Conveying Concepts with Abstraction Part 1: The World Map

Games are funny. Some have drifted towards trying to be ultra-realistic in certain certain aspects while being content with being unbelievable in others. In this series of posts, I'm going to discuss the idea of abstraction in relation to realism and how games don't need to be realistic to sell an idea. Showing the player a perfect simulation of something is often not essential. The real problem developers are trying to solve is one of conveyanceThis post is going to examine World Maps in older JRPGs and their common use of abstraction to sell the concept of scale. In future posts, I'm going to examine abstractions used in other elements of games.

The JRPG world map is a famous example of game abstraction that absolutely works. In many older RPGs, players were given the ability to traverse a world map. Many remember this fondly: a huge world to explore with towns and dungeons and everything in between. However, there's a strange consideration with these overworlds: the maps are absolutely not to scale, and are in fact quite skewed. As a matter of fact, they are frequently out of scale so much that the player character is often larger than the features of the terrain! The thing is, players don't really care that their character being the size of a small village on the world map. In fact, many don't even notice.

 In many cases, the player character is as large as the terrain features.

In many cases, the player character is as large as the terrain features.

But why was it done this way? Surely, developers had a reason to represent their world like this. On one hand, it was a technical solution to the problem of size: there's no way they could have created a whole entire world when considering time, technology and manpower. On the other hand, it was a clever design trick. An abstraction and a representation of the world they built. Building out an entire world to the scale that they imagined it (read: the scale of an actual world), would be nearly impossible. Even if they did, not only would this world be very, very empty but it would be very, very boring. Mostly, it would be open space. Because of this, Final Fantasy games took an abstract approach to representing their world map. The world map conveys a large world, but one that is not to scale. Towns and dungeons are merely symbols on a map. Symbols indicating something that can be traveled to. The player character on the map is a representation of the entire party travelling around the world. And each step the player character takes may represent days and days of travel from one part of the world to another. Time is compressed much like terrain. Random encounters serve to enforce this further, bringing the player back to the "now" to further highlight the greater abstraction. All of this combines to represent a journey from one end of the map to another without the journey feeling like a burden to the player.

Final Fantasy IX uses a brilliant move the first time the character reaches the world map. The player is treated to a cutscene of the entire party camping out followed by the player being advised to call a moogle (a helper that can be called to the aid the player while on the world map) when they need to rest and save. Doing so while on the world map causes a tent to be pitched, the screen to be darkened, and the player's stats to be refreshed. The implication is, of course, that the characters are resting after a long day of travelling. This journey across the world map is indeed a journey for these characters. As players, we are just getting the highlights. We are subconsciously allowing the game to represent something abstractly without requiring us to experience it directly. We can traverse the world map, knowing that it represents the characters' journey, without having to literally take days and days to walk on foot from one town to another. The game trusts us to believe in it's abstraction and let's our imagination fill in the gaps.

So when you see a game that trades abstract conveyance for realistic simulation, ask yourself whether the the developers could have gotten away with a mere representation of reality instead of a simulation of one. After all, a player doesn't really need to walk through a field for hours and hours to get the sense that the world their inhabiting is huge. That can be conveyed in other ways, using the best tool of all: the player's imagination.