If I'm looking at a mini-map instead of the world around me, it's not actually helping.
Minimaps can be helpful, but for some games (or most games, for me personally) they can be too helpful. Since a mini-map usually gives you more information about your surrounding than the surroundings themselves, I usually find myself navigating a world using the mini-map exclusively. This first became apparent as I played through Final Fantasy X, the first Final Fantasy game to have 3D environments. I’m sure they looked incredible, other people seemed to think so, but I never really noticed because I spent most of the time staring at the mini-map when I ran around each level. The word could be confusing, paths split into multiple parts and all of them looked the same. Whereas, the mini-map was a simple top-down view that stripped away all of that beautiful, confusing graphical detail.
A similar thing happened for me with GTA IV. Since the mini-map always drew a line to my destination, I rarely watched the road when I drove. As a result, I never got a good feel for the city, I never learned the roads, I never came across recognizable streets, and every time that I took my eyes off the mini-map I got lost. In both cases, the mini-maps were so effective that they prevented me from appreciating the world at large.
Two great games released in the latter months of 2011 could have been ruined (or at least brought down a peg) by overly effective mini-maps, but thankfully they avoided this fate with some smart design choices.
Saints Row: The Third has a mini-map similar to the one in GTA IV, except that it doesn’t over-explain things. It never gives more information than what you can see in the world itself. Whenever you set a marker on the GPS the game finds the best route, like all GPS devices in all open world games, but in Saints Row, path markers appear in the world as well. Giant flashing arrows float before every intersection, as if this were an arcade racing game, but players can still drive through these arrows without crashing. Since Steelport is an open world, the game just updates your route with new arrows at the next intersection. You can still explore the city, and you’re free to look for shortcuts (which the GPS remembers). The game just makes the fastest route very obvious.
The benefit of this system is that I don’t spend much time, if any, looking at the mini-map while I drive. Instead I look at the road in front of me, and over the course of a couple dozen hours, I come to learn the city well. And for this game in particular, it means I can spend more time focusing on the many driving challenges: weaving through oncoming traffic, running over pedestrians, powersliding around corners, etc. Now that I don’t have to worry about directions, I’m free to better embrace the craziness of this world.
During combat, nearby enemies appear as red dots, as you’d expect from a game like this. It’s easy to keep track of baddies even in the most hectic of firefights, but the map isn’t something that you can rely on exclusively because not all of those red dots are actually shooting at you. In Saints Row, you’ll find cops and rival gangsters casually roaming the streets, and they’ll leave you alone if you do the same. But the moment that you attack them, they call in backup and pretty soon you’re fighting an army. If you just use the mini-map to locate enemies, you’re likely to aggravate otherwise peaceful enemies like this, making life just a little bit harder. It’s important to look before you shoot. Otherwise, you might accidentally start a war with the cops just as you’re finishing up a war with the other gangs.
Skyrim is the other game to avoid the pitfalls of the mini-map, mainly due to its compass, a navigation element Bethesda first introduced in their games in Fallout 3. Its goal is the same. Allow the user to see, at a glance, important things in the environment. Where the compass succeeds however (and the mini-map fails) is that the former only shows what’s directly in front of you. Yes, the icon of a cave will appear long before you actually see that cave, and you could just walk towards that icon, watching it grow bigger until you discover the cave for real, but the moment that you turn away, the icon disappears from the compass. By limiting your view like this, Bethesda forces players to pay attention to the environment even if their eyes never leave the compass. The mere act of turning imbues the player with a sense of place: There’s a cave to the north, a town to the south, a castle to the west; I’m thinking about this world in terms that describe a physical space around me, rather than in the flat terms (up, down, left, right) that describe the top-down 2D view that you’d get with a mini-map.
The compass can be abused, as I previously described, but the game tries to limit the effectiveness of this abuse with winding roads that circle up mountains and a plethora of wild animals that can’t wait to eat you. Both things force you to look at the world instead of the compass.
The local map is also utterly dreadful. It’s good for getting the lay of a new town, but it’s useless in dungeons. The map just looks like a mess of intersecting lines that don’t form any recognizable landscape features. It’s impossible to glean any sense of space from it. This can be frustrating when I’m looking for the door that leads out of a dungeon and keep getting turning around, but in retrospect. I’m always glad that I got lost -- not because I stumble across some hidden treasure but because getting lost forces me to pay attention to the layout of this cave. I change how I move through the world, I become more methodical by creating a mental map rather than relying on one that’s been provided.
Skyrim not only encourages exploration, it demands it. This is not a game that’s going to help you find your way (through a cave) and that is part of the game’s appeal. Not having a "god map" in dungeons and no mini-map overall forces us to become more aware of our surroundings.
If I'm looking at a mini-map instead of the world around me, it's not actually helping. Personally, I’m glad that Skyrim and Saints Row back off a bit from the "over helpful" mini-maps. I don’t need to know about every interactive item in my immediate vicinity. Besides, a world is always so much prettier than the map.
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