The way that video-games enable players to navigate fictional worlds – via mini-maps, waypoint markers, or directional arrows – is an undeniably dry topic, as reflected by the lack of mainstream interest in the subject. Not many people are willing to talk about such tedious minutiae, when they could instead be marveling at more attention-grabbing features, like shiny new graphics or dynamic weather effects. Yet make no mistake, this sorely overlooked area is every bit as important as those details, if not more.
Why then, are good examples of gaming cartography so rarely acknowledged? Well, as with clunky user-interfaces or obnoxious loading times, orientation is the kind of thing that pundits only pay attention to when it’s done badly (e.g. the infamous Library mission in Halo: Combat Evolved). Which is somewhat understandable. After all, getting lost is certainly a momentum-killing slog and if you’re unable to decipher where the Hell you’re supposed to be going, then any sense of fun is, of course, going to dissipate.
Bearing that in mind, if poorly communicated geography can hinder an otherwise enjoyable experience, then it’s worth considering if the inverse is possible too. In other words, can a developer’s mastery of direction be so tight that it’s actually one of their greatest assets?
In case this article’s title didn’t make it clear, the answer to that question is a resounding ‘’yes!’’ Solid navigation mechanics are obviously underappreciated in the realm of gaming. Not only are they fundamentally necessary for minimizing player frustration, but they can even be a source of entertainment in their own right. Though that might sound like a bit of a stretch, well-conceived maps can honestly transform the arduous task of wayfinding into an utterly compelling joy.
For evidence of this, look no further than the original Silent Hill releases, which are true exemplars in the field. Each of them thrusts you into overwhelming, Metroidvania-style environments, that demand plenty of backtracking and puzzle-solving to complete. Indeed, tackling any given level here requires you to follow numerous diverging paths, memorize obscure interconnections and collect dozens-upon-dozens of keys. As a result, it can be rather daunting to enter a new location and see all the stuff you’ve yet to accomplish.
In the hands of less capable developers, aimlessly wandering these labyrinthine corridors and dizzying street layouts would probably be an onerous chore. Luckily, Team Silent have an ace hidden up their sleeve. You see, each of these elaborate levels has its own dedicated map, which tends to be the first item you come across. Granted, there’s nothing too special about that in isolation, but what’s so unique here is that you can use these indispensable tools to record your discoveries and visualize where you’ve already been.
Essentially, once you’re in possession of a map, then your character will automatically start to note things down, scribbling over the document itself. For example, inaccessible areas will be crossed out, dead ends will be marked with bold lines, shortcuts will be highlighted, and points of interest will be crudely sketched in red ink. By offering this practical and coherent overview, the developers simplify their formidable-looking environments into something much more manageable.
For my money, it’s the ultimate way of handling geography, as it’s the perfect middle-ground between being too ambiguous and too hand-holding. To expand upon this point, the system is not as outwardly patronizing as giving your audience a massive arrow to follow, nor is it as restrictive as funneling them down a linear pathway. This means that you can provide them with the immersive experience of solving these convoluted and oppressive mazes themselves. But at the same time, it’s not like you’re leaving them completely in the dark, as they’re still getting considerable support.
To get a feel for the system in action, let’s take a look at the opening sequence of Silent Hill 2. Here, you are dropped right into the center of the titular ghost town, with no explicit steer or assistance. All you have is a vague destination and your trusty map. You inevitably run around the place like a headless chicken, chaotically bouncing from obstruction to obstruction. It’s a thoroughly distressing ordeal and you’ll be entirely dependent on the map to get through it. This is presumably what the team we’re going for, as the document is constantly being updated to reflect you’re discoveries, like blocked roads, doors that need specific items to unlock and other landmarks.
From all this signposting, you’ll notice that you are being boxed-in and implicitly shepherded towards a disused apartment block (the game’s first real level and your de facto objective). It’s a clever and resourceful way of using the map to guide players, whilst also letting them believe that they figured it out on their own. Meanwhile, by tracking your progress and marking everywhere that you’ve been, the map also gives you confidence that you haven’t missed anything out. It’s an extra bit of help but, again, one that goes a long way.
On that note, another (possibly unintentional) benefit of Silent Hill’s approach is that it’s innately rewarding from a player-perspective, bestowing even your most insignificant actions with a sense of purpose. For instance, simply checking to confirm that a door is locked will actually be useful here, as it will log this information on the map. Whatever way you slice it, that’s some kind of progress and it means that, wherever you go and whatever you do, you’ll always arming yourself with more knowledge about your surroundings.
Watching the initially blank document get covered in these jottings is thus very satisfying, like you’re ticking off holiday destinations on one of those scratch maps. It’s basically spurring you onwards, reassuring you that you’re not going in circles or wasting your time. That’s quite motivating for a series that built its reputation on an atmosphere of eldritch dread and crushing hopelessness.
All in all, the maps in Silent Hill are more than a mere formality. They’re an integral part of the gameplay, acting as both an invaluable survival tool and a much-needed source of encouragement for the player.