In one thread I wrote a bit about 2D and/or fixed camera vs full 3D worlds:
What struck me when reflecting on this was that a technological limitation that prevented the creation of a full 3D world to explore had resulted in a superior solution, much like the well-worn tale of how Spielberg had to keep the shark under wraps for most of Jaws because it barely fucking worked, to the ultimate benefit of the film. Then, because this is apparently how my mind likes to spend my free time, I started thinking about the world map, the other ‘compromise’ used in old RPGs to create the illusion of a huge world in lieu of actually creating a huge world. And I think the illusion is better.
Many field maps in FF7 are actually quite small, but successfully give the impression of being part of a larger area. I'd argue that this is because with a controlled camera and an often bird's eye view of the game - as opposed to a full 3D over the shoulder setup - your imagination fills in the gaps. You are often unable to see what's off to the north, south, east or west, but your mind makes the leap that there's something there and you happily play on, feeling part of that world. In a full 3D game where your view is one remove from a first person perspective, you can turn and see the entire environment. The developers then have no choice but to put something there other than empty space, and I think it is a rare game indeed that manages to put something that's not some type of unsatisfying wall that makes you feel boxed in. When running around the Crisis Core slum market, to me if felt smaller, despite probably being bigger than the FF7 original. I'm convinced it's because the walls are in your line of sight, and you can run up to them and properly see how small the play area is.
I’ll stop at this point and direct you to Jason Schreier’s very nice plea for more world maps, which I found while putting together this thread and was depressed to realise conveyed some of what I was going to write here, but better. In particular:
And from the comments:
A world map, more than anything, is a collection of symbols. Symbols for castles that expand once you enter them. Symbols for mountains that block your progress. Symbols for your character. Symbols for the passage of time. Symbols for the distance you travel.
Just so. In a full 3D world, places that are supposed to be separated by vast distances often feel like they’re just down the road, despite the best efforts of the developers to avoid this. The game I’ve played that comes the closest to doing so is Xenoblade Chronicles (aka the other game I always bang on about), and even then it falls short, and I think it’s because subconsciously you know how far you’ve come, because your realistically proportioned character has walked or run for a certain amount of time and you know how far that would have taken you in the real world, and it works out about the same distance as the nearest Tesco. In Xenoblade, when Dunban - who we last saw convalescing back in Colony 9 - reappears in badass style, it’s clear that he’s supposed to have had a lot more time to recoup and has gained enough strength to join the party. In truth, at least to me, it felt like he must’ve leapt out of bed about an hour after we set out.
There just isn't any real way to make a world feel that HUGE, without simultaneously making the game entirely impractical to play.
A world map, on the other hand, by reducing your character to an obvious avatar and representing the world in a more abstract form, manages to pull off the excellent feat of compressing both distance and time in a way that doesn’t feel cheap. The camera pulls out to show us the grand view and our little, oddly proportioned character’s place in it. We have become removed from the action - but the action continues, unseen by us from our godlike overview, back down there. A big city you've just left is a tiny icon now, giving scale to the map so each pace is clearly a mile or more, and so, logically, a few minutes of walking is a great distance over a time period of days or weeks. We see all this, and instinctively grasp what is conveyed. Even better, the action snaps back from time to time for random encounters or the odd cutscene; the camera swoops back down to ground level, giving the impression that we’re only having to experience the exciting moments on an otherwise long, uneventful journey. much like the Lord of the Rings films depicting the quest by interspersing dialogue and fight scenes with the whirling, bird’s eye view, sponsored-by-the-New-Zealand-Tourist-Board shots of the group walking along mountain passes and through grassy valleys.
The whole idea is explained nicely as the concept of authorial distance, as outlined by fantasy writing bloke David Eddings in The Rivan Codex (which is a load of gubbins but this bit always stuck with me for some reason):
I would argue that RPGs need time, and distance, compression, if they are to feel like epic journeys rather than just bloody long games. I liked Lost Odyssey, but it failed in this aspect, just feeling like one damn thing after another and setting up mysteries only to quickly resolve them. RPG world maps are a great tool for implementing authorial distance. The camera pulls away as you leave town, and time begins to pass more quickly as great distances are covered in moments. As you approach a new town, you see a representation of it on the map, obviously not the full thing because it’s roughly the same size as your character, and enter. The screen fades to black, the music changes, and the camera pulls in as time returns to normal speed. And in that moment when the screen is black, perhaps, your imagination can fill in the final approach to town; the wild plains or forests becoming tamer before falling away to farmland and buildings. By giving you these gaps you can paint the picture yourself, enriching what’s already there in a way a full 3D world that tries to provide every last detail itself does not allow. At the same time, it doesn't completely rob you of the journey like an easy solution in full 3D might, which would be to fade to black, give a "3 weeks later" caption, then fade back in to the next section of the quest.
[L]earn how to compress time gracefully. You can’t record your hero’s every breath ... I’ve devised a personal approach which I call ‘authorial distance’. I use it to describe just how close I am to what’s happening.
‘Long distance’ is when I’m standing back quite a ways. ‘After Charlie got out of prison, he moved to Chicago and joined the Mafia’, suggests that I’m not standing in Charlie’s hip pocket.
‘Middle distance’, obviously, is closer. ‘The doors of Sing-Sing prison clanged shut behind Charlie, and a great wave of exultation ran through him. He was free!’ That’s sort of ‘middle’, wouldn’t you say?
I refer to the last distance as ‘in your face’. ‘Charlie spit on the closing gate. “All right, you dirty rats, you’d better watch out now,” he muttered under his breath. “
In short, I think RPGs world maps play a role that could be considered equivalent to a film montage, a way of showing progress and compressing time so that an epic journey can feel weeks or months long without detailing every little tedious moment. Creating a full 3D environment without such sleight of hand can only result in a small world or a big, boring one, I think, and the old style maps - while perhaps the result of technological limitations at the time - create a bigger, better world than is possible with 3D, purely because of the way they allow the director to leap from one level of authorial distance to another. It’s a tool that enables better story-telling.
Any thoughts, RPG people? Examples of full 3D games that successfully pull off the same effect? Ideas about how FFXV is going to approach this? Also, am I being unfair in depicting the early world maps as a compromise rather than a deliberate design choice? I fear I might be. Thanks to anyone who made it through what rather rapidly became a full essay.