The Map is Not the Territory
Maps as Crutches, Fast Travel, and the Magic of Exploration
In this article, I discuss how we can create a more enjoyable and immersive gaming experience by separating world design from map design.
“A map is not the territory it represents, but, if correct, it has a similar structure to the territory, which accounts for its usefulness.”
— Alfred Korzybski, Science and Sanity, p. 58.
The Map vs The World
Let’s start by discussing what an in-game world is, what a map is, and how they relate to each other.
In the context of games, the world is the setting in which the player operates. It is a model for a universe that the designer did not have the power to render in this realm and is thus instead created in code or evoked in the mind’s eye. A player may manipulate the world through their avatar — a thing of that world, but also of themselves. The world maintains its illusion of reality only as long as the player is able to associate themselves with the avatar, and experience the world as an environment, rather than an interface.
What, then, is a map? A map is a model of that model — an abstraction of that world broken and shrunken down into digestible chunks, that we might also grasp its scale and structure. When designed and implemented well, a map can increase the player’s attachment to that world. When its fidelity is too high, such that the model is interchangeable with the thing itself to the player, the illusion is broken, and the world is revealed for the model it is. Interacting with the map when it is not an object in the world forces the player to make decisions as themselves, rather than as their avatar.
Separating the two
We know, then, that a map is a model of the world, and that it must be sufficiently similar to be recognizable and useful, but not so similar as to be interchangeable with the thing itself. A few more properties of the map can be derived from this relationship of model and subject. Firstly, the map must exist as a separate object from the world, and thus altering one should not change the other. Secondly, as a model, it must also be an imperfect representation. As previously posited, a perfect replica removes the need for either the world, or the map. Thirdly, we must consider that a model must have a creator — who made the map, and what did they consider important? After all, models must be made — they do not simply drop out of the aether.
We must therefore draw distinctions between the player’s avatar manipulating the world and the player manipulating the map, as these are very different experiences. When the player’s avatar manipulates the world, the player is immersed, and for that time, the player and their avatar are interchangeable. However, having to interact with the systems bounding the world breaks the connection, and the player is suddenly themselves again. You may have experienced this yourself — a blinking waypoint on a minimap breaking your focus, having to open a menu to find your bearings, or — dare I say — opening your map to fast travel, the ultimate violation of the separation between the map and the world.
In each of these experiences, it was not the avatar referencing an imperfect model within the world, it was the player analyzing a perfect model without. And in that moment, the magic is lost.
The Case for Losing Maps Entirely
In 2011, a new kind of game was released. It was brilliant, revolutionary, oppressive, and depressing. It cloaked the world with the crushing weight of its atmosphere. The weight of aeons past, and the struggle of an avatar lost in a world made for gods and giants and dragons.
Its name was Dark Souls. There was no map. There were only the player and avatar, trapped in the world, dying time and time again until they grew strong enough to push onward. They died time and time again, seeing the same twists and turns and the same enemies lying in wait for an ambush behind a pile of rubble, seeing the same locked doors, the same turrets and walkways. And they remembered the world. They made their own maps, stored in the player’s minds. As long as they were in the game, they remained immersed in the world, one with the avatar.
But the engagement did not end with the avatar — the players’ immersion was so complete, that they left the world and brought the maps out with them, compiling them in databases for new undead, lost and struggling, to learn from.
This immense psychological buy-in served as a force-multiplier for the world’s immense atmosphere. Fear of death turned to paranoia as the avatar became laden with more and more precious souls. Pathing was from memory alone, so getting lost was like venturing into the dark without a torch — dangerous, terrifying, alone. Every moment the spell remained unbroken, the immersion deepened, the focus sharpened, and the player and the avatar grew that much more aligned in purpose. Survive. Find a bonfire. Find solace.
The lack of a representative model (and a pause button) entirely forced the player to live only in the world, making the experience much more intense than it could otherwise achieve.
New Ways to Implement Maps
In 2017, Team Cherry released Hollow Knight, an expansive action and exploration game in the style of Metroid and Castlevania. The player’s vessel is a small bug in a world carved out by greater things. The world is unmapped, dangerous, and carries the constant risks of madness, infection, and death.
This context is vital for exploring how the map is used in Hollow Knight — Hallownest is not new. It is an old kingdom that once flourished and has now fallen into lonely disrepair and madness. Points of hope exist in some of the last bugs to retain their sanity who remain in Dirtmouth or explore Hallownest as well. Especially relevant here are Cornifer the mapmaker and Iselda, the former adventurer turned shopkeep.
In Hollow Knight, you don’t start with maps, and checking your map without one will show a blank overlay. However, you can purchase a blank map, quill, and compass from Iselda, and incomplete map fragments from Cornifer as you encounter him in each area during your travels. With these three items combined, you have the building blocks for exploring Hallownest.
Want to know where your avatar is in the world? Equip the Compass. Feeling lost and tense because you don’t have a map in a dangerous area? Listen for the characteristic sound of Cornifer whistling and buy a map. Do you need to know where the nearest bench is? How about the Stag Station, or the Tram? Buy the pins, and explore the world.
Now, all this is well and good, but what makes the map immersive? For one thing, interacting with the map is not interchangeable with interacting with the world. You cannot fast travel from the map, you cannot auto-path to sidequests, and your points of interaction with the map all originate in the world. The Knight (your vessel) looks at the map when you do, and it appears as an item in their hand. They can even walk around, albeit slowly as they have to watch their step while reading.
And although the layout of the map perfect matches the territory, it only does so after the Knight has time to sit at a bench, rest, and fill in Cornifer’s map with the Quill. Most of the map for each area remains hidden until the Knight explores it themself, encouraging the player to venture into the unknown despite the risk. Even the fast travel system is represented in the world itself rather than the map, requiring the Knight to find their way to a Stagway Station first.
Taking the effort to separate map and world design can have a profound effect on the way the player approaches the game. Remembering the relationship between the map and the world it is supposed to represent can greatly empower a designer to strengthen the relationship between player and avatar. Tying each map mechanic back into the world it comes from, and having the method in which the map is used reinforce the game’s themes can turn an engaging experience into a gripping one.