Land of the Lost
"I have never been lost, but I will admit to being confused for several weeks." -- Daniel Boone
Go north of Junk City and take the Volcanic Path to the Sage's Tower. That's what Yuki said. Then all the others in the group rephrased and repeated it to me just to make sure I got it. Everyone in the game thinks the main character is a bit dim. And maybe I am, but all this repetition doesn't solve my problem. It isn't that I don't know what to do. It's not that I don't know where I need to go to do it. It's that I don't know how to get there.
You give me a cardinal direction, and I am likely to be eaten by a Grue. Or maybe I'll feed you to it. To me, "north" is one of those mythical things like "free time" and "sleep."
It's not just that it's hilariously funny to your passengers or anyone you ask for directions. It is so embarrassing, and sometimes it's infuriating. My kids like to say that Mom knows her way around. And around and around and around. I can laugh along with everyone when I take one wrong turn. It's not so funny when it takes me hours to find my way somewhere.
I don't even have to leave the house; I can do it at home for free. All I have to do is plug in some of my favorite games and I can have that oh-so-familiar sinking feeling. And I'm not the only one--imagine the fate of the poor guy riding along with me in a game of Rocket Race. Having to struggle with navigation can be a horrible handicap.
The usual first suggestion people make (once they stop laughing at me) is to say I should get myself one of those GPS units. I have tried them, but they're not quite the cure-all you might think. The usual trip goes something like this.
The GPS navigator pipes up like the bridge computer on the Enterprise and says, "Turn north on 168th Ave NE after .3 miles."
I think, "I'll get right on that, Majel." Wait. Maybe not. The "N" is pointing off the side of an overpass. And exactly how many blocks is .3 miles!?
Thankfully the GPS unit designers took people like me who navigate by landmarks into account and tried to help. The green arrow in the middle of the little street on the screen shoots off to the left at a cross-street. The verbal directions may be in Sanskrit but I can interpret the arrow as "hang a left at the next intersection," so we don't drive off the overpass, and we end up where we're going most of the time.
I get lost in games, too.
The type of game doesn't matter. I've been lost in every kind of world. The Library level in Halo, Section B in Doom 3, the Desert of the Knaaren in Rayman 3--I've wandered back and forth across them all, searching for the spot marked X to do my next task. It doesn't even take a three dimensional game. I've gotten lost in 2d side-scrollers. Do you remember the Rupture Farms packing plant area at the beginning of Abe's Oddysey? I find my way eventually, but after a while I imagine even the game characters are wondering if I'm taking my directions from Moses.
It's all in how your brain works. Some people need to navigate by landmarks, and some people do fine with orienteering. Landmark navigation is the process of using physical objects to make decisions about your course. And it's not just women drivers. Free-moving robots and many other animals use this method of navigation. Orienteering uses abstract directional indicators like compass readings and coordinate systems. Technology like the humble compass and the up-to-the-minute GPS are often used here, but people can possess an innate awareness of cardinal position or "sense" of direction like homing pigeons do.
There's been a lot of thinking about this in both the real world and in games.
- Maps, Directions, And Video Games: A Model For How We Perceive Them
This article from Cognitive Daily takes a look at some of the basic issues in translating game objects in 3d space into a 2d screen display map.
- No Sense Of Direction? On The Road To Recognizing What's Behind It
I'm not quite as lost as the lady in this article, but her story sounds awfully familiar. I'm not ready to classify it as a disorder, but I'll be watching the research from Giuseppe Iaria with interest.
It's not a black-or-white situation. Most of us cope in our own way or at least accept the other methodology. There should be no stigma either way. It's not a learned behavior, and it has nothing to do with intelligence. Good game navigation could do more to take both viewpoints into account.
Here's a few things that tend to trip me up:
- Mini-maps and radar screens are much less helpful when they rotate with both your character's movements and the camera's.
There's no frame of reference to the world at all. I guess you really are the center of the universe. Sometimes they help you by trying to include a cardinal direction indicator, like a letter "N" that is supposed to tell you which direction is north and imply the rest of the compass rose. Except when you take an "N" and rotate it, it looks the same both up and down. I'll wait a second while you write it on something and try it out for yourself. The sides are fine; even I figured out there's no direction "Z."
Tiny or ambiguous directional arrows and markings make the map more difficult to interpret.
The differences between standard and Hi-Def video equipment bring this into even sharper relief. Sometimes we do have a little squiggly thing pointed at what I'm hoping is the bottom of the letter "N" that's careening around the rim of the map area. But I can't tell for sure which end is pointy because it's so small.
The position isn't making things any clearer. Is it on top of the N and pointing away from it, or on the bottom of the N pointing at it? Or maybe it's just an ornament on the letter itself? If it's on the bottom then north is straight through a mountain. If I have to fight my way back around it again I'm going to be seriously torqued off. If it's on top north is back out into the trackless desert. I've already played Lawrence of Arabia here twice now. I really don't want to do that again either.
Games that throw you into a "battle realm" to fight add their own trials to the tribulations.
I ended up with some seriously over-built characters playing Final Fantasy X the first time because I kept getting turned around climbing up Mt. Gagazet. It wasn't just a question of going straight up the trail: Because of the way the path crossed over the gorge, for a little while there "forward" was actually "down" the mountain. To make it more confusing, the spot where the camera would move to the next area was right in the middle of this section of the path.
So you march Tidus' little leather-clad butt along the path, and run into a spawn point. This sends you off into the battle world. You kill the big bad Bombs, and get sent back to the overworld. But you come back facing the other direction, and you hit the area border again. Then the game area would re-render, heading you back the wrong way. Before you know it, you're trapped in an endless loop of killing those three Bombs and being sent back to the overworld right in front of the Bomb's spawn point. One step and then Boom! Here we go again. By the time I figured it out and broke the cycle by taking that first step in the other direction, I wanted to scream.
Maybe it's not déjà vu--maybe it's the fact that all these twisty little passages look alike.
Cookie-cutter level design can be a killer. Especially if combined with any one of these other issues. After you've humped that mini-gun through your 20th featureless concrete hallway, you begin to wonder where you've seen this place before. I know it seems obvious, but if the areas are lacking in unique features then a landmark navigator won't be able to see any landmarks they can use. Number it, paint it green, put a fancy hat on it. I don't care. Just do something to distinguish it from the rest.
Mechanics aside, the map isn't much help if the place you're told to go isn't displayed on it.
Designers like to hide the map due to a discovery limitation like fog of war. Or in games with large worlds, the destination can be outside the scale of the displayed area. It goes like this: I'm told I have to go north to Mt. Bur-Omisace. Simple, right? Unfortunately, it requires slogging through three other areas which also have their names obscured, each with multiple exits and no pointers as to how they're positioned relative to one another. I've got no other guidance but that cardinal direction as to the path. In downtown Seattle I can find signs that tell me how to get onto I-5 to get to Portland or Vancouver, BC. It seemed dumb to me until I had to think about starting a trip to Portland and I had to figure out how to get on the highway. A couple long-view roadsigns to give us a bigger picture or maybe a grumpy NPC to insult my intelligence with a couple concrete clues wouldn't go amiss.
And don't even get me started about maps that are just plain wrong.
Take, for example, The Metro in Fallout 3. When you're outside in the street the Pip Boy information doesn't necessarily match the names on the posted maps inside the area itself--you don't want to know how much that screwed me up until I read that article. I thought I was taking crazy pills. I know that a nuclear weapon rearranging the place and several hundred years of rusting doesn't help, and that designers use these mechanics to encourage exploration and add to difficulty. But it's just plain cruel when you add the rest of the issues on top of it. I already feel stupid enough, thank you.
Time-limited tasks that require pinpoint accuracy of navigation are definitely not a strong-suit.
The last level of Metal Gear Solid, where you had to drive away from the nuclear blast through that series of tunnels and not get lost was a nightmare. So was trying to navigate that Warthog through the Pillar of Autumn's dying hulk at the end of Halo. It's not just speed-runs. I had to give up and ask a kid to help me navigate that part in Metal Gear Solid 4 where you have to follow that whistling guy through the city. I'd get lost in the city, and then loose track of the whistle you're supposed to chase him by. Frack! Shamble my way back to the station and try to pick him up again, with Otacon making snarky comments in my ear.
RPG's with big worlds are my Achilles' heel because they tend to combine all of these problems into a heady mix. They're one of my favorite types of games, too. While I never intend to grind the game like I was going to use it's bones to bake my bread, there's always some cookie-cutter locale combined with story points that have their locations obscured on the map and next thing I know I'll be trudging along aimlessly like the Wandering Jew.
One weekend I spent four flippin' hours in Final Fantasy XII, trying to find my way through the abandoned oil rigs infested with tomatoes in pajamas and the Tusken Raiders on stilts. The area is a series of ring-shaped walkways connected by bridges at irregular intervals with a drifting desert as the background. No reference points to work from at all. Good news is I found the entrances to two secret areas I wasn't supposed to find yet. Bad news is I ended up dragging myself all the way around every single ring in the entire Sandsea before I uncovered enough of the map to see where I was supposed to go. By the time I got to my destination I was swimming in license points and the giant flying appetite that tried to eat my party at the door of the tomb wasn't that big of a problem.
In case you were wondering, even with the notes I took I got lost again trying to find those two hidden areas later for sacking.
I don't have any easy answers. A couple things here and there that worked better for me. For all the thrashing around I did in Fable 2, thanks to that trail of golden sparkles I at least had a reasonable assumption as to the basic direction I should be going. It reminds me of everyone's least favorite fairy, Navi. It doesn't help when the scale of the story quest doesn't match the scale of the available map information, but you can at least follow what you can see. I could still navigate MGS4 by keeping the map north/south manually. And outside of The Metro I was deeply grateful to Pip Boy.
In the real world, one of these days some bright boy is going to find a way to marry Google Maps with the Yellow Pages and build a website that can help people with driving directions like "Hang a left at the 7-11 on 40th and 172nd" rather than the current offerings of "Drive .3 miles north on 168th."
That wouldn't do me much good in this game, though. I'm still standing at the head of the bridge outside the door labeled "North Gate," right outside Junk City, and I have to get to the Sage's Tower. So, do I take a left at the giant bug-thingy? Or a right?
I can't exactly ask the bug.