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Maps/Quests

There's a moment in the 1977 Rankin-Bass version of The Hobbit, oft-mentioned in this blog, when Bilbo Baggins is presented the map of Lonely Mountain and, incredibly, deduces the presence of a secret entrance to the Dwarves' catacombs. He passes this feat off by simply saying that he's "really quite good with maps." (The scene plays out quite differently in the original novel, where Bilbo is far more buffoonish and the secret entrance is identified by Gandalf. One advantage of the condensed adaption is that Bilbo gets to be more clever, hastening the story along at a much quicker pace.) I was quite young when I first saw The Hobbit, but I knew immediately that I, too, wanted to be "quite good with maps." There was in inherent mystique in these ancient documents, artifacts hiding away secret wisdom for those who knew where to look. Even the word sounded dusty and crinkly. (Not to mention the fantastic foley work in things like the 1977 The Hobbit. How could I not be entranced by anything that sounded that cool, even an old sheet of paper?) There were others, of course. I had a kid's atlas at some point from the 60s (which didn't quite feel like an ancient artifact yet, even as I watched the world deviate from the one portrayed while the Eastern Bloc collapsed). And who could resist pirate treasure maps, no matter what medium they show up in? The Tolkien association never went away, either - my parents had cool hardcover editions of Lord of the Rings with big fold-out maps, and when I finally tackled the books myself at the ripe old age of ten, I kept Karen Wynn Fonstad's excellent Atlas of Middle-earth checked out from the library the entire time... for all I know I was the reason they eventually instituted a renewal limit!

A little before I first saw The Hobbit, although an eternity in Kid Years, I was obsessed with the series The Mysterious Cities of Gold which aired daily on Nickelodeon before I started school, which meant I got to stay on top of it. For the next few years, the series bounced around my brain and imagination, and one day I saw a copy of a game called The Seven Cities of Gold at the Waldenbooks in northern Virginia we'd stop at when visiting my grandmother. (The same place I had some of my first exposure to tabletop RPGs, in fact). I had no idea what the game was, but recognized the term from the show and could tell it was set in the same time period. Best of all, they had it for Atari 8-bit, the computer we had at home! I must have made enough noise about it that, while we didn't buy it at the time, I received a copy for my seventh birthday shortly afterwards! The art in the packaging and manual was gorgeous, really setting the tone before you even booted the game, and I learned far more about the so-called Age of Exploration from the text than I ever did at school.  The game itself, on the other hand... I got what I could out of it, but at the time I wasn't really equipped to handle something so open-ended and subtle. Still, I did the best I could, and would dutifully throw it in on Columbus Day in the seemingly random years where it was a school holiday. But over time, even as Seven Cities held a place in my heart, I booted the game up less and less often, pulled away from the Atari to my beloved Commodore 64 and to other games, holding somewhere in my mind the intention to, someday, go back and actually figure the thing out. 

Seven Cities of Gold offers players, within the capabilities of 8-bit hardware and certain cultural expectations, the opportunity to do Europe's contact with the New World their own way. Placing them in the position of Columbus in 1492, the player is given a small number of ships, soldiers, food, and goods and the directive to explore however they see fit. By default, the game operates with the western hemisphere as we know it, but the real fun comes in the world generation, which uses a number of complex (for the time) algorithms to create a random, yet internally consistent and populated, world. Once land is located, exploration will ultimately lead to contact with the native populations, which, through conquest or trade, yields gold which funds further excursions, which yields more gold, etc. As mentioned above, the game is remarkably subtle - only the simplest information is directly provided to the player (latitude, quantity of resources, and a few levels of overhead view), leaving them to deduce what's going on through observation and experimentation. This is an approach I greatly appreciate now, as it keeps the modeling obfuscated and prevents the whole experience from feeling like an overly complex math problem the way many later strategy games would. But there's the secret: despite its (rightful) accolades as one of the most influential strategy games of all time, directly inspiring the a number of games (including the Civilization series), Seven Cities of Gold is not, in its original incarnation, a strategy game in the modern sense: it's a map-making game.

The game's true nature isn't immediately obvious, though - as a player, you feel the impetus to acquire wealth, to impress the King, to advance the tide of history. But there isn't inherent value to any of this, they simply provide the means to keep exploring. Unlike the 1993 "Commemorative" edition, there are no set goals to achieve. Aside from the fact that no titles are awarded after 1540, the game has no end state. Should you die or sail past the edge of the game world, you continue on as the next explorer recognized by the Crown. The only fail state is running out of the necessary resources to mount an expedition, a "soft lock" in the modern parlance. The manual gives a hint as to the game's real focus in the section on saving your progress: "Losing an expedition and all the men and gold it's carrying is frustrating. Losing all the maps and discoveries you made on your last three trips is heartrending." Besides introducing my seven-year-old self to the word "heartrending," this bit of text places emotional weight squarely on the maps themselves, not the status or material success one acquires by making them. They form the core of what we'd call today the "gameplay loop," something I have only come to appreciate in more recent play sessions. You make maps while going on expeditions, and in the process, acquire the means to go on further expeditions to make more maps.

In retrospect, it's not even particularly subtle. In the overhead view, land is always the color of old parchment. Forests are small clumps of tiny trees. Mountains are black triangles, and so on. It's as if you're following the along with these explorer's exploits, even as you control them, just as I followed those of Frodo, Gandalf, and co. in The Atlas of Middle-Earth. But, while more directly (and literally) evident in Seven Cities, maps have been an intractable part of electronic games since the early days and are today prominent enough to be the standard term to describe the area in which a game takes place beyond the player's immediate visible surroundings. As we've discussed before, electronic games (especially early ones) operate in representational spaces the same way maps do. This small clump of trees stands in for a forest. That box moving across the screen is a truck. And that triangle, dear player.... is you. In learning how to engage with an electronic game, we all become, like Bilbo, "really quite good with maps." Moving to a level beyond this (just as one goes between movement and navigational maps om Seven Cities), maps become a framework by which the disparate locales of a gameworld are connected - the concept of an "overworld map" exemplifies this. It wasn't until fairly recently that games could convey all the space of a world with the same fidelity of the areas with which the player is expected to engage, so the overworld map becomes common shorthand, and agreed-upon representation of travel. (For non-game examples, see movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark or the original adventure serials the Indiana Jones movies are patterned after.) When travel is interrupted, by a random encounter, for instance, we zoom back in to our characters' immediate surroundings - the overworld has served its purpose by bringing us there.

Interestingly, early electronic games, especially those on home computers, have another way for players to interact with maps that's largely been lost in the intervening years, even as it drew influence directly from tabletop games: the player-drawn map. Games like The Bard's Tale (published, like Seven Cities, by Electronic Arts) expected the dungeon-crawling player to break out their pencils and graph paper to cartograph their way through the various labyrinths. This may have been out of a desire to recreate an experience standard to tabletop RPGs in the days when their wargame heritage was more prominently displayed and parties would dutifully draw out the dungeons they delved according to the gamemaster's descriptions, gradually recreating the original map from with the GM was working like an elaborate game of Battleship. In a way, this is an inversion of Seven Cities, which brings a new world (literally) into existence for the player through the process of map-drawing. Here, there is a set, static world, that the player must dutifully recreate on paper, and heaven help them if they make a mistake. The map, rather than being the point, was simply another hurdle to overcome in building up a powerful and wealthy party to progress the game. It's no surprise that this approach to game mapping didn't last particularly long, as it made the process of engaging with a game world quite slow and tedious - at least at the tabletop only one player is stuck with mapping duties, so the adventure doesn't have to pause every time something needs to be recorded! The Bard's Tale III: The Thief of Fate proudly declared on the back of the package that the "new auto-map feature lets you leave your scribe at home."

Games and maps ultimately offer us a chance to abstract the world into something understandable, something comprehensible, and the two will always be intertwined. Still, it helps to take a step back as players and as creators, to take look at this interaction and the way that form and function each inform the other. The maps we make are shaped by the stories we're telling, and they way we tell them. So maybe, in my longing to be as cool as Bilbo Baggins, I was halfway there. Maybe, in becoming really quite good with maps, they also become really quite good with us.

- B

Send questions, comments, and weird atlas suggestions to neversaydice20@gmail.com or tweet them @neversaydice2.

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