Trying Not to Get Lost

Words: 2124 Approximate Reading Time: 15-20 minutes

One issue with making large games is navigation. The feeling of being lost is usually not a good one, and it’s something that can be hard to avoid. Level and map design can be fairly easy when games are linear. Which doesn’t mean that the process of creating a good level is actually simple. There is a lot of work that goes into it. But the more linear a level is, the less worry about players getting lost.

Getting lost is more a function of bigger games, especially Metroidvanias. These games tend to rely on exploration and backtracking, and so require players to keep track of their various objectives. You have unlocked a new item which allows you to open a new type of door. Now where were the various doors you encountered on the way? Or perhaps you found a key to a specific door. Where was the door?

This kind of backtracking demands a good map that is easy to navigate. But “easy to navigate” is more complicated than it sounds. There are a lot of hurdles that can get in the way, and the variety of solutions available to solve the problems don’t always provide us with our desired result.

So I wanted to use this space to talk a bit about map design, and some of the ways in which map design can go wrong, and how we might best be able to avoid these pitfalls. There are quite a few things that can be done, and ultimately any solution will rely upon the type of game at issue. Sometimes the solution involves remaking the map, sometimes it involves remaking the world. There is no single answer for every possible game.

Getting Lost

Players can get lost in a variety of ways.

The most common way of getting lost is simply not knowing where they are in relation to where they want to go. The player is aware of what they’re supposed to do, but actually getting there is unclear. This is usually the result of confusing level design, especially in the absence of any sort of map. The first thing that players will try to rely on is spatial awareness and an internal map of an area. But if the world is laid out in a confusing manner, it prevents players from constructing a coherent internal map, which means they are left with no means to navigate.

Players can also get lost by simply not knowing what they are supposed to be doing. This is less a problem of level or map design than it is a problem of player direction. But nevertheless, the end result can often be the same: players end up just wandering around the world hoping to stumble upon the next point of progression.

Players can also get lost insofar as they cannot recall what areas they need to explore. Maps generally have unexplored spaces that can be distinguished from explored spaces. But players can end up exploring a place, and as a consequence remove that distinction. An area can look explored and thus “completed,” without actually being so, because the player has no way of knowing – just by looking at the map – that there is more to do.

A related problem is that players can struggle to remember where various unexplored routes are. I mentioned earlier that a lot of Metroidvanias involve backtracking with new equipment, using items to open new doorways. But since such games tend to have multiple such doorways dotting the map, often with different doorways that need to be accessed with different items, keeping track of where these new pathways are can be tricky. This can leave players exploring multiple dead ends trying to relocate the doorways that work with a particular item, operating by trial-and-error until they happen upon a correct pathway.

Players can also get lost by having a sense of what they’re looking for, but having difficulty understanding the map they are reading. Often when maps have multiple different areas – doors or stairways that connect the map at different points – keeping track of those areas and which ones have been completed can become nearly impossible. This may leave players with no alternative but to start from the beginning and re-explore each doorway or staircase one-by-one to be sure that everything has been properly explored. Note, of course, that this relies on it actually being possible to check areas with any kind of logic.

Note that being lost in these various ways does not mean that you are unaware of where you are at any given moment in the game. A player can be fully aware of their placement within a game’s map or world, and yet still be lost. Being lost in a game can also involve being unaware of pathways, objectives, or just any sense of where to go. In this way, being lost is more about not having a sense of the world, as well as where you are within that world. The isolated knowledge of “You are here” only has meaning within the broader context of knowing everything around “Here” as well.

Relocating Yourself

So what are the ways that we can avoid players getting lost?

Generally, one thing we are looking for is some method to help players build internal maps. This means that the player has a sense of where they are, where they’ve been, where they’re going, and how all of those spaces fit together without needing to be shown those spaces on a map. Achieving this goal generally relies on good design that allows areas to feel unique and invoke a sense of meaning for the player.

Players can most easily get lost when the world essentially runs together. But in turn, this makes the solution much easier for games that can allow their worlds to stand out clearly. In particular, 3-Dimensional games can much more easily help players orient themselves with unique designs, landmarks, and other methods. 2-Dimensional games can still have these elements, but it is much easier for the elements to become jumbled. A unique tower will stand out, but being able to see it and its relation to the world around it is different in 3D and 2D. For a 3D game, the tower can be a landmark to help the player figure out where they are – the player will know how to get to the tower, and how to explore around the tower. For a 2D game, though, the tower might still be a landmark, but of a much more limited power – the player might know how to explore around the tower, but not necessarily be able to navigate to it without either a map or just wandering around. So world design as a solution depends largely on one of two things: three dimensions, or a 2D map that is so conveniently laid out that it cannot be confusing.

However, if we’re unable to solve the problem with the construction of the world itself, then the next best thing to do is make sure that the player has a good map to help them navigate.

A good map needs to do a few things. Firstly, it needs to convey information about where the player has been and can go. If there are obstacles that prevent progress, the player should be able to look at the map to find those obstacles, so that they know where to go next. Rather than needing to explore through trial-and-error, the player can quickly decide where to go next. It may be the case that further progression leads to a new dead end. But this is fine, so long as the player has learned this by progressing in the first place, rather than by simply backtracking.

A common issue with mapmaking can be multiple layers. Whether dealing with a 3D map, or a 2D map that has multiple levels or various doors, it can be difficult to tell exactly where the player is and has already been. As an example, a 2D map could show various doors and staircases leading between two layers of the map – let’s say two floors of a dungeon. But the doors and staircases might not indicate where they lead – staircases are connected in a way that makes no logical sense. Or just as bad, even when there is a logical sense, it is still difficult to tell how they are connected. Players may need to switch between map layers on a screen, but doors and stairs are not oriented in a way that is easily readable.

We could avoid layers entirely, making the game world a single floor (if it is viewed from the top down) or one contiguous space (if viewed from the side). But that kind of design is extremely limiting. Imagine saying “I want to construct a world filled with people and a buildings, but the player can never enter those buildings.” It would make the game feel flat in its presentation, as though the world doesn’t really have anything there.

So instead, we want to focus our energies on the map itself. The map needs to be made so that it can be easily read. This in turn means that the player can figure out where these different layers intersect. One option may be to provide clear reference points for entrances and exits – draw lines to show connections, use a letter/number system, or allow the player to select an entrance on the map and then highlight the corresponding exit.

I would also like to add that as Metroidvanias have become more sophisticated over time, we have reached a point where the player should have more control over the map itself. The ability to place markers on the map – indicators of pathways or treasures that have been missed and need to be returned to – is something that we should be demanding of all games within the genre. Whether those markers are entirely customized by the player, or are picked from a set of markers that will cover the range of options the player needs, is ultimately irrelevant. What matters is that we want to cut down on aimless wandering. In the early days of the genre, incorporating this function would have been difficult, if not impossible. But at this point the function should be seen as a standard.

The point of all of this is that we ultimately want players to intuit how the world is laid out as quickly and easily as possible. There are plenty of game elements that the player is going to be struggling against, but the map itself should not be one of them.

Of course, it should be noted that there are times when this confusion works to the advantage of the game’s design. Sometimes the developer may have an intent to make the world and map design convoluted for different reasons. The most notable and justifiable is putting the player on edge, especially in horror games. Since one useful way of building a sense of uneasiness and anxiety is by removing a player’s sense of control, actively preventing players from understanding where they are in the world can help. I give this as a brief note, as there is more that could be said on this subject, as the principle would not mean that simply putting up randomly generated rooms would suffice. Instead, I merely wish to point out that there are exceptions to the rule, and even then those exceptions still must abide by some coherent sense of disorienting the player.

Concluding Remarks

Often when we think of “maps,” we think of simple 2D space that we merely glance at every now and then to figure out where we are. We usually don’t think much about maps. In fact, probably the only time we really stop to think about them is when something goes wrong. When the map is so confusing to read or so unhelpful that it actually aggravates us and hurts our experience.

But it is those moments that should get us to stop and think more carefully about the various elements of the game we play. The things we often take for granted because they work are the things we also want to be careful with, because they are so central to the experience. We may not think about maps, but we constantly use them when they are added, because they are important to the process of exploring. To pull from philosophy (in this case, Martin Heidegger), we do not think about the hammer until the hammer breaks. It is at the point that it breaks that we need to examine the purpose of the tool so that we can figure out why it broke and how it can be fixed.

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