Over the years, I’ve become a lazy gamer, and I don’t think it’s all my fault. Honest.
Years ago, when I was an avid MMO and RPG gamer, I struggled many times to figure out where to go next. The internet was there to help, but it was expensive and we only had dial-up, so a lot of the time I had to go it alone. If I left my playthrough of Final Fantasy VII untouched for too long, I’d come back and have no idea what I was meant to be doing next. There was no journal or flashing icon on a map to give me a heads up of what I was meant to be doing.
It was even worse with my MMO of choice, EverQuest. Furthering the sense of being in a mysterious world, there was no assistance from the game as you explored. Instead, you had to take the initiative to figure things out-either through guesswork, asking a fellow player for help, or by downloading maps. I don’t mean downloading them as part of an add-on either, I mean downloading them and printing them out. I had a whole binder of maps that would live by my side as I played. It was a tremendous waste of ink and paper, and a necessary evil while exploring a new land, but also somewhat satisfying.
At some point though, games became a lot easier to navigate. Developers accepted that not everyone wants to rely on a physical atlas to figure out what to do, perhaps realizing not everyone has the time to wander aimlessly in a virtual world. Games like World of Warcraft made MMO gaming far more casual, giving players a mini-map with a clear indication as to where they need to go.
Initially, it seemed like a great idea. Finally, a game that didn’t require a ton of research time just to figure out where to go!
Is it really a good idea in the long run, though?
Since then, mini-maps-either displayed directly in the HUD, or available with a button press-have been integrated into virtually all open world or even semi-open world games. It’s been embraced by everything from more mainstream JRPGs like the Final Fantasy series to first-person shooters like Call of Duty and Battlefield. The Fable series introduced a literal trail of breadcrumbs, with a glowing line that guides you around, ensuring there’s never any need to deviate from the path.
Most open world games have also integrated “fast travel,” the ability to jump from designated points around the map. All this makes it easy to work on auto-pilot, negotiating what could be quite interesting routes, without actually thinking it through. Players with limited time, like myself, have it easy at last. You can finally get something done in a matter of minutes-but is that a good thing?
Grand Theft Auto V and Fallout 4 are among the worst offenders. They’re huge games with sprawling worlds to explore, but you don’t actually have to wander if you don’t want to. That’s pretty tempting when you only have limited time to play. You can accomplish a lot by sticking to the mini-map markers and utilizing fast travel.
“But you don’t have to!” I hear you cry. “You can embrace the joy of uncovering something mysterious simply by deviating from the markers!” Or, “you don’t have to use the map just because it’s there!”
And you’re right, you don’t. Just like you don’t have to use a calculator to do a sum, and you don’t have to add all phone numbers to your contacts list. But let’s be honest: are you really going to go back to doing math in your head, or memorizing multiple 10-digit phone numbers?
You know it’s useful to be able to do math in your head, but it’s so much easier just to tap it into your phone.
Perhaps in recognition of this problem, some first-person shooters now offer a “hardcore” mode which has the mini-map disabled, and it’s a popular feature among many old-school gamers. But in most games, you can’t turn off the mini-maps or disable fast travel, even if you want to.
Is this bad? Not necessarily; in some ways it’s clearly good. It means that those with limited time can accomplish more than they used to be able to-if you want to stick to the game’s story, it’s easier than ever to do so. MMOs, in particular, are tailored towards casual players now, meaning that anyone can dive right in, and not be expected to spend hours googling or searching for help.
That’s great for new or casual gamers, but as an older gamer, it feels a little like I’ve lost something. I can’t help but wish for the days when I wasn’t so tempted to take the easy route. It felt like a greater accomplishment when map reading skills were a necessity for surviving in a game, as well as in life.
Will I be switching off the markers, though? Nope, just as I won’t be turning off my satnav any time soon.
Sometimes, easier is better-even if I don’t feel great about it.