World maps! Let’s talk about ‘em. They’ve been a staple of the JRPG landscape (pun intended, if you see a pun there) since the dawn of time/mid-80s, and, in terms of quality, they tend to span a wide range from butt-ugly and purely utilitarian all the way to Winslow Homer-esque watercolor masterpieces so pretty that it almost seems a shame to tromp across them. They’re not limited to JRPGs either, depending on how you define them (the world map is truly in the eye of the beholder)—is a world map a condensed, bird’s-eye view of a game’s planet from which you, the player, can access towns and dungeons using a disproportionately humongous version of your protagonist? Sure. Is it also the entirety of a game’s landscape in an open-world game like Skyrim, even though the player is never forcibly zoomed out to a condensed version of that landscape to get from place to place? You tell me, friendo. Could be.
But we’ll set aside that philosophical discussion for another time. I’m not trying to start a War of the Words between thin-skinned linguists, horrific triumph though that might be. Instead, I’d rather talk about a few of my favorite (and un-favorite) world maps using the flexible quasi-list format that you’ll see set out for your reading pleasure below.
Let’s start with some of the early stuff. Final Fantasy VI (Final Fantasy III to us suckers in America) presents what I consider to be the archetypal JRPG world map. It has everything: giant pixels, airships, random encounters, tons of vivid green nature and other assorted forms of geography, seemingly-impassable obstacles that later open up to provide access to new areas, and a version of your controllable character that, were the map’s proportions rendered literally, would stand thousands of feet above the treeline as the giantest giant in the land. Upon the game’s release, most of those features became so functional and popular that they would grow up to become full-on tropes for the genre, although, like many early game “features,” they were initially included due to system limitations rather than some auteur’s vision of game design. In other words, since there was no feasible way to convey a real sense of scale in traveling on foot from, say, the city of Narshe to Figaro Castle using the standard, in-game, town-or-dungeon viewpoint, the game’s developers finagled a world map to be used as a shortcut. Out on the world map, the in-game universe seems sprawling, and far-apart locations actually feel far apart. It’s an illusion, to be sure, but it’s a good one.
There are a few standout features of Final Fantasy VI’s world map that are worth highlighting in particular. First, compared to so many world maps that are static and immovable—“this is the game world, deal with it”—Final Fantasy VI’s map changes, often dramatically. An early-game puzzle is resolved (or not resolved, if you’re me at age 9) by sending a castle—a whole CASTLE!—rocketing down into the desert and underneath a mountain range to bust out of the ground elsewhere like a particularly castle-y groundhog. Later, the entire map gets blown up and reshuffled in an apocalyptic explosion of, y’know, magic, and everything that was old and familiar is suddenly new again and demanding re-exploration. That’s pretty goddamned cool. Also, there’s an airship-sized winged zombie dragon named Deathgaze tearing around the burned-looking sky at about a million miles an hour, so if you find yourself out for a casual airship cruise, you’re liable to end up in a truly panic-inducing head-on collision with him if you’re not a careful driver.
Yes, I’m following up a Final Fantasy map with another Final Fantasy map. But with good reason! In terms of world maps (and other stuff, but I’m talking about world maps), Final Fantasy VII, as is probably the aim in most sequels, directly expands on what was started in Final Fantasy VI. Most obviously, there’s a shift from the use of boxy pixels to polygons. Whether that’s an aesthetic improvement or not is subjective—Final Fantasy VII’s map looked pretty great in 1999 but isn’t exactly blowing my hair back in 2016. Art aside, though, polygons also allowed for a shift into the rumored THIRD DIMENSION. The camera still defaults to a way-overhead position, but you can move it around and see that those mountains, weirdly flat and lifeless in Final Fantasy VI, actually project upward from the ground in Final Fantasy VII, just as the beaches recede gently into the ocean. Everything’s still zoomed out, and Cloud is still comparatively monster-sized, but at least now it feels like he’s traveling through an actual world and not just walking across the surface of a topographical placemat.
So what else is awesome here? Well, there’s an entire continent shaped liked a Chocobo, and if you’re not into that, frankly, you can take your readership elsewhere, because we’re not on the same page regarding what’s awesome. Also great about that Chocobo-shaped continent: it’s covered in snow! It’s the northernmost landmass in Final Fantasy VII’s game world, and since meteorology teaches us that weather is generally colder up north, shit is accordingly frosty. That’s some unassailable logic. What’s more, Cloud makes footprints in the snow as he hikes through it, the battle sequences are set in the snow, and there’s a town called Glacier Village that is basically a ski resort. There were snowy locations in Final Fantasy VI too, but here that snow is reflected on the world map, and everything that takes place in that snowy area of the map is itself snowy. It’s all cohesive in a very pleasing, and very cold, way. Oh, and if you head south, you’ll eventually hit the sun belt and stumble into Costa Del Sol, one of the sexiest beach towns you’re likely to visit in this life or the next.
Final Fantasy VII’s map is also lousy with secrets. Final Fantasy VI’s map had secrets too, but not like this. In the far southwest, for instance, there’s a tiny, nondescript sliver of an island where Final Fantasy’s patented flailing cactus-guy, Cactuar, makes his home; on the opposite corner of the map is an island ringed by mountains that is only accessible via a carefully-bred golden chocobo and that hides the game’s most stupidly powerful summon magic. And that’s not to even mention the freaky stuff happening at the bottom of the ocean (talk about your third dimension).
These maps suck, bro. I love these games—really, I do, Pahn is so hungry all the time—but these maps are trash. They do provide a useful example of how not to put together a world map, though.
DON’T make a map so hyper-repetitive that it’s impossible to differentiate any one location from the next because every tree and forest and sandy footpath looks exactly the same. DON’T make me track down a fucking cartographer to give me a mini-map to finally let me see where the hell I am relative to everything else. DON’T withhold airships from me. I need those to get around! Magic mirrors are NOT the same.
The problem with the maps in the early Suikodens is that you never really get a sense of the world at large. You’re trekking around the usual mountain ranges and deserts, yes, but it’s tough to nail down exactly where you are on the compass rose at any given time. Am I in deep in the northern regions? Am I way in the southeastern corner? What does this world even look like? Shit if I know, though it’d be fair to speculate that it looks like what would happen if I fell asleep with my elbow on the create-grass-and-dirt button in the original SimCity.
Whewwwwwheee (that’s what it sounds like when I whistle approvingly), this game’s world map is truly next-level. This is what the absolute pinnacle of Traditional World Map Evolution looks like, at least as of August of 2016. Mark that date. I guess it’s possible that there are another few links in the chain after this one, but I sure as hell can’t imagine what they might look like—my brain might melt if I try, and I don’t want to risk that kind of lasting damage. Ni No Kuni’s world map is far and away the prettiest I’ve encountered in my travels, and it’s actually just as pleasurable to navigate, given its courteous removal of random encounters from the equation. Enemies can be seen from a good ways away, usually minding their own business and patrolling their own little areas, and while they can’t always be avoided once you come within range, at least you can see them coming. That’s good news, because it leaves you open to really dive into the business of exploring the map or, if the mood strikes, simply putting the controller down and engaging in some old-fashioned slack-jawed gawking. The whole game is beyond beautiful—it’s the closest approximation to playing a Hayao Miyazaki cartoon out there—but it’s the world map that really seems designed to blow minds. Valleys are green and lush and dotted with poofy copses of trees, deserts are dry and hot (probably) and criss-crossed by mini-sandstorms, and the ocean is where you’re going to want to park your pirate ship to watch the sun set over the mountains off the coast and maybe light up a cigar and think about your life.
I bet the snowy places in the far reaches are spectacular too, but full disclosure: I never got that far. As beautiful as the game is, I couldn’t quite get on board with Oliver’s unending quest to raise a bunch of animals to fight on his behalf. It was all a little too Pokémon for me, but I’m still hit with the frequent urge to fire the game back up and wander around for a while.
Ahh, the original world map. Or…the original open world game? Fair question. The Legend of Zelda actually conflates a standard world map viewpoint with the game itself—you don’t wander up to gingerbread house versions of towns and dungeons to enter the towns and dungeons themselves—but it still seems at least partially responsible for paving the way for separated-out world maps down the road. If for no other reason (although there are lots of reasons), The Legend of Zelda is noteworthy for its use of the whole map as a massive, interlocking puzzle. Burn the right tree and you’ve found yourself a staircase; bomb a boulder and you may collect a heart piece, you curious arsonist. It’s a giant space with well-defined zones that rewards careful exploration (and re-exploration), and that’s enough to land it a coveted spot on this mini-list. Honorable mention goes, of course, to Zelda: A Link to the Past, for being a kickass game all around (maybe the best Zelda game, depending on who you ask) and for its own unique and equally awesome version of Final Fantasy VI’s post-apocalyptic world (a “mirror world” here).
So here we are, years removed from the humble beginnings of world maps in the likes of Final Fantasy and Suikoden and company, and the world map has become something of a rarified species. It still exists, but it’s mostly confined to games like Ni No Kuni that are intentionally set up as throwback JRPGs. What I’m trying to say is “they don’t make ‘em like they used to.” What they do make, however, are games like The Witcher III and the upcoming Final Fantasy XV, where whatever world map may have once been needed due to hardware limitations is collapsed into the game itself. In these modern games, what used to be considered impossible—bridging the gaps between key locations in a natural, realistic way—is quite possible indeed, so you can leave that early-level town and make towards that distant castle and actually get there without ever transitioning to a separate map. And that’s pretty cool! The castle inches closer on the horizon, you fight off some pesky sand-monsters and down a few potions, and suddenly you’re there, you’ve arrived at that castle in the distance, and you never encountered a break in the game’s reality. And what’s crazy is how little detail is lost in such a significant expansion to the game’s “playable” space—The Witcher III is stuffed with things to do and see no matter which direction you decide to go adventuring, and every inch of the world is etched with the sort of tiny flourishes that you can’t quite believe a crew of game developers saw fit to spend so much time on.
It’s all beautiful and immersive, but shit—things used to be so simple. Technology has rendered the world map functionally obsolete, but if you ask me, it still has a place in today’s gamescape as a damn good way to tell a story and to give our small heroes a sense of the big worlds they’re inhabiting, even if—proportionally—those heroes look big enough to flatten the forests with the soles of their feet.
When he’s not chained to his desk during the workdays, Lewis Beard is a writer, gamer, and musician living in Atlanta, Georgia. You can check out his thoughts on a wide range of random, possibly compelling topics at run4itmarty.com, and you can bask in the filthy goodness of his music on Bandcamp.