In many of today’s open world games, the map exists not so much as an actual navigational aid but as means to serve players a buffet of objective icons. Their relationship to the actual geography of the game world is negligible; their purpose is to provide location data for gameplay options, more glorified checklists than actual cartography. More often than not players only need to visit the map screen to select their next objective, at which point a mini-map, objective marker or the dreaded golden trail will lead them where they need to go.
Below are five maps from five open world games: Assassin’s Creed Unity, Far Cry 3, Watch Dogs 2, Horizon Zero Dawn and Final Fantasy XV.
The fact that three of these five games are developed by Ubisoft is no accident; Ubisoft have committed to a design philosophy for open world games, one that centres around large, featureless maps packed with objective icons. Whether the map in question represents a tropical island, ancient Paris or modern New York is mostly unimportant; these game worlds serve as a largely interchangeable canvas on which to provide players quest markers, hidden treasures and collectibles. This model of world design has become a benchmark for the games industry; the ‘Ubisoftication’ of open world games has given rise to numerous imitators whose map designs are largely indistinguishable from Ubisoft’s. It’s become such an industry cliche at this point that Ubisoft themselves are openly trying to distance themselves from the practice in upcoming titles.
This design approach has an effect on how players navigate game worlds. A reliance on markers, compass points and mini-maps lessens the importance of the actual physical geography, and makes this geography both less memorable and less important to the game experience. It feels at times as though the team responsible for the world design and the team responsible for filling it with content are working separately, rarely comparing notes.
An example of this is the Grand Theft Auto series. In modern GTA games, all the information needed to navigate the world is displayed on the game’s mini-map rather than actually in the game world. This means it’s often more efficient to navigate the game by mini-map alone, largely ignoring the action going on in the remaining 9/10ths of the screen. The result of this is that despite spending almost one hundred hours in GTA5, my mental map of the game’s environments is terrible; I struggle to navigate by landmarks, prominent as they are, instead relying on mini-map icons to get about.
The same problem is evident in games like The Witcher 3 and Assassin’s Creed, which allow players to highlight an objective on the map screen to fix a permanent marker on their mini-map/compass. Players can then use the mini-map to take the fastest route to their objective; its actual location relative to the geography of the game world is unimportant. The most extreme example of this is the Fable series infamous ‘golden trail‘, which literally displays the most efficient route to an objective as a golden trail running in front of the player character. Players can ignore everything but this trail and rest assured of arriving at their objective, wherever it is in the game world.
The designers at Nintendo clearly looked at the Ubisoft model of map design when building The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. The game includes clear nods to Ubisoft’s design philosophy, including fast-travel icons, settlement markers and even the now-infamous “Ubisoft Towers” – climbable structures that reveal large portions of the map when the player reaches the top.
But the Zelda designers have worked with this formula to create an experience in which the game’s geography feels meaningful, where the map is integrated into exploration in such a way that navigating actually feels like uncovering a cohesive world, rather than surfing a buffet of interchangeable icons.
Probably the most notable way it does this is by a key change to the ‘climb tower / unlock map’ formula. In Zelda, reaching the top of a tower will reveal the map segment for that area, but will not reveal all the location and fast travel icons. These have to be unlocked manually; shrines, towns and stables will only appear on the map once the player has physically visited them. Their locations aren’t automatically offered up in the way they might in a Ubisoft title.
These locations are, however, often visible in the actual game world from the tops of these towers. Players are encouraged to physically scout for locations from these vantage points, then use the newly unlocked map to plot a path there. What is provided automatically in most open world games has been turned into a core gameplay loop in Zelda, and it yields a sense of discovery and adventure that another auto-mapping tool would not.
This is aided by the design of the navigation tools at the player’s disposal – the map screen itself, but also the ‘scope’ unlocked right at the start of the game, which acts like a pair of binoculars. As has become standard for open-world games, players can drop waypoints for themselves on the map screen – but they can also do it in the actual game world by targeting a distant landmark and ‘tagging’ it through the scope. The resulting waypoint shows up both on the map and through the scope, relating the geography directly visible in-world to that abstracted on the map screen.
The waypoint system gives players numerous options for exploration. They can use the map screen to set a series of waypoints for themselves, effectively creating their own ‘golden trail’ to their objective. Or they can set a far off waypoint and try to make a direct beeline there. Alternative, then can set waypoints and convert them into more permanent ‘stamps’, marking a location as a place of interest to be explored at their leisure. It turns the usually rote process of unlocking map markers into a navigational challenge for the player.
The visual design of the map itself also throws up interesting possibilities for exploration. If a location looks interesting on the map itself – a skull-shaped lake, perhaps, or an unusually twisting peninsula – then chances are it is worth visiting, and it’s a simple process to tag it with a navigation marker. In some cases the view from the map screen can actually be used to solve puzzles in the game world, as is the case with certain labyrinths. Geographical consistency between map and game world works both ways, throwing up a huge number of possibilities for exploration.
The longer I spend with Breath of the Wild, the more I begin to see how the whole world has been designed around this process. The developers have done clever tricks with the game’s draw distance in order to give a consistent sense of scale. While certainly the beefiest handheld on the market by a margin, the Switch isn’t exactly a powerhouse by modern home console standards, and it shows in the way Zelda’s world becomes obscured over distance. Far-off parts of the world appear vaguely hazy, while items and enemies pop in only when in relatively close proximity to Link. Key landmarks like shrines and towers remain visible at any distance, however, thanks to a telltale orange glow that makes them easy to pick out even in distant murk. They can be tagged and mapped at any distance, which creates a visible relationship between the apparent distance of objects in the game world and those on the map screen.
Geographical persistence plays a large part in making Hyrule feel like a consistent world. Key landmarks remain visible throughout the land, allowing players to orient themselves simply by glancing upward; in particular Death Mountain, Hyrule’s resident volcano, can be viewed from almost anywhere in the game. While up high, players can map their progress by quickly checking the number of orange or blue shrines and towers that are visible, while at ground level the persistence of towers and mountains gives a constant reminder of their location in the game world. At least one of the game’s Sheikah towers is visible at almost all times, giving a persistent landmark against which the player can map themselves mentally.
The result is that I now have a far better mental map of Hyrule than I do of any other open world game released in recent memory. The closest games in terms of geographical fidelity are From Software’s Dark Souls games, which similarly use visual distance as a way to locate the player in the game’s space and make what is, in truth, a series of interconnected dungeons feel like a consistent world. That Breath of the Wild achieves this with a world that is truly geographically consistent and entirely explorable is impressive.
Much has been written of Breath of the Wild setting a new standard for open world games. I hope that one of the things other developers take away from Nintendo’s achievement is that designing meaningful geography creates a stronger connection between a player and the game’s world, rather than treating that world as just an attractive sandbox to fill with a checklist of nebulous ‘content.’ Zelda gives us the tools to actually explore a world that feels worth exploring, and I hope that others follow suit. If open world games are the new normal, then the least developers can do is give us open worlds that feel worthwhile.