Ex­plor­ing the amaz­ing car­to­graphic con­nec­tions be­hind video games

Canadian Geographic - - CONTENTS - By Aaron Kylie

Ex­plor­ing the amaz­ing car­to­graphic con­nec­tions be­hind video games

‘ I wisely started with a map, and ’ made the story fit. —J.R.R. Tolkien

GUIDE KASSANDRA steps off a re­con­structed trireme war­ship onto a wharf at the Port of Pi­raeus in Athens, Greece. The wooden ves­sel with bronze ram at the bow is pow­ered by 170 oars­men. Such ships were com­mon­place in the fourth to sev­enth cen­turies BC at the port, which has served Athens since an­cient times. Kassandra, decked out as a fifth­cen­tury merce­nary, doesn’t break char­ac­ter to re­veal her last name. She walks along a se­ries of straight, cob­ble­stone streets, pass­ing wooden carts filled with bun­dled sacks, a black­smith tend­ing his anvil and ladies mak­ing rope amidst the sounds of lap­ping waves, the dis­tant ringing of buoy bells and gulls squawk­ing. As she reaches the city’s mar­ble dis­trict, ar­ti­sans re-en­act shap­ing slabs of white mar­ble into stat­ues of cel­e­brated war­riors. “They truly are mas­ters of their craft,” says Kassandra. “Thank you, Kassandra,” quips Ben­jamin Hall, as a crowd watch­ing Kassandra’s tour on a big screen be­hind him in a meet­ing room at the Wyn­d­ham Grand Athens ho­tel breaks into laughter. Like Jim Car­rey’s Tru­man Bur­bank in the 1998 film The Tru­man Show, Kassandra has no clue she’s the main char­ac­ter in a sim­u­lated re­al­ity. To­day Hall, the Cana­dian-based world di­rec­tor of the video game Kassandra stars in,

As­sas­sin’s Creed Odyssey, is play­ing pup­peteer with an Xbox One con­troller. “The Pi­raeus was built us­ing the Hip­po­damian style of ur­ban de­sign, the grid lay­out that’s very com­mon to­day in North Amer­ica,” says Hall. He’s the master­mind be­hind this his­tor­i­cal fic­tion game’s recre­ation of an­cient Greece circa 431 BC dur­ing the Pelo­pon­nesian War, and is show­cas­ing the ex­tra­or­di­nary ef­forts his Ubisoft Que­bec team went to in de­sign­ing the world, its cities, its ar­chi­tec­tural styles and its map — which at a glance ap­pears iden­ti­cal to a real chart of Greece — for a group of jour­nal­ists. “We tried to ac­cu­rately de­pict many of the dif­fer­ent cities, vil­lages and sanc­tu­ar­ies of the world,” says Hall, “but in a way that makes it in­ter­est­ing and fun and easy to learn to play.” To do so, he and his team cre­ate sets of ba­sic maps for such ar­eas and then drop them into their vir­tual world. Maps have long played a crit­i­cal role in video games, whether serv­ing as the pri­mary user in­ter­face, a player ref­er­ence tool or both. This vir­tual car­to­graphic world (and its re­mark­able Cana­dian con­nec­tions), how­ever, re­mains widely un­her­alded, even as map­ping has be­come in­creas­ingly im­por­tant to many games. “SOME­TIMES THE MAPS rep­re­sent the ac­tual lo­ca­tions, some­times made up places, but they al­ways con­tain a graph­i­cal lan­guage specif­i­cally de­signed to fit the over­all tone of the game,” wrote Span­ish ar­chi­tects En­rique Parra and Manuel Saga in “Car­tog­ra­phy in the Me­ta­verse: The Power of Map­ping in Video Games,” a blog pub­lished in March 2016. “Some­one who has ex­pe­ri­ence in video games also has ex­pe­ri­ence in how their spaces are rep­re­sented,” the ar­ti­cle con­cludes. “This brings car­to­graphic and ar­chi­tec­tural lan­guage closer to the gen­eral pub­lic than ever be­fore.” Be they old-school two-di­men­sional en­vi­ron­ments (think or mod­ern 3D worlds, spa­tial aware­ness in a vir­tual realm is a ne­ces­sity for play­ing most video games. And as games ad­vanced from

Maps have long played a CRIT­I­CAL ROLE in video games, whether serv­ing as the pri­mary in­ter­face, a player ref­er­ence tool or both.

their in­fancy in the 1970s, so too did the need for play­ers to be able to un­der­stand their sim­u­lated en­vi­ron­ments. In the ear­li­est days, many gamers filled the void of in-game wayfind­ing by cre­at­ing their own maps. And even as de­sign­ers be­gan to in­clude ba­sic maps in games, play­ers con­tin­ued to cre­ate their own charts. Some 40,000 such car­to­graphic cre­ations for more than 2,000 games are col­lected on The Video Game At­las. The site’s Edmonton-based founder, Jonathan Le­ung, 39, points to user cre­ations such as those for Su­per Metroid and Castl­e­va­nia: Symphony of the Night as par­tic­u­larly im­pres­sive, not­ing they’re more use­ful than in-game maps. Why? They con­vey in great de­tail the en­tirety of the small seg­ments of two-di­men­sional space play­ers see in a style sim­i­lar to that of a mall di­rec­tory map. Most ex­perts ac­knowl­edge the charts in the ti­tles above among the in­dus­try’s early map­ping mile­stones. Other car­to­graphic evo­lu­tions in gam­ing of­ten oc­curred in con­junc­tion with new gen­res, such as the early role-play­ing games, or RPGS, of the 1990s. “The orig­i­nal Pi­rates! [de­signed by Sid Meier, a Cana­dian] was very in­ter­est­ing be­cause it came with a phys­i­cal map that you had to use to take in-game mea­sure­ments to ac­tu­ally un­der­stand where you were,” says Kon­stanti­nos Di­mopou­los, 40, a self­de­scribed game ur­ban­ist and de­signer who’s just com­pleted the man­u­script for his book Vir­tual Cities: An At­las & Ex­plo­ration of Video Game Cities. Based in Athens, Greece, Di­mopou­los has a PHD in ur­ban plan­ning and ge­og­ra­phy and a mas­ter’s de­gree in ur­ban and re­gional plan­ning, mak­ing him uniquely qual­i­fied to share in­sights on map­ping in video games. Di­mopou­los’s list of games with rev­o­lu­tion­ary map­ping ap­proaches is akin to a reader’s list of clas­sic lit­er­a­ture: Fi­nal Fan­tasy, a 1987 RPG that was one of the first games to in­cor­po­rate a map of its world sim­i­lar to a real-world map; real-world lo­ca­tion games such as 2000’s Deus Ex, the most re­cent se­quels of which are pro­duced by Ei­dos-mon­tréal and con­tain de­tailed site-plan maps of each level; and so-called sand­box games, where play­ers can move nearly un­fet­tered in large 3D worlds, such as the Grand Theft Auto se­ries, which was first re­leased in 1997 and sees play­ers use Gps-like nav­i­ga­tion to pin­point their lo­ca­tion and al­low them to plan routes from point to point. He also high­lights Meier’s strat­egy game Civ­i­liza­tion, where play­ers could cus­tomize their map of Earth as they built their own civ­i­liza­tion. Di­mopou­los is par­tic­u­larly fond of Nin­tendo’s Zelda se­ries, an early RPG famed among car­tog­ra­phy-crazed gamers since the orig­i­nal de­buted in 1986. “The lat­est Zelda: Breath of the Wild is in­ter­est­ing in the way it guides you around the

‘The orig­i­nal Pi­rates! was very in­ter­est­ing be­cause IT CAME WITH A PHYS­I­CAL MAP that you had to use to take in-game mea­sure­ments to ac­tu­ally un­der­stand where you were.’

map,” he says, not­ing that play­ers can use the map for tra­di­tional nav­i­ga­tion, in­clud­ing adding cus­tom mark­ers, but also to search out and ex­plore in­trigu­ing geo­graphic shapes. “It’s amaz­ing how they’ve ap­plied Lynch’s ideas on men­tal map cre­ation in a non-ur­ban en­vi­ron­ment,” says Di­mopou­los in ref­er­ence to noted Amer­i­can ur­ban plan­ner Kevin Lynch. He’s sim­i­larly im­pressed with the afore­men­tioned As­sas­sin’s Creed se­ries. “They’ve man­aged to more or less con­vinc­ingly re­con­struct ev­ery­thing from Lon­don to an­cient Athens to Florence,” he says. “They’re re­ally good at that.” “WE MUST COME to­gether now for the glory of Athens!” im­plores Greek states­man Perik­les to a toga-clad crowd of about a dozen as guide Kassandra looks on. “Glory for you!” barks a by­stander hurl­ing a tomato to­ward the stage. The glo­ri­ous mon­u­ments of the Acrop­o­lis, the build­ing of which were led by the real Perik­les, loom in the back­ground. “The Parthenon is glo­ri­ous, Perik­les, but at what cost? How many triremes could we have built in­stead?” coun­ters Kleon, an Athe­nian gen­eral at Perik­les’ side. The scene plays out atop the Pnyx, a rocky out­crop­ping in cen­tral Athens that’s re­garded as one of the ear­li­est and most im­por­tant sites in the cre­ation of democ­racy. It’s just one of 50-plus real-life his­toric sites recre­ated in painstak­ingly ac­cu­rate de­tail for As­sas­sin’s Creed Odyssey. The ac­tion RPG for home con­soles, re­leased by Ubisoft Que­bec in Oc­to­ber 2018, nabbed nu­mer­ous best-of-2018 video game award nom­i­na­tions. (Its fore­run­ners have com­bined to sell more than 125 mil­lion copies since the orig­i­nal de­buted in 2007.) Be­yond its renowned his­tor­i­cal re­con­struc­tions, the fran­chise is also famed for its open-world en­vi­ron­ments. has recre­ated an ap­prox­i­mately 250-square-kilo­me­tre area of the Aegean Sea re­gion. “The maps are the most im­por­tant thing,” says Hall about cre­at­ing any video game, a com­ment echoed by most game de­sign­ers. “One of the phys­i­cal ob­jec­tives,” he con­tin­ues, “was to cre­ate a game world that had a rec­og­niz­able foot­print from a bird’s-eye per­spec­tive, from the un­mis­tak­able hand-shape of the Pelo­pon­nese to the cove of Salamis to the penin­sula of At­tica to the tri­dent of Mace­do­nia.” As real-world car­tog­ra­phers do, Hall and his team made in­formed car­to­graphic gen­er­al­iza­tions to strike a bal­ance be­tween re­al­is­tic repli­ca­tion and the map’s pur­pose, in this case to be “playable” in the game’s con­text. The re­sult? By and large, the foot­print of cities in Odyssey, while ac­cu­rately re­pro­duced, ap­pear at a rel­a­tively larger scale than ru­ral ar­eas. It’s es­sen­tially a mash-up of two dif­fer­ent scales at once. “We needed to play about with scale,” says Hall. “We’ve got a world that’s much smaller than real life, but we want to still recre­ate a sense of depth and scale. And to make dis­tances shorter so that play­ers en­joy get­ting around.” To cre­ate the ba­sic to­pog­ra­phy, Hall’s team used dig­i­tal el­e­va­tion model map­ping data from NASA. As the group — which in­cludes ter­rain, land­scape and ar­chi­tec­ture artists — re­fined its work, they re­lied on Google Maps, Google Earth, or­di­nance sur­vey maps and his­tor­i­cal maps. They also worked with a staff his­to­rian to de­fine themes for var­i­ous re­gions based on his­toric data for wealth, trade, pop­u­la­tion, lead­er­ship, al­le­giance and wildlife. “From there, we drew pa­per maps of each re­gion, with a rough no­tion of key land­scape, cities, forts, sanc­tu­ar­ies and wildlife,” ex­plains Hall. “This data was then worked on to cre­ate ba­sic ter­rain lay­outs, which formed the very foun­da­tions of our world.” The pa­per maps are then shared with the rest of the game’s de­vel­op­ers,

in­clud­ing writers so they can de­velop sto­ry­lines based on them. The over­all map then goes through a va­ri­ety of drafts as it adapts to the com­pet­ing needs of the de­sign team be­fore it’s fi­nal­ized. “We work very hard to try to make an au­then­tic world, but it is a video game,” says Hall. “We have to make choices: tech­ni­cal, artis­tic and level-de­sign choices. It’s not his­tor­i­cal recre­ation. It’s an imag­i­na­tion of that.” “MAPS MADE FOR video games are not the same as maps in real life. But you will prob­a­bly use the same skills read­ing them,” says Si­mon Dor, 33, a pro­fes­sor of video game stud­ies at the Mon­treal cam­pus of l’uni­ver­sité du Québec en Abitibi-témis­camingue. Dor, who wrote his PHD the­sis on the his­tory of strate­gies in real-time strat­egy video games and his mas­ter’s the­sis on a mil­i­tary sci-fi fran­chise that de­buted in 1998, says that video games are over­looked for the map-read­ing skills they im­part. “You have to know how to read a map in or­der to bet­ter un­der­stand a space. Some video games rely a lot on maps, and you have to be able to read them to play. That can be ap­plied to real life.” While play­ers in­tu­itively learn some car­to­graphic ba­sics from video games, Dor notes that the car­to­graphic knowl­edge trans­fer from games to real-life tech­no­log­i­cal ap­pli­ca­tions is even greater. He points to drone man­u­fac­tur­ers who are hir­ing user in­ter­face de­sign­ers from the gam­ing world to build UI sys­tems for drones. Th­ese are crit­i­cal for un­der­stand­ing where the drone is and what it is see­ing on a con­trol screen. And real-world lo­ca­tion games also re­in­force real-world ge­og­ra­phy. “If you play a game that rep­re­sents Europe through­out his­tory, for ex­am­ple,” says Dor, “you will know most of the coun­tries be­cause of your ex­pe­ri­ence in the game.” Lynn Moor­man, a pro­fes­sor in the depart­ment of earth and en­vi­ron­men­tal sciences at Cal­gary’s Mount Royal Univer­sity, con­curs. She ex­plored how peo­ple were in­ter­pret­ing ge­o­graph­i­cal con­cepts from real-world dig­i­tal maps in her PHD the­sis and found that peo­ple “used the same nav­i­ga­tion strate­gies ex­plor­ing Google Earth as they do in video games.” Moor­man iden­ti­fied four spe­cific ar­eas of over­lap be­tween Google Earth and video games, in­clud­ing un­der­stand­ing con­tent at dif­fer­ent scales when the scale keeps mov­ing, spa­tial ori­en­ta­tion, top­down ver­sus oblique per­spec­tives and “di­men­sional trans­for­ma­tion,” where a user reimag­ines a two-di­men­sional en­vi­ron­ment on a screen as a three­d­i­men­sional space. Co­in­ci­den­tally (or per­haps not?), in March 2018, Google made its Maps in­ter­face avail­able to game de­vel­op­ers

‘One of the ob­jec­tives was to CRE­ATE A GAME WORLD that had a rec­og­niz­able foot­print from a bird’s-eye per­spec­tive.’

who want to use its real-world ge­og­ra­phy, ge­om­e­try and 100 mil­lion 3D build­ing and land­mark foot­prints. Now game stu­dios can im­port Google Maps data di­rectly into a Google-based gam­ing soft­ware and tweak or add el­e­ments as de­sired. The move fol­lowed the run­away suc­cess of the aug­mented re­al­ity mo­bile game Poké­mon Go. The app, which spawned a craze of gamers of all ages roam­ing their lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties in packs in search of vir­tual Poké­mon, or “pocket mon­sters,” af­ter its re­lease in July 2016, was the first game built on such tech­nol­ogy. It com­bined Google Maps and vir­tual re­al­ity and has since been down­loaded 800 mil­lion times. Now The Walk­ing Dead: Our World (zom­bie chas­ing), Ghost­busters World (ghost stalk­ing) and Juras­sic World Alive (dino hunt­ing) have joined Go as some of the most note­wor­thy aug­mented re­al­ity mo­bile games us­ing the same sys­tem. It’s even more ev­i­dence of the con­ver­gence of real-world car­tog­ra­phy in video games. BACK IN ATHENS, Kassandra is climb­ing steps to­ward the Propy­laea, the mon­u­men­tal en­trance to t he Acrop­o­lis. No­tably, she’s fol­low­ing the Sa­cred Way, the an­cient Greek road con­nect­ing Athens to Eleu­sis, home of one of the na­tion’s most famed re­li­gious sites. “What we cre­ated was as au­then­tic as pos­si­ble,” says Ubisoft’s Hall, “so that play­ers could ac­tu­ally take the same jour­ney as peo­ple who would have done it in the fifth cen­tury.” As Kassandra passes through the gate­way, an enor­mous bronze statue, the Athena Pro­ma­chos (Athena who fights in the front line), emerges in front of her, the le­gendary Parthenon in its shadow. “And from the top, you get one of the best views of the city,” says Hall, as he ma­nip­u­lates Kassandra’s climb to the statue’s top. Kassandra turns south to­ward the Aegean. The game pans up to­ward a soar­ing ea­gle, then sweeps slowly across the ex­pan­sive city and around to­ward the vista of rugged moun­tains, rolling seas dot­ted with post­card is­lands and a glow­ing sun slip­ping to­ward the hori­zon. The view is as real as the maps used to cre­ate it.

A scene from the made-in-canada video game As­sas­sin’s Creed Odyssey, which show­cases the de­tail with which the land­scape was recre­ated us­ing real-world maps.

recre­ated the Aegean Sea re­gion, com­plete with fifth-cen­tury trireme war­ships ( this im­age), and the game’s map ( op­po­site right) was de­signed to ap­pear very sim­i­lar to a real map of the area ( op­po­site left). A key dif­fer­ence? Ur­ban ar­eas (pink) are much larger than in re­al­ity.

Clock­wise from be­low: An early in-game map from Su­per Metroid; a more de­tailed, user-cre­ated chart for the same game; the map from the lat­est Zelda; its coun­ter­part from the 1986 orig­i­nal; Grand Theft Auto V’s world; the phys­i­cal map crit­i­cal to play­ing Pi­rates!

An As­sas­sin’s Creed Odyssey scene set at the Pnyx in Athens ( above). A se­ries of draft maps used to build the fi­nal world map for the game ( op­po­site).

The enor­mous statue of Athena atop the Acrop­o­lis, as seen in As­sas­sin’s Creed Odyssey ( above). A screen­shot from Google Maps-based game Poké­mon Go ( left).

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