Many if not most video games have maps. They help orient players to the world of the game, illustrating the scale and extent of the world while pinpointing specific areas of interest to the player, such as important cities or sites, checkpoints, or fast travel options. Games can have one or many maps or even discoverable maps, which only reveal certain information once the player has progressed far enough in the story or world. Along with orienting the player to the world of the game, maps help to structure gameplay so that players can reach the intended conclusions set forth by their developers. In this way, video game maps function much like the structures of essays, which lead readers through their authors’ arguments to their intended conclusions.
Take the map of Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey as an example. The game takes place in the world of ancient Greece at the beginning of the Peloponnesian War in 431 BCE, and the player can travel from Kephallonia to Lesbos to Crete as they please. Compared to traditional games, whose maps are more restrictive to directly guide the player through certain levels (think classic Super Mario Bros.) or along certain paths (as in many Pokemon games), AC: Odyssey’s map is navigable to its players nearly without limit. So long as they have a horse and a ship, the player can go anywhere on the map. It is part of a growing trend of expansive, open-world games that seemingly lack a map structure and thus allow players to do whatever they want, whenever they want.
However, while AC: Odyssey’s map feels endlessly explorable, it still contains an interlocking set of structures through its many different map markers and symbols, which are themselves inherently tied to certain conclusions or questlines. One set of markers are the “Quest” diamonds, which appear on the map wherever there is a task for the player to complete. These markers encourage the player to move through the map in order that they may gain experience and items while also advancing various storylines of the game. Another set of markers is the “Location” markers, some of which show places where Spartan or Athenian soldiers may be targeted. Following these markers compels the player to advance the Peloponnesian War, which was the conflict of Spartan and Athenian forces for supremacy of Greece set forth in Thucydides’ famous history. A final set of major map markers are the “Mercenary” markers, which show the locations of mercenaries who are and are not being paid to pursue the player. By tracking down mercenaries using these markers, the player can improve their own status as a mercenary in order to become the most feared assassin of the Aegean.
Although Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey is an open-world game without any obvious paths or levels, its map still contains an implicit structure. Like in any piece of good writing, this structure allows the player to follow the game’s storyline—its argument—to its logical conclusion, whether they notice it or not.
–Leina Thurn ’20