In 1986 a video game named Dragon Warrior was released. They called it Dragon Quest in Japan, but under either name it single-handedly established the JRPG genre and was a landmark achievement for gaming. May of the conventions it established are still used in many games today, even outside the genre. Games have evolved since then, and many features have since been improved upon (most obviously: graphics), but one critical thing has been getting neglected recently, and it’s not okay. I speak of the Overworld Map.
To clarify what I mean when I refer to an overworld, I am defining it as the big, continuous world that links all of the towns, dungeons, super robot statues, etc. in the game’s world together. Typically major destination were represented with icons on a very large map. Your character could wander that map, and whenever your character wandered onto an icon the town or dungeon or whatever would load. It managed the scale of the game where literally travelling the entire world would be pretty boring if scale were preserved. By using iconic representations of locations the world suddenly came into existence while still be practical to explore and geographically interesting, all without breaking the bank on development time.
In Final Fantasy X there is a big world with lots of screens and the game does create a bit of an illusion of connectedness when it allows you to travel from one to the other by going through fundamentally linear areas, but in the end, any concept of a world is destroyed when you get your airship. In every other Final Fantasy game you get an awesome flying airship that can take you virtually anywhere. In FF 1 – 9 you get on the airship, fly to where you want to go, and then land and get out. It’s great. In FFX you get in it via a menu, once inside you don’t fly it anywhere, you look at a menu and a map and select where you want to go from the menu (not even from the map!) and then you appear there. It’s a lot like navigating a website, but not much like exploring. In Final Fantasy X you explore the world by inputting passwords into a computer that add new locations to your menu. Despite this being less fun, this system of menu-based travel and exploration is becoming reasonably common in gaming, and it sucks.
Luckily if we need a shining beacon to show us the way to do things right, there is one: Dragon Quest VIII. That game gave exploration the best treatment it has ever had in video games to date. It has an overworld that is wide and open and continuous but it doesn’t have to scale down the towns to mere icons or avatars: the world is simply that big. This is often employed in MMORPGs, but said MMORPGs typically feature zones that are still largely self enclosed, which is something that should be avoided in areas that are allegedly outdoors. In Dragon Quest VIII the only zoning that exists is gates that allow entrance into towns or dungeons – and this is makes sense in the context of the game. The game also lets you fly around the world, and there is no menu nonsense. You actually soar above all of the areas you explored on foot and get to look down and them and try to find places you couldn’t reach before or identify cities you want to revisit from the sky. It’s great. And if all of those makes it sound like it would be a pain to backtrack (after all, clicking on a menu option is very fast and convenient) we must also remember that every Dragon Quest game also features the zoom spell, where you can instantly teleport to a city you have already been to by selecting it from a menu. But you don’t need to find an arbitrary “airship spot” like in FFX or FFXII. You just go whenever you want. All of this is wonderful.
Now it is no secret that DQVIII needed (and received) a lot of time, manpower, and money in its development, but not every game needs to have an overworld that is simply that good. If exploration is supposed to happen there needs to be a world map though, and there is no shame in using iconic representations of cities and simplified geographies like in Dragon Quest I. It’s not a step forward from 1986, but at least it isn’t the step backwards all those others took.