The Edge Of The Ocean

Cartography in game design.

By: Lana Polansky

Filed Under: Criticism Editor's Pick Mechanics


The problem is to plot the map.

My sense of geography is spotted with black holes. There’s the Chinatown and there’s the bridge and anything too far east just slips into the void. I know this area and I know how it connects to that area, but the space between the puzzle pieces is negative, unpopulated. And so I’ll take a walk to the park and the furniture store and the diner and the light that shines off rows of trees that I’ve never seen before.

Cartography is an illustrated representation of ideology. It’s way of visualizing and codifying territory, sure—but it’s also a way of claiming it. There is the map of the world we understand, with the “West” on the left and the “East” on the right and Europe smack in the middle. There are maps with the poles inverted. There are maps of all different shapes and sizes, which try to demonstrate landmasses as being truer to scale relative to other landmasses. Maps, borders and place names change over time as societies move and borders are restructured and cultures reshape. Maps are ultimately an expression of a need for a culture to impose itself on the territory, as much as they express a need to understand it and plot it out.

In video games, territory often embodies a variety of aspects of meaningful play: storytelling through exploration or experimentation with the environment and the objects contained in it, the tactile or sensual experience of confronting level design, of solving for a goal, of feeling one’s way through to the next area. The territory contains loot, enemies, secrets, keys, NPCs, useless or superfluous junk. The territory is designed to look and feel a certain way, perhaps to elicit a certain emotional response or type of play. Sometimes territories are spatially linear, or nodal, or branching, or confusing and ethereal and broken up.

Games are mapped before we get the chance to fill in the blanks in our own heads. Games are hyperreal, reproductive, virtual realizations reminiscent of Jorge Luis Borges’ short story, “On Exactitude in Science.” The one-paragraph story reads,

“… In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.

Suárez Miranda, Viajes de varones prudentes, Libro IV, Cap. XLV, Lérida, 1658”

In Borges’ story, the map overtakes the territory—it becomes superimposed to it and eventually defines it until a change in culture decreases the importance of the map and it falls out of fashion. Nonetheless, as nature slowly reclaims it, it leaves artefacts of itself behind, traces of the culture that produced it. The story suggests that cartography and the science of geography, rather than being objectively representative of terrain, instead demonstrate an attempt by a people to order and fashion it to conform to a particular worldview, which can change over time. In a sense, cartography is more than just the act of documenting space, or even of reproducing space. It’s also the act of designing space.

A city, for instance is a designed space. It’s not like some remote part of an unweeded forest or frontier-less water. It is a claimed space, where people and things are delineated and gerrymandered. There are districts and streets and manicured parks and residential areas and cosmopolitan spaces and downscale areas.  You shop here and you go to school here and you work there and you buy used books up the block and you’re told to be wary of that area and you’re actually afraid to explore it before you realize it’s not that scary.

A city is a mapped space, full of landmarks and signage. It’s a space where dynamic things can happen—people can alter or displace themselves or objects in unpredictable or unforeseen ways—but always on top of a basic underpinning of urban planning. I walk through areas of my city, which are like dark spots in my mind, to see where they connect, and there’s a thrill in discovering what’s new to me. But once the spots are coloured in, they become defined, and they lose their mystery. They aren’t mine to uncover anymore. Oh, that’s how this connects to that. My head becomes familiar with the layout, and constructs a mental map. The place becomes labelled, explainable and mundane. There’s exactitude to this.

I have the same attitude to game territories. Their maps are there a priori; they’re built into the code. The space is designed, or mapped, before I step in. It is not my job to go where no player has gone before: instead, I am filling in a new mental map of deeply conceived, designed, mapped, and programmed territory.

In “The Map and The Territory,” Kris Ligman writes, 

All electronic gaming is built upon a visual reinterpretation of data, stored in a nebulous somewhere (Azuma is here writing before the popular ascent of distributed servers and cloud computing), and accessed locally by the user. The changes she makes are updated in real time by the same vague process, the brunt of the actual computing kept invisible from her field of play. We are only made aware of these virtual spaces when something begins to threaten their stability: the player becomes stuck opening the same door again and again as her Minecraft server lags; virtual items vanish from virtual inventories and result in real-world lawsuits. The immateriality of all this “virtual stuff” only brings itself to bear on our awareness when its integrity is in some way called into question.”

Ligman is riffing off of a very appropriate Hiroki Azuma quote on “hyperflatness” from his book, “Otaku.” Azuma mentions how this “visually reinterpreted” data sitting on a “nebulous somewhere” lacks a real physicality. “This structure wonderfully reflects the postmodern world image,” he writes. “In postmodernity, the deep inner layer of the world is represented as the database, and the signs on the surface outer layer are all grasped as an interpretation (combination) of it.”

What we see when we navigate a game’s space are simply reproductions of an inaccessible, invisible process that is still just an artificial work of someone’s design. But the map is kind of like the map of Borges’ misguided cartographers: we can confront its artificial nature, its borders and limits by coming up against the limits of the virtual space in the ways Ligman describes: through material, external means, a failure of hardware or of connectivity. Likewise, the conflict can be internal: we encounter a bug that makes it impossible to progress or takes us out of the world. Or, we simply run into the seams in the walls of a jungle or the impenetrable edges of the ocean. We inevitably come up against a game-world’s limits.

The Might & Magic games are the most like walking through a city to me. Unknown areas of the territory are actually illustrated by dark spots—an endless spatial void—that are filled in by exploration. In the top right corner there is a minimap that fills in as new areas are discovered—you are automatically engaged in the act of cartography as you explore the space, and by doing so, you become able to claim the land in a very explicit sense: through military conquest and command of resources. Likewise, Civilization V illustrates the illuminating feeling of discovering new land by dissipating a puff of cloud every time new territory is discovered. Now, yes, there is some dynamism involved: the way AI might respond to a player’s behaviour—or even independently of it—can be incredibly unpredictable. Even in highly designed spaces, there are variables. But there’s still an underlying structure and ideology that comes through in these games—one that tells the player that exploration is a method of conquest. It’s an exercise of control, of seeking and exerting power by negotiating on tactics while navigating through space and encountering (possibly hostile, friendly or indifferent) objects within it.

In some games—like the Dragon Quest games or any traditional Pokemon RPG—with world maps, moving through the game is a process of reaching nodes with paths linking them tenuously together. In Pokemon Blue (or Red, or Yellow, or Gold, or…you get the point), scrolling through the top-down territory to new towns and cities—and for that matter, forests, caves and other natural landmasses—opens up new nodes on the map. Your avatar can backtrack, can travel quickly between nodes. Eventually, the expansiveness of the space is reduced to points on the nodal map: the walkways between them become more or less unnecessary. Here, the more I explore, the smaller the world seems to become. Borges story resonates in these kinds of games, where terrain is, by design, strictly defined by mapping. And, unlike Borges story, there is no natural environment for the map to disintegrate into—instead the limitations and artificiality of the space is something one operates in as normally as one feels comfortable navigating a city space. This is a different aesthetic and philosophical approach to games like Minecraft that can generate space procedurally, or a game like Michael Brough’s Game Title: Lost Levels, that uses a glitch—an indisputable artefact of the fabrication of games—as part of the game itself. While these games still provide a basically pre-designed, logical foundation on which the experience is built, they also complicate or make a meta-commentary on the construction of game geography.

I borrowed my opening line from a short story by Rudy Wiebe called “Where is the Voice Coming From?” The story isn’t about maps, exactly. What it is about is history, and the process of construction and negotiation involved in reproducing history. The line, originally, was this:

“The problem is to make the story.”

Wiebe busies himself with the problem of historiography—of the construction of history itself. Wiebe, while walking through a museum and trying to reconstruct a scene out of a particular moment in the North-West Rebellion of 1885—engages with different kinds of historical storytelling: account, archive, narrative, and so on. The argument he ultimately makes is that our understanding of the past, as a culture, is not a straight and narrow path of determining the objective validity of accounts and precisely interpreting the events that occurred. In all historical accounts, details get left out, over- or underemphasized, and personal ideology and subjective relationship or vantage point to the story will help determine how it’s told. This is why dominant cultures will have “official” narratives of historical events, whereas marginalized ones may have a different degree of access to the same past. Likewise, one culture may rely on archives and a pretence of objectivity while another may use oral tradition and allegory to teach lessons of a mythologized past to younger generations. In “Metahistory,” the literary critic and historian Hayden White writes that historical production requires a formal, structural use of philosophical, argumentative and stylistic devices that both represent and help to reify an existing cultural consciousness (in White’s case, a Western consciousness) about what history is, what it consists of—and who is qualified to command the discussion.

Maps, like history, reproduce and sometimes help fabricate the story. They reconstruct a certain vision of things—an ideology, a worldview, a perspective—that tell us a lot about the point-of-view of the people who made them. Maybe colonialist people who put themselves in the middle of the map. Or post-colonial people who sought to correct what they saw as an antiquated chauvinism. Games go further in representing this—on both an authorial and cultural level—because there is no original physical space. Instead, space is an abstract construct that contains ideological values, relationships, goals and narrative outcomes. There is still enough dynamism involved—even in strictly mapped games—that my subjective experience of Pokemon might be different from yours. But ultimately, the urban planning is the same, and knowing this always makes the world feel a little smaller.

[art credit]

Filed Under: Criticism Editor's Pick Mechanics

About the Author:
Lana Polansky is a game critic and writer peddling her wares at Kill Screen, Gameranx, Medium Difficulty and here at Bit Creature. Also, a ludonarrative disco-dancer.

One Response to “The Edge Of The Ocean”

  1. Jessica

    Wow, enjoyed reading this! I have always been fascinated with the ends of the universes built into video games. Very Truman Show. Great connection of this to the interpretations and subjective views of history, how we craft the story of the past, and what role maps play in it.

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