Thursday, 25 February 2010

The way through the woods

Have a look at this.

It's the entire outdoor environment from The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening on Gameboy. It's pretty much actual size, which means that when playing it on a tiny Gameboy screen you can only see about four square inches at any one time. The various doorways you can see lead to separate houses and dungeons (not pictured), but this picture gives you a good idea of the overall size of the game. When I played it I only covered about 25% of that picture. The bottom left hand corner, to be precise, as the game starts you off in the little house surrounded by a log fence above the telephone building and below the funny statue thing. That much took me over a month (I found the dungeons really hard). 

After that, the plastic cover fell off the screen of my Gameboy. I tried to re-attach it using superglue, which was a poor idea. I was left with large white thumbprints underneath the screen which obscured vital treasure chests and keyholes, meaning I was unable wake the windfish (or whatever).

Considering that last week's column was a transparent attempt to elicit sympathy from readers in order to net a book deal and a permanant place in Waterstone's "Tragic Life Stories" shelf, perhaps this week's entry should be less about me and my hardships and more about video games. Especially since the superglue thing was largely my own fault. Largely.

So anyway, I was actually looking for something else (never mind what) when I came across the above picture. However, when I saw it was so caught up in a Proustian wave of nostalgia (have I mentioned quite how well-read I am?) that I decided to write about game maps.

Technically of course, the Link's Awakening picture is not really a map but the actual game environment. Never mind. I find the simplicity of it rather lovely. Perhaps because it reminds me of those Usborne Puzzle books I used to read when I wasn't old enough not to eat Gameboy cartridges.

No, it's alright, there's no rush. If you want to help the penguin find his way back to the other penguins, that's fine. I can wait.


Right. As I was saying, the Link's Awakening picture isn't actually a map, it's the environment which Link has to explore in order to wake the windfish so he can get home. But no matter. I'm going to have to be a little idiosyncratic in my definition of the word "map" if I'm going to write anything at all, because in a game context, the word "map" often just means "level" or "environment", which is far too big a subject for your Friday morning coffee break. Let's use the word "map" in the way that your Geography teacher might have used it, or as Wikipedia so wisely says: "a visual representation of an area—a symbolic depiction highlighting relationships between elements of that space such as objects, regions and themes".

Like this:

That's a map of Cyrodil, the land in which fantasy epic Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion takes place. Since Oblivion has a medieval feel, the map actually looks like a map drawn on parchment. What's nice about it is the fact that as you discover things (dungeons, tiny villiages, homesteads, caves etc), they appear on your map. Many games have maps which become more detailed as you play, which gives them a nice sense of realism. If you were an adventurer, wouldn't you want to mark the locations of things you found on your travels?

Around the same time as gaming was evolving at an increasing rate of knots, a duo called Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone launched their Fighting Fantasy series of choose-you-own-adventure books. If I remember correctly, the first one was the splendidly titled The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. I found a copy a car boot sale once that was older than me. 

As you may be able to decipher from the cover, "you are the hero". In other words, rather than reading a story about an adventurer wandering around on Firetop Mountain, the book's prose is written in second-person, letting you know when "you" entered a dungeon and what it was "you" found. Chapters were numbered and each only a couple of paragraphs long. At the end of each chapter, the reader is given a choice of two or more decisions, each of which which would lead to another numbered chapter, i.e. "If you choose the Gold Helmet, turn to chaper 67. If you choose the Rusty Helmet, turn to chapter 124".* 

Often, the choice would be between two directions. Now, The Warlock of Firetop Mountain and its ilk were best enjoyed honestly. In other words, if you decide to turn left and chapter 89 states dispassionately that "You fall into a pit of poisoned spikes and are killed instantly. Your quest is at an end", then it really is best to start again and try to avoid a similar pitfall next time as opposed to pretending it didn't happen and going back to the page that cheerfully suggested you choose between left and right. This way, you feel more of a sense of achievement when you got to the end. I make no apologies for being sanctimonious.

Anyway. Because the book was quite long, the best way to avoid repeated failure was to hand draw a map to remind you which way to turn at particular junctures. 

Many games are similar in this respect in that the size of the map is indicative of how much of the game you have covered. This is of course far more relevant in exploration games as opposed to action games because if you've spent the last twenty minutes fighting a hoard of zombies, the last thing you want to be doing is fannying about looking for the home of the guy who collects Nirnroot.

There are a few exploration games which do not have maps, because a map might enable the player to work out what they were supposed to do, which would take away all the fun. Far better to drive a player to distraction, wandering around in circles, unaware that they have been standing on a trap door for the last five hours. Not mentioning any names here.

Maps which are accessible to game players generally make an attempt to be contextually appropriate. Just as Oblivion has its parchment scroll, so many games wit a science-fiction setting often feature a "digital" map on some sort of hand-held computer carried around by the player. I'll use Fallout 3 as an example, simply becuase it's similar in gameplay style to Oblivion. The character (designed by the player) carries around  Pip-Boy 3000, a rusty console attached to his or her wrist. Thus when the player accesses the map, it makes contextual sense that the character would look at the small screen on their wrist rather than being removed from the gameworld to look at a map through the menu screen.

Beyond Good and Evil's heroine Jade is a photo-reporter by trade, and so carries her camera wherever she goes. Although the map of her homeworld, Hillys, is largely complete when the game starts (although you can buy devices to help you "detect" points of interest), she's understandably less familiar with the layout of the shady Nutripills factory. Fittingly, Jade has to find a map on the wall of the factory and then take a picture of it before she can have it to hand throughout her trip. It's a nice touch.

Likewise, Commander Shepherd only gains access to this Galaxy Map once he or she is given command of the Normandy

Some game maps don't really correspond with the gameworld. Rather they serve as a visual aid so players can choose which level they play. Such maps are less common these days, simply becuase the rather insular "level" structure of games is less common. 

This is the "World Map" from Super Mario Bros. on the SNES. As those of you who are currently weeping with nostalgia and the poignancy of lost youth will know, this "World Map" was only used to navigate between levels. A chunky Mario (or Luigi) avatar would stand on the location of the level you just finished (often signified by dots, lilke the ones in the middle of junctions), and would shuffle at your command to the next dot. These maps came about because players didn't have to move on immediately from one level to the next, but could revisit levels in order to find hidden areas or collect more coins. Of course, in order to move forward and have access to more levels, they had to get to the end of the one before.

The "World Map" method is far more intuative and visually appealing (not to mention more immersive) than simply having a list of levels in a menu screen.

This one's rather nice. Although Bayonetta is almost completely linear,  it features a rather sweet map screen which shows a child moving a Bayonetta doll around a map on the floor. This serves no practical purpose as far as gameplay is concerned, but it's a nice depiction of the gameworld. The lack of any scale whatsoever also makes bizarre sense in a game which takes very little notice of boring terrestrial notions such as physics.

Just to re-inforce today's lesson, this is the menu screen from Donkey Kong Country. Charmingly, all the Donkey Kong levels used to be cute puns based on whatever adversary Donkey has to face therein. This on, "Very Gnawty's Lair" featured a large-toothed beaver who had stolen a load of bananas. The map screen clearly depicts the path Donkey and Diddy take through the world. Note the pile of bananas next to Gnawty's lair.

That's it really. This week has been more instructional than anything else. It's hard to strike a balance between arguing a point and being informative. Often I just end up doing one or the other, which I hope isn't too tiresome.

Also, I'm beginning to realise where the holes in my gaming experience are. Every gamer has them. It's just that if you're a book/music/film enthusiast, your field is so large that everyone expects you to stick largely to a few genres/decades. Gaming is younger and less populous, so it should be easier to (proportionally) increase one's knowledge of many more games. But age-old restrictions such as money and hardware hamper this somewhat.

I'm not saying that Donkey Kong Country isn't the 16-bit equivilent of Ulysses, but I wonder if I have said all there is to say about it, you know?


Oh, speaking of literary greats, did you know that the video-game adaptation of Dante's Inferno is out? I am honestly lost for words. Poor old Dante Alighieri eh? Born 700 years too early to fully realise his Divine Comedy in the medium which could fully do it justice.

When I stop crying, I'll let you know how that turns out.

*If you ever find yourself reading/playing The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, I implore you to choose the Rusty Helmet.

1 comment:

  1. I love the map on 'Critter Crunch'! There's so much going on that I end up sitting watching it for way too long. I like the Octopus that pops out of the sea to wave at me. (He only waves at me, not Gavin.)