For many of us, it started with J.R.R. Tolkien’s maps of Middle Earth. The LOTR saga created a huge history of hobbits, orcs, elves, and dragons that was pinned to a “reality” by the great maps drawn by Tolkien and his son Christopher. Nearly every fantasy saga since has leveraged that use of imaginary cartography.
No surprise then that the fantastic worlds of video games followed suit with great world-building. From the primitive maps of Atari’s 1979 “Adventure” through 1998’s top down “Grand Theft Auto” for the PlayStation to the sprawling newer worlds of “The Elder Scrolls, “The Witcher,” “Horizon Zero Dawn” and many more on modern consoles, the creation of worlds with maps to record them is a passionate sub-field of game design.
A key criticism of fantasy world-building comes from geologists and cartographers, who note that many of the maps they see in literature and games could not possibly exist on a physical planet. Rivers flow the wrong ways, and mountain ranges rise in patterns that no plate tectonics could create.
As games become more sophisticated, astute players demand a world that feels true to life—they want verisimilitude. As such, game designers working with maps will need to give more attention not only to the narratives of the stories they wish to tell but also to the laws of physics and geology to mimic a real-world experience.
At AIE, we propose and prototype a LOT of games! Along with that we do in art and programming, this cartographic element of design is one more fun piece to consider. Because, if it’s done right, a game map can hook a player just like Tolkien’s maps hooked so many readers for generations.
If you want to look at more about maps and games, here are a few resources:
Article contributed by James Cardo