Gamer talk on game design: Magic of the overworld maps

I recently completed Wasteland 2 Director’s Cut and had a blast with it. But with the recent Fallout: New Vegas DRM-free re-release on GOG it made me think about something that felt missing from quite a few RPGs of recent years, something that was so common in both jRPGs and cRPGs that it was arguably one of the minor defining features of the genre – the overworld map.

Whenever you’d exit a specific location, would it be a dungeon, a town or castle or any other specific detailed place by getting out of a specific door or going to the edge of the map, you’d get to the world map, that had a completely different scale to the one you had inside. And traveling from place to place via this overworld map usually added a certain sense of scale of events and the journey you were taking. It could also add a certain element of believability to the world – people from one place might not hear about another place and on the overworld map you’d see that getting from one to another would actually take a very long time, so it made sense. In some games you’d stumble upon new places via this overworld map exploration that aren’t obvious, in some you would also have random or predetermined encounters that could exist in-between the “important places” adding to the life and character of the world.
But some games wanted to experiment with big expansive locations without the overworld map exploration. One of the most famous successful early examples of that was Daggerfall. Its gigantic map that, Bethesda claimed, was as big as real territory of Great Britain still remains impressive on paper today, even if it’s actually a bit smaller than the claim. Previous Elder Scrolls title, Arena, had a, technically, even bigger map, but that one wasn’t properly explorable. Because the trick to both was semi-randomized generation of the environments and rather barren landscapes. Something that would also be attempted later by a game with overworld map exploration called Arcanum. In that game, you could get to the part of a location and afterwards either travel quickly in the overworld map or try to brave the boredom in the completely barren lands between the important parts of the game. It would also be impolite to not mention classics like Ultima, Wizardry or Might and Magic all attempting at different points to somehow make the switch between travelling inside cities and dungeons and the “overworld” less noticeable and make worlds feel more “whole”.

But it is of no surprise then, that it was Bethesda specifically that pushed the RPGs further down the road of one big map with no overworld map exploration with its subsequent titles. Morrowind’s success and influence in both console and PC western gaming made people think that it is indeed possible to create a fully open world that looks unique and good and feels quite alive, while remaining not small. It was much much smaller than Daggerfall, about 1% of the previous game map according to the developers themselves, but the world this time wasn’t just a barren land and randomly generated NPCs telling to go kill other randomly generated NPCs. It had unique stories, unique characters, unique places. Even if most of the assets were reused whenever possible.

Fast forward 15 years and we are now in the era where any game, whatever the genre or intentions, wants to have open world with one big map covering the entirety of the game and preferably no loading screens between. Modern hardware, advancements and optimizations in how game engines work allow it and everyone wants a piece of that. And as with any tool, mechanic or design approach, for some games, it’s a great fit, something that feels essential to what they try to do. For some, it feels like problem, a restriction, rather than something enabling them to do more.

Seeing the overworld, realizing the size of the location you were in in a grand scheme of things, understanding how really big the events are – this got lost in transition. That great moment of jRPGs a lot of people mention – when in Final Fantasy 7 you leave Midgar for the first time and realize that the gigantic city you spent hours in was just one location on a huge map? Impossible to do without the overworld or making an insanely huge and probably boring open world map. Also, worlds more often than not make less sense due to how close the locations are, contradicting the stories they attempt to tell. Ancient ruins and vaults and caves full of artefacts that somehow never got explored for hundreds of years lie within arms reach of big settlements and aren’t particularly hidden, nor really require any special tools to access. Some raiders or bandits could live just a 100 steps away from a place which somehow doesn’t have any problems with them, despite having no security either. A lot of things feel more contrived specifically for the story and your journey as a player, rather than feeling like a natural happening in the world you just accidentally (or intentionally) stumbled upon.

Of course, it still can be done right. Morrowind, for example, felt more or less alive and real due to how the distances were planned and how compact the whole territory was planned to be – it’s an island with a lot of it being covered by a desert, so it’s easy to do right. New Vegas was smart enough to place all the main events essentially within the territory of one modern city and some of its suburbs, making a lot of its map feel genuine. Witcher 3 went a different way and made several distinct open world locations that, as you can see on the world map, are clearly far away from each other, so all of their events, communities and situations feel alive in the context. And, of course, I suppose anyone can try and do the Daggerfall approach again with the semi-procedurally generated content, which, I think, can still work, despite some rather recent examples of how it can not work *cough* no man’s sky *cough*.

But whatever the way, it would be great to see overworld map not disappear as well. When I first started walking in overworld in Wasteland 2, seeing that water reserves drop down and feeling as if the journey truly takes time and effort, even if the water system is basic, there is no calendar, almost no timed events, no day and night shift or anything that would actually make it more believable. It just worked because there my party was – a tiny dot on a map leaving a huge location and slowly making their way to another one. And that felt like a journey. A great effect from a very simple use of a simple mechanic.

If you have found a spelling error, please, notify us by selecting that text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.