordingly. Expand the size of the rooms and you end up in the big linked spaces of the 3D Final Fantasy games and any other modern game with disjoint levels. There’s no real map there. The world does not exist as a continuous space. You can build mental models within rooms, though. As the rooms get larger, the boundary between graph and map gets fuzzier.
That boundary between two separate spaces, like two rooms or two levels, changes the nature of the steps you take. Every movement in a game opens and closes some possible actions. Moving between two rooms in a graph makes for a sudden, drastic change in this space of possibility. Moving around a map results in smoother transitions. This leads to a drastically different experience of exploration. When a world is a fully continuous map, as it is in open-world exploration games like those in the Elder Scrolls and Grand Theft Auto series, learning the space is more or less like learning a space in the real world. When a world is a graph, you’re learning a lot of relationships between abstract objects.
With my abiding interest in mapping, it’s perhaps not surprising that I became infuriated when my maps got hard to make. Impossible spaces made me angry. They were rampant in those MUD worlds, though, as there were no constraints to prevent them. The world was a purely abstract graph of rooms and links between rooms. There was no reason those links had to correspond to a physically plausible configuration. The vastness of the desert was conveyed by the use of repeating rooms. Walk as long as you like in a certain direction and all you would see is an infinite array of identical “sandy wastelands” with the occasional scorpion. This is a common trope in games with a graphlike spatial representation. Old-school graphical adventures like Sierra’s King’s Quest V and Conquests of Camelot used the same trick. I would patiently head north over and over, marking down the identical squares on my map, only to die of thirst or some such damn thing. Other times, the graph would screw around with directions to create a sense of disorientation. Going north and east wasn’t always equivalent to going northeast. My graph paper got overplotted and violently erased; sometimes I had to throw it out and start over.
This sort of thing made me angry. I wasn’t just making those maps as a recipe to get from point A to point B. I wanted to understand the world I was walking through. I wanted to believe it represented a coherent space where the mountains cut across here and the the desert begins and ends here. The infinities and overplottings didn’t just annoy me by messing up my graph paper. They made it hard to reason about the world. I wanted to know how big the desert was, not just how to get across it.
The more impossible the spaces get, the more abstract the world becomes. You can no longer use your real-world mental mapping abilities to learn your way around. Knowing how to get from Point A to Point B becomes more like knowing the constraints of a puzzle. Exploration is less about wandering, and more about searching.
When I play in game worlds with continuous maps, it feels like coming home. My first game of this kind was Morrowind, and it made itself thrillingly available to my spatial reasoning from my first steps onward. Spaces were rigid and made sense; buildings were as big on the inside as they looked on the outside. Going north then east meant going northeast every time. Deserts obeyed the constraints of Euclidean geometry. I didn’t need to draw maps anymore. The big, charming fold-out map that came with my game actually corresponded to the world in a predictable way. When I wanted to go to some town, I just pointed it out on my map, found a path, and went there. This was so new. Every other map of this kind I’d seen was an approximation of a graph, and often a loose approximation at that. If I tried that shit in A Bard’s Tale I’d end up at the North Pole. This changed everything.
The shift from a graph to a continuous map has profound effects on exploration, in large and small ways. Logically, it leads to a more cohesive space. Transitions between areas need to be justified and bound together. A graph can dodge this work, but a fully visible, continuous map must articulate every step. As a result, the map creates a unified world with interesting in-between places. You can see the landscape change from farmland to foothills to mountains. Graphs can represent these transitional areas, but the hard boundaries between rooms make for an awkward fit. The foothills are now a separate area with its own boundaries between farmland and mountain.
At the same time, soft boundaries create problems of their own. They force a certain amount of extra space in between regions to allow for gentle changes. Great spaces are tiresome to explore, even for the most diligent. The challenge becomes making transitions feel appropriately gradual while reducing travel time. Fast travel is a crude solution, and in any case, it doesn’t help with the first journey to a location. This problem is trivial in a graph world. Each room can represent a variable amount of space, so spaces contract and expand as the designer wishes. It’s a great power. Multiplying rooms makes the desert feel interminable, while a less important vast region can be shrunk to a single point. The impossible spaces that frustrated my map-making abilities so much are a great tool for controlling the pace and emphasis of space.
A continuous map doesn’t have the same luxury, so tricks must be employed. Both Morrowind and Skyrim make liberal use of mountains to separate spaces in a seemingly organic fashion, throwing up hard boundaries in a soft-boundary world. This adds more control to the pacing of space by making parts of it harder and slower to traverse. It also separates and contains spaces, making areas feel more distant than they really are Oblivion avoided this trick, and as a consequence felt small, despite the developers’ frustrated insistence that the map was 16 square miles to Morrowind’s 10.
There was a period in college when I spent my apparently considerable leisure time split between the wide open spaces of Morrowind and the lovingly written rooms of ArmageddonMUD. I had plenty of time to consider these differences, and how they affected my behavior. The memories come back to me now as I play Skyrim and try (against great odds) to cultivate an appreciation for interactive fiction. I love exploring worlds in both kinds of games, yet the spaces are so different I’m not sure it even makes sense to call the activities by the same name. The feel of exploration is deeply dependent on the nature of the space and the steps you take in it.