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No More Wrong Turns

August 25, 2009 Article Start Page 1 of 6 Next

[How do you navigate complex video game levels easily? Designer Nerurkar looks at examples from Fallout through Shadow Of The Colossus to examine the top tools for aiding level navigation for players.]

With the ever increasing complexity of our games and our game spaces, the need for support has increased as well. The earliest games often consisted of only one screen.

All the action of the game was immediately visible at a glance -- think Space Invaders or Pac-Man. These are games of (almost) perfect information: you can see all there is to the game. All pieces are on the board, so to speak.

Nowadays, it's a lot different. The ability to display the entirety of the game world on one screen was quickly abandoned in favor of larger environments, through scrolling or leaving one screen and entering the next.

The step to immersive, open worlds in 3D has emphasized this even more. And that's before we add the increasing complexity of gameplay on top of that.

Fortunately, there are tools that can be used to alleviate this situation.

Discrete Navigational Tools

First off, I've separated the navigational tools into two big categories: discrete and immersed. We'll start off with discrete navigation tools first.

By "discrete", I mean that the tools are separate from the environment. They're a part of the Graphical User Interface. This puts them into squarely into the realm of game design. It also makes them stand out -- that means they are noticeable (but can also be obnoxious).

However, the fact that they're abstract makes it easy to use them to transmit more than just spatial information (a position, line, area or volume). For example, the color of a dot on the map might display its health or whether it's friend or foe.

Speaking of maps, let's start with the first tool:

The Map

The map is what most of you probably thought of when I wrote navigational tool. It is the most obvious method and the most unsubtle one. A map displays the environment in an abstract (and usually simplified) way to provide a good overview over the game space.

To that end, it often also contains other information on the game state such as the position and state of units or objects in the spaces. This makes maps very helpful for games in which the spaces are sprawling and complex and/or where there's a lot of different information to manage.

For example, in Colossal Cave Adventure, the first adventure game, the player uses text to navigate through a cave maze. The game features no map, since it's all text, but it is so complex that it practically forces the player to sketch one as he plays.

We've learned since then, and the general trend to user-friendliness has ever increased over the past 30-odd years. A step on that road was Doom. For the first time there were complex and immersive 3D environments navigated from a free first person perspective. And since this was not only new to the players but also to the developers, there was little in terms of immersed navigational tools.

To not get lost, players needed a map. And to spare the player the task of drawing it, the game takes over by drawing the automap for him: As the player progresses more and more of the game world becomes visible in his map. This type of map is quite common as it adds to the sense of discovery of the game and shows the players those areas that he hasn't explored yet.

Also noteworthy is that unlike many games, the map in Doom isn't static. Often times, you can activate the map, take a look at the world, and then return to the game to continue playing. In Doom you can bring up the map by pressing the Tab key.

In this new view you can move around using the normal controls. The map moves accordingly while the arrow symbolizing your avatar turns. The controls are a bit awkward and objects or characters (except the player's avatar) are not displayed. Still you can give the map a try in this Flash version of Doom.

Another more recent example of a map is Far Cry 2. In this game's huge open world Africa, the map is necessary to find your targets. What sets it apart from other games is the way the map is integrated into the game. It's not an overlay (as in Diablo) nor is it a separate screen as in Doom.

Instead, your character brings up a map in his hands without you leaving the game and breaking immersion. Just as with Doom, it allows you to look at your map and still move through the world. It's also worth noting that, unlike Doom,the large Far Cry 2 map does not need to be uncovered. A map of the entire gaming space is available from the beginning.

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