This blog entry is a bite-sized portion of my Master’s thesis on Representations of the City in Video Games.
Maps provided in-game are an integral part of how the player makes sense of a space. Maps help players understand space by establishing physical geographic relationships between places, by revealing possibilities of navigation, and by explicitly showing some of Kevin Lynch‘s city elements (districts, paths, landmarks, nodes). There are different forms the map can take. The pause-menu map, as seen in Grand Theft Auto IV, Spider-Man 2, Ultimate Spider-Man, and True Crime: New York City, can be browsed and zoomed while the game is paused. Pause-menu maps usually detail locations of interest, destinations, and the player position, but what does this information say about each of these city spaces?
Both GTA IV and True Crime: NYC treat the district/neighborhood as their smallest level of granularity. While the GTA IV map can be zoomed, the True Crime: NYC map remains at the same scale. Though both games show the neighborhoods or districts on their map, the utility of doing so is more obvious in True Crime. Manhattan in True Crime is divided into police precincts that correspond to the actual precincts of the real New York City.
One of the uses of the map is to check the level of crime in each district. Successfully completing dispatch missions reduces the crime-rate, which is shown on the map on a green-to-red scale. And while it might be a goal of the game to turn all precincts to green, the rigid divisions of the precinct reveals the relatively tenuous connection between crime and geographic location. Does arresting a perpetrator on one street really improve the relative crime-rate of somewhere ten streets away? If the game’s modeling of this system seems flawed, it perhaps reveals the flaws of the actual practice of systematically dividing geographic regions and judging their overall level of crime.
When might a player refer to the GTA IV pause map? Liberty City is an expansive place and destinations, whether in some sort of mission or player-defined, are often on another island. This means that player cannot just aim their trajectory toward a destination marker on their radar map, as they might need to get on a freeway on-ramp to take one of Liberty City’s many bridges. The map reveals the intricacies of the road system and the complexity of the transportation infrastructure. True Crime: New York City does not face the same difficulties because it is limited to the island of Manhattan, which is relatively well gridded.
To help players move between locations, Grand Theft Auto IV features a bright yellow line of navigation on its maps. This line will appear during a mission when a target location is marked or can be applied by the player if they manually set a waypoint on their map. The line finds the shortest possible distance between the player’s location and destination and will update itself if the player finds themselves off-course. Some cars in the game also have audible turn-by-turn directions based on a diagetic GPS system to go along with the highlighted route.
The pause-menu maps of Ultimate Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2 are very similar, as Ultimate Spider-Man came out of the same production studio a year after the film tie-in game. Buildings are the most important feature of the map. While the view of the map is top-down, the buildings are rendered in 3D to show their height. As buildings are the method of travel for Spider-Man, this mapping makes sense. The only time the player needs to be on the ground is when fighting enemies or rescuing citizens in distress. At all other times it is more convenient for Spider-Man to be between or on top of buildings. This is also shown on the map by its coloration of ground-level surfaces; the illustration makes no delineation between grass, sidewalk, or road.
What do the map icons and legends reveal about the place? I would like to divide the types of markers on the maps of these games into two categories: missions/goals and landmarks. Though these are closely related (often one in the same), the distinction is useful because of their utility. The maps of Ultimate Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2 allow the player to turn on and off the map icons. This is crucial because of the sheer number of destinations available to the player at any given time.
When viewing these maps, the high density of available missions has the propensity to turn into clutter. There is little that distinguishes one “race” mission from the next, and the maps do not provide any insight into these differences. This meant that only used the map to find unique locations like story-missions or shops. In contrast, Grand Theft Auto IV usually has a few missions running concurrently, so the map is the best way to see what options are available.
What can we take away form these observations on how the inclusion or exclusion of an overview map contributes to the understanding of space and the making of place? Maps can be useful means by which the geography of space can be comprehended at once and are useful when the relationship between spaces are an important part of gameplay. They are also good tools for marking relevant geographic locations: missions, destinations, the locations of objects, etc.
However, it is easy to abuse a map when designing a game. In the case of Spider-Man 2, the map contained a flood of information that was less meaningful because of its abundance. Cosgrove criticized modern maps as merely images of locations of travel removed from place, and too often this happens in video games.1 Maps should serve as a reference, not a crutch. If a player is constantly referring to the map to remember locations, the game has done a poor job at establishing the player’s orientation and memory of physical locations in the game.
- Cosgrove, Denis. “Carto-City.” In Else/Where: Mapping New Cartographies of Networks and Territories, by Janet Abrams and Peter Hall, 148-165. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006. Pg 150. ↩