Of the many excellent qualities The Last of Us had, there was one aspect in particular that stood out to me like a revelation and made me yearn for more games to emulate: The lack of a mini-map in the corner of the screen. In fact, there was a complete lack of any map for the player to refer to on their journey across a ravaged post-apocalyptic United States.
It hit me a couple hours in. Like a Pavlovian effect. I’m conditioned, over more than a decade, of checking my pockets every time I leave the house to ensure I have my cell phone with me. Then I continually check it every sixty seconds for the duration of the day like a loon. Likewise in games, we find ourselves checking the mini-map, or hitting the equivalent of a ‘select’ or ‘start’ button to check a more detailed map of the environment.
The mini map has its time and place, but in a medium striving for more realism, sometimes having a map is a cheat and immersion-breaker. A game like Dead Space utilises a map seamlessly into the protagonist’s suit, which is cool, but this is despite the fact that it’s a pretty linear game and almost impossible to get lost in. In a military game perhaps the soldiers will have intel of where they’re traversing, but in The Last of Us it makes total sense that Joel would not have a map in his possession charting a world destroyed, crumbling under debris and random obstacles constantly shifting across the landscape.
The lack of a map encourages more observation of Naughty Dog’s lavish attention to detail, an appreciation of their gorgeous art, and promotes exploration of unique locales spotted by the player, when they’d usually be focusing on a map for cues on where to head next. It’s a similar issue to comments made by Batman: Arkham Asylum art director David Hego, when discussing regrets concerning that game. It was the fact that players could turn on Batman’s special detective vision, which rendered the entire environment into a sparse x-ray vision. His regret was that players used it constantly, and as a result missed out on the game’s art direction and colour tones.
It’s a valid point, and I believe maps also hinder a player’s attention to their surroundings. Yes, without a map you might get lost in a larger open game, but so what? If the game world is interesting, then it helps with the immersion. You can only be lost for a finite time, trapped as you are within the borders of a digital universe.
The Last of Us excelled in making you feel like a survivor. Getting a little closer to your destination felt like a struggle, and having no map helped accomplish that feeling. Each time you’d stumble into daylight and look back, you’d see how little you’d progressed from the starting location. Looking forward, you’d see your destination, twinkling under the gleam of sunlight, beckoning you to keep moving.
I believe maps threaten complacency, and detract from the gaming experience in some cases. Developers should not be afraid in leaving them out and forcing the player to navigate by sight rather than by map.
You don’t need a map to navigate a virtual world. Trust the people behind the game in guiding you.