I love maps.

If a novel includes maps, you’d better believe I will be flipping back to them frequently to compare locations. The same thing happens in games; the relationships between locations and the projected travel time from one point to another allow for a better sense of scale.  I think it comes from growing up in an older part of the US, where older towns are roughly a day’s easy walk apart — in fact, towns being located further apart than that are a feature that you’ll only see in places which were settled around the time that trains and motorised vehicles were becoming common. It’s interesting how advancing technology has changed the landscape, not only in how humans develop it, but in how we view the world.

It is really difficult to create a map.

Roman map of the world c.43AD. Rome, clearly is the centre of the civilised world, and must therefore be central on the map.

In 43 AD, Rome clearly is the centre of the civilised world, and must therefore be central on the map.

Consider what early maps looked like. They were… well, imprecise, by our standards. With satellite imaging and computerised measurements, we literally have mapmaking down to a science. Early mapmakers had to make do with eyeballing it using compasses and early surveying gear. There’s a vast and rather colourful variety in early maps, including a few which postulated the world as an inverted doughnut, and a few Roman maps where the philosophers making them were absolutely certain that nothing could possibly exist north of a certain latitude and drew Britain with Scotland squeezed in as a thin strip running across the very upper edge of the map area.

So if you think that’s silly, consider how difficult it is to create a game or story map from nothing but your own imagination. There may not be any accuracy required, but sometimes the creative leeway can get the better of itself.

There are two ways to create fictional maps. The first is to completely build the world before writing the story; the second is to write the story and build the map as you go along. There are pros and cons to each approach, which depend entirely on your creative style and how your brain works; mine happens to be a bit circuitous in processing information, so I find building the map as I write to be easier.

When creating a location, it isn’t enough to say it’s a certain distance from other locations in a given direction; if that were the limit of things, you’d end up with a place without character, nothing that sets it apart from any other area. In games and films, this can be done visually with a simple palette and texture change, but for a properly memorable experience, a little more effort needs to be put in. Every location needs character — character being everything from the local environment, the weather, its remoteness, the size of the local population, local customs and social structure, and the type of construction that might be locally common. Regardless of whether you’re creating for a game, a script or a novel, these factors need to be taken into account. For example, if it’s meant to be snowing at that point in the story, your location could be in an extreme northerly or southerly latitude, up a mountain, set during an ice age, or simply be in a region that experiences periodic winters; or if your setting is in a fairly barren area, buildings are more likely to be of stone or mud-brick than wood. I find it helps to set the computer down for a bit and try to visualise the location; this helps a written description to not sound like someone reading a weather forecast.

Apologies to Tolkien, but there's a lot of suspension of belief happening here. source

Apologies to Tolkien, but there’s a lot of suspension of belief happening here.

If you’re particularly detail-oriented, knowing basic earth science both helps and complicates things. If the overall climate currents flow from west to east — as they do on Earth — putting a range of high hills or mountains will cause the west side to be more prone to rainfall than the east side — warm air on the ground meets cooler high-altitude air and generates more precipitation on the windward side. This, of course, is highly generalised, as air currents shift continuously, but it’s well known that Glasgow gets notably more rain than Edinburgh, despite the two cities being less than 50 miles apart and at the same latitude, due to the series of hills in between them. Sometimes there’s a bit of fudging involved — the local climate is thus due to [insert MacGuffin here] — but it’s important to bear in mind that if the climate in a static location is altered, it will subsequently affect the surrounding area outside the MacGuffin’s influence. I can’t help but look at Tolkien’s map of Middle Earth and wonder how the mountains raised by Morgoth affect the climate around the rest of the continent.

Sometimes, it’s no fun to be detail-oriented. One aspect that always trips me up in some games and novels is travel times. My average unencumbered walking speed is between three and four miles an hour, and I’m in reasonably good shape; in a scenario where laden and armoured characters are on foot on a paved road, a day’s journey of 30 miles is about the plausible limit — that’s taking into account an average 12 hours of daylight, regular pauses for rest and food, fair weather, unhindered passage, and the characters being in good physical condition and accustomed to their load. Obviously you can’t precisely emulate this in a game — it would be the dullest game in existence and the player retention would be abysmal. So the maps are smaller and relative distances reduced. Some games blur the time passage issue by speeding up day and night cycles when you have open-world systems; others simply calculate out time passage between one point and another when the world map is restricted to designated locations.

Starting with the map has a variety of positive points to recommend it: there’s no need to worry about the described land features not matching the map or not flowing well together, it’s easy to provide distance estimates whilst writing, there’s no need to rewrite earlier secondary scenes once you realise that they don’t fit right with a primary scene’s location.

Sometimes, the creator clearly wanted a fascinating and unique land structure — starting with a few pre-set factors, the map was drawn up and then the story was fitted into it. Unfortunately the descriptions of travel time and environment don’t always match the map; for my part, this often results in headaches as I try to visualise the layout before giving up.

Why am I writing about this? Because I was looking over my initial draft for this one novel, and if the story matched the map as it appears in my head, it’ll never work. Fortunately I’m in the middle of reworking the novel, but the map still needs to change.


Bigger on the Inside

Looks cosy, doesn't it?

Looks cosy, doesn’t it?

Every once in a while, whilst playing a game, you might notice something a little odd. You may not be able to clearly define it, but in the course of your explorations, you might occasionally get the feeling that there’s something not quite right about the setting, nagging at the back of your mind like the background code-static from the Matrix.

I’ll let you in on a secret: buildings in games are distantly related to the TARDIS.

I should clarify that I don’t mean they’re actually TARDISes sitting more anachronistically than usual in the middle of a game, although that would be an interesting Easter Egg. Game buildings are Escherian conundrums in which the floorplan inside frequently does not match the exterior footprint, or for which the visual scale does not compute with the scale of other things ingame.

Much of the time, the scale of graphical assets ingame will be skewed a bit for the sake of  the visuals or for technical reasons. When compared to other things, the assets may be smaller or larger than the real object would be. When this is done well, players don’t even notice.

Moons love to get into your space.

Moons love to get into your space.

Moons in EVE Online are a good example of this: their assets — the actual objects attached to the visual representation — are often both smaller and closer than they appear to be, and it’s possible to get your ship caught on them when you’d swear you’re nowhere close to grazing what little atmosphere they might have. Part of this has to do with what your brain tells you should be the moon’s relative size. A good asset-builder, like any artist or architect, knows how to force perspective in order to create an illusion of distance and scale. In EVE, it only falls apart when you realise that there’s no way in hell your ship could possibly have squeezed through the station undock, let alone have fit within the station itself along with the rest of your corporation and all of your other ships and gear; there are a couple station models where the hangar interior is literally larger than the station exterior in space. But until you really start thinking about it, it’s easy to suspend belief a bit.

And then you get things that don’t make sense. At a distance, with no character nearby for scale, a location or object looks amazing. But then you put a character in the scene and find out that that a guard-railing in Moria is head-height on an elf or human, and wouldn’t do a lick of good keeping a dwarf from falling over the side. Likewise, stairs. Lord of the Rings Online is beautifully visualised, but its stairs make me want to cry. I kind of wish they’d been left as a painted ramp, because it’s tough to imagine dwarves hiking up and down a hill using what are essentially waist-high shelves. At range, these features and others look fine, the human brain does a fantastic job of scaling things mentally so that they make perfect sense, even when they don’t; there are limitations in games that don’t exist in real life, and we can forgive these easily.

Full-on TARDIS houses, on the other hand, are a bit of a stretch.

I’ve studied architecture, structural engineering, and I’m a reasonably good draughtsman both on paper and in CAD programs. When I look at a building, I’m mentally mapping its layout; if I’m in an older building, I’m looking for signs of structural expansion and history — I’m a nerd like that. When the interior of a house doesn’t match its exterior, or when a wall seems just a bit too thick for no apparent reason, it’s fairly noticeable. For a few months I lived in a house in Providence, Rhode Island (not far from dear old H.P. Lovecraft’s old home, in fact) which was distinctly non-Euclidean, and it was a great mental exercise to figure out how the walls were joined.

Again, sometimes TARDIS-ing is done in the interests of accommodating game limitations, either visually or technically. Allow me to provide a couple of notable examples.

It's really a small fortress.

Not shown: portal to another dimension.

Take the Prancing Pony in Bree from Lord of the Rings Online. No, no, put it back, I didn’t mean literally. The exterior looks great; the latest graphics update to Bree only improved its appeal as a place to get a room, a pint and a hearty meal. Now compare that exterior to its ingame floorplan. For reference, the red triangle in the upper left is the main entrance, which is accessed via the stairs under the archway outside. Look a bit odd? It gets better: the red triangle below the main entrance lets you out into the yard, almost directly behind the wall in which the front entrance is located. The rest of the rooms “below” that in the floorplan are up flights of stairs. This is what I mean by TARDIS houses. Some of my favourite buildings in the UK are coachhouses that have been turned into pubs or student unions, and while they certainly have a number of odd angles and short flights of stairs connecting levels through holes that have been carved through the stonework, I’ve never seen anything quite so dramatic. LotRO pulls a lot of Escher tricks for the sake of simplicity, mind. This is the map of Moria. If you look on the left at the chamber called “The Twenty-First Hall”, there is a well-chamber (this one, to be precise) on the far, far left edge of the map. If you jump or fall in the well, you’ll end up in “The Water-Works” at the bottom-left of the map (certain chance of death may apply if you do this). When actually walking around, however, the map is (relatively) straightforward and flat, and your latitude/longitude on the mini-map reflects this. The implication is that Moria is far more vertical than they were able to make it; belief is willingly suspended in favour of the Rule of Cool: YOU CAN JUMP DOWN THE FREAKING WELL.

Schrodinger's Tenements: the interiors are both there and not there until observed directly.

Schrödinger’s Tenements: the interiors are both there and not there until observed directly.

Then there’s Dragon Age 2. I’m a massive Dragon Age addict, and if I had only one game series I was allowed to play for the rest of my life, that’s what I’d choose, but building interiors in those games sometimes defy the laws of physics. DA2’s production limits had a strong influence on the ingame architecture — I can’t fault the artists for doing a good job with what they had, but the results are great TARDIS-building examples. The layouts of most interiors make no sense, particularly as the buildings in the game appear to be multiple-storey blocks — there would have to be concessions for internal stairwells and passages, at the very least. After your character earns the right to buy an estate, the estate interior is far too big and oddly-shaped to fit into its footprint in Hightown; moreover, when you’re exploring its cellar in the first act, the map of the above floors doesn’t match what you find later after moving in in the second act. A door that leads you into a side-room in an early quest will later let you into the entry hall of the same building.

TARDIS-ing is partly a symptom of disconnecting interior locations from the exteriors assets, requiring a moment’s loading blink when you change locations: when there’s no external boundary to stay within, the possibilities are limitless. The Pokémon games are notorious for this, and the only real way to avoid such a disconnect is to not allow the players to see the exterior of the building they’re entering, which is usually done using walls or plants, or implying that there was an additional passage to travel through which the player wasn’t forced to traverse manually. Sometimes the artists will make an effort to match the interiors to a suggested exterior profile, but sometimes there are design matters to take into account, or time and resources are limited and it’s simply more effective to clone interiors for multiple buildings. Cloning interiors makes a great deal of sense in a location such as that in DA2, where the entire town was purpose-built, but not so much for a village which has grown over time and where the houses were built by their original occupants, like Bree.

Is any approach particularly better, though? While my personal preference is for structural continuity, I would not actually suggest that it’s ideal for all games. There are a lot of variables to take into account with any design decision, and while it might be more realistic to have narrow staircases in your inn and a space station that looks like it could feasibly house a hundred capital-sized hangars, it’s not always the best option for the game itself. For my part, I try to not focus too much on why City of Heroes offices were all constructed by the same firm which clearly believes in useless dead ends and not building lifts to go directly from ground floor to rooftop.