The Importance of the Overworld Map
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I grew up with Japanese role-playing games. The first game I ever played was the original Dragon Warrior. I learned to read by playing Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy. It should come as no surprise that Japanese RPGs are very close to my heart.
Recently, however, I feel they've been disappointing me more and more with each game I play, and while there are a plethora of different issues that tie into a negative experience for me, there is one particular issue that has let me down in recent years. That issue is the lack of an overworld map.
Firstly, I feel I should make some clarifications as to what I mean by overworld map before continuing. An overworld map, in regards to RPGs, is a world map that the player wanders around and explores, traveling between various towns and dungeons. However, I am not referring to a static map, where the player picks a location, and auto-travels there, with no exploration or random battles to fill the in-between.
In the heyday of Japanese RPGs, nearly every single game had an overworld map. It was the perfect way to show the world of the game, and served as a nice place to grind up experience fighting enemies; but to me, they were more than that. They were an added experience that I feel added so much more to games than when they were absent.
A good overworld map would allow the player to explore, and discover the world at their own leisure, while at the same time keeping them from discovering too much too soon. It was a great way to keep the game from feeling too linear; and those moments when the player discovered a new area, or was given a vehicle to access new parts of the map lead to excitement and wonder when exploring more of the world.
A great example of exploration and discovery in an overworld map are the maps from the Wild Arms series. While at first glance the overworld maps don't feel much different than those from other games, it was the gimmick within the game that made them feel special. The player could not see, and could not access new towns and dungeons without first searching for them. With the press of a button, the player could do a quick scan of the area, and if a dungeon or town was in the area, it would be revealed. This lead to a high level of exploration, and a feeling of accomplishment when you would find a secret area or a dungeon or such.
Sometimes an overworld map can elicit various emotions from the player when exploring the world. As an example, I'd like to use what is possibly my favorite overworld map in a game, and that is from Final Fantasy VII. The map itself feels huge, and has a lot to explore and see, and has a lot of different environments to wander through. While exploring, finding some of the various landmarks can bring about a feeling of awe, but that's not all.
While exploring the marshes the player is immediately chased by the Midgar Zolom, a giant snake that is quite powerful, and could easily wipe your team out if you face it in battle. The first time encountering this enemy left me in a bit of a panic as I desperately struggled to run away, only to fail, and die horribly.
Also, another moment in Final Fantasy VII that left a big impact on me, and brought out a feeling a fear, was exploring under the ocean. In the game, you eventually gain access to a submarine, in which you can then explore various parts under the ocean. I've always had a fear of deep water and water levels in video games, so I was always on edge while exploring underwater. Once Emerald Weapon, a giant monster that is released at a certain point in the plot begins to inhabit the oceans, I always found it extremely difficult to hop in that submarine and head underwater.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, most Japanese role-playing games these days do not include an overworld map, or if they do, it is done in such a way that you do not explore, but simple select a destination via a list, and automatically travel there.
While it could be argued that this is done to keep the pacing of the game steady, and that it's perhaps done to continue to the story quickly while keeping it fresh in people's minds, I feel the games lose a sense of immersion, and it loses that big world feel that earlier games had.
Let's take Final Fantasy XIII for instance. Often criticized for its massive linearity, this game could have easily benefited from an overworld map. While it is not a cure for its bad case of “hallwayitis”, it would have certainly helped the player feel like it wasn't entirely being pushed down a single path, and given the player a chance to truly experience the world they were playing in.
It saddens me to see that at this rate, the overworld map will go the way of the dodo, but it is my hope that future RPGs understand the importance, the childlike wonder, and quite simply the fun of exploring an overworld map that it doesn't entirely die out. Hopefully one day we will see a resurgence, but until then, we will always have the memories of the RPGs of old to hold onto while we explore the RPGs of today.