Give Me More World Maps In My RPGs

Here's to the world map. Here's to those goofy, disproportionate, inelegant pieces of virtual parchment that we've been exploring for the past three decades. Let's bring'em back.

A world map, for those of you who might not be familiar with the concept, is the video game term for the strangely-scaled pieces of geography that string together the cities and dungeons of a role-playing game. Instead of moving between snakelike passageways or teleporting across oceans, you'll exit a city and find yourself in some sort of weird version of reality where planets are flat and topography fits nicely on a square grid. You'll travel miles and miles not in hours but in mere seconds, stampeding across fields as if you've somehow grown to Godzillian proportions.

See, back in the day, when the creators of games like Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy were dreaming up fantastical lands for players to explore, they knew that they'd have to find some way to make their worlds feel massive. Of course it would be impractical to design them like the real world, in which it would take you quite some time to walk between continents, so these creators decided to establish their own laws of physics. Enter the world map, where scale is skewed and your heroes are the size of cities. Where you can see every location that a game has to offer in glorious flat form.

There are always rules to these maps, of course. Your character can never walk over mountains or bodies of water. Often you'll have to find some sort of vehicle -- like a floating airship or submarine or neon horsebird -- to access everything. Terrain is structured not to make geographical sense, but to get you where the story-teller wants you to go.

I love the feeling of walking into a new world and imagining everything there is to offer. I love to scrutinise the terrain and try to find what's hidden in every corner of a fictional world.

These days, not a lot of RPGs have world maps. With the era of realistic graphics has come a depressing trend: everything has to be real. Serious. There's no room for skewed realities or characters the size of mountains. Worlds are depicted with proper proportions: the deserts of Final Fantasy XII, the endless plateaus of Xenoblade, the grassy fields of Pokemon.

But I'm still in love with those disproportionate world maps. I love the feeling of walking into a new world and imagining everything there is to offer. I love to scrutinize the terrain and try to find what's hidden in every corner of a fictional world. I love firing up an airship for the first time. Flying everywhere. Unlocking secrets.

Maybe you remember starting up Dragon Quest as a child. Maybe you felt some sort of wonder when you first saw the world of Alefgard. Maybe you were overwhelmed by its size, enamoured at the thought that you could explore the whole thing.

Or maybe you remember how it felt when you left Midgar for the first time in Final Fantasy VII, only to discover that, no, this high-tech city wasn't all you were getting. You'd just seen a fraction of what the game had to offer. Suddenly there were fields and hills and mountains and nasty giant snakes that immediately wiped out your whole party if you stepped in the wrong place.

Here's the part where you might throw around the word "nostalgia" and say that world maps are stupid, that I only like them because I grew up exploring them, that I'm "totally biased." And here's the part where I tell you you're wrong.

A world map, more than anything, is a collection of symbols. Symbols for castles that expand once you enter them. Symbols for mountains that block your progress. Symbols for your character. Symbols for the passage of time. Symbols for the distance you travel.

Perhaps most importantly, a map is a symbol that says "hey, you can have everything". Long before games like Grand Theft Auto and Morrowind set our current definition of "open world" games, Japanese RPGs were blazing their own paths. These designers were laying all of their cards on the table. "Here's everything we've made: go explore. Go find our secrets. Fly around this world and own it."

There's a reason you almost never see NPCs on world maps. This is your playground. You get to fight the monsters. You get to fly around. You get to hunt down the treasure.

A role-playing game is nothing but a collection of symbols. Levels to symbolise your power. Statistics to tell you how strong you are, how quick you are, how smart you are. Swords that can be upgraded or replaced to do more damage -- as if swords can actually do more damage when you give them a new hilt or mineral. We've come to accept these symbols because they have meaning to us. They say something. They make us feel something.

Maps are no different. So give me those weird, wacky little symbols of cartography that signify nations and cities. Give me castles the size of people that suddenly morph into massive dungeons when you step inside them. Give me more world maps.

Random Encounters is a weekly column dedicated to all things JRPG.


    What if the hilt causes the sword to catch on fire? Huh? It'd do more damage then, wouldn't it?!? HUH? DID YOU THINK OF THAT? HUH?

    COME ON!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Oh sweet nostalgia. Totally agree with this article, world maps just MAKE an rpg IMHO.

    World maps!!! oh how i miss you old friend

    I have to say, I think the skewed perspective world map is the superior fast travel option - its not as tedious as physically walking from A to B, but less immersion breaking than fast travel.

    i remember the first time i opened ultima 4 for the master system, finding 2 lore books and a map inside with regent locations and spell formulae on the back blew me away, man... good times, good times :)

    No love for Ultima? Those Japanese games you mention were 5 years behind the curve on this one.

    If you were playing arcanum you COULD walk from one edge of the wap to the other - not in world map map. Although it would be pretty slow so map movement is the way to go.

    I'm sorry, but doesn't every mmo have a world map? Every single player rpg i play still has a world map. You're points are null and void. What rpg doesn't have a world map? You have a bad case of nostalgia is all. Get your facts straight before you write an entire article of nonsense. By the way, times change. Get over it.

      A "Map of the Game World" and the "World Map" being referred to here are not the same thing.

    I got to thinking.... Final Fantasy XIII doesn't have one, does it? So, you mean a world map that one could walk across if they want? So, Mass Effect's galaxy map doesn't count? I'm starting to see what you mean....

    I'm pretty sure Ni No Kuni has a world map, so that's something to look forward to :)

    Best world map, Secret of Mana.
    Game starts as a series of scrolling screens, then you start hitting cannons and Mode 7 your way a bit further in the world, you get a sense of where you're going but as the game keeps going this world keeps growing with you.
    Finally you get your own dragon and get to fly free, suddenly all the gaming you've done to that point seems minuscule when you look at how much world there is to offer. You'll be flying around seeing places and know exactly what area that was, you start searching for new, undiscovered countries. You fly back to the old areas and find what's changed.

    God I love Secret of Mana. Still my all time favourite RPG (with Chrono trigger falling into second place).

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