There is a box somewhere in the attic of my mother’s house filled with binders. I moved away – to another country, in fact – over seven years ago, and she has donated, sold, or simply thrown away many of my old things. But I have always made it clear that she is not to discard those binders. They contain all my old maps.
I was part of the first generation to grow up with video games. I have a lifetime of fond memories of the NES, SNES, Game Boy, and N64. We were always a Nintendo family, and loyal Nintendo Power subscribers right up until they got rid of the Epic Center. That section of the magazine contained the RPGs and sims, which, aside from puzzle games and the occasional racer, were the only types of games I was really interested in. I didn’t take an interest in action, strategy, or platformers until many years later, though I did watch my mother and sisters play theirs (the idea that games were “for boys” was something that was never even suggested to me until I was well into adulthood). It was the RPGs and sims that stuck in my mind long after mom made us turn off the console and go to bed. They were the ones I daydreamed about in the back of the classroom.
At some point in middle school I was also introduced to Dungeons and Dragons. I joined a small club at my school – the only girl involved, though I never really noticed that at the time. Truth be told, though, the time spent actually playing DnD (and later Star Wars and other paper-and-dice RPGs) was little more than a minor diversion. My real passion was for the books, the charts, and the maps.
I could never persuade the boys at school to let me be the Dungeon Master, so I started trying to get my sisters to try it out. Of the three of them, not a single one took even the slightest interest. Still, I didn’t see any harm in preparing. I spent hours and hours of my spare time drawing maps and planning adventures. I sat in my room drawing maps in the evenings. I drew maps on my notebooks at school. I started buying three-inch three-ring binders to store my designs.
It wasn’t long before I started stealing graph paper from the math teachers at school. There were several varieties. The most common had uniform squares a quarter inch on a side. Another style had tiny squares, maybe half the size of the larger ones. But my favorite type was very fancy-looking. It had the tiny squares in light blue, as well as darker blue lines every ten squares. Naturally, this was the most expensive type, as well, and the one teacher who stocked it quickly started setting limits on how much I could take.
These maps weren’t just lines and squares. I put a lot of love into them. I drew the enemies in their rooms along with images of the treasure they were guarding. I decorated the borders. I joined many sheets of paper together to map out the whole world.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but my style of maps was heavily influenced by the video games I was playing. At that age it was up to the adults in my life to decide which video games I could play. Now and then we’d go down to the video store and rent a game for a night or two, but the games we had at home, the ones we could spend dozens of hours playing, were the ones our relatives bought us. They were expensive, so we never had very many. Most of them were Mario, Tetris, and Donkey Kong Country titles. We had a few in the Zelda series. But the first game that was really mine was Earthbound for the SNES.
For some reason, we never had Final Fantasy or any other RPG with an overworld. The idea of having one map of “the world” and other, more detailed maps for specific locations just never even entered my mind. And so I built my fantasy world one sheet of graph paper at a time. Some pages contained dungeons, towers, and towns. Many were just wilderness. But each and every page had something interesting on it. Why fill a whole page with nothing to do on it?
I also used my graph paper to plan out my activities in video games. Harvest Moon was a big one: I loved sketching out plans for my farm. I even planned out farm plots with different vegetables that would create pictures when everything was ripe. It was a form of pixel art, though I didn’t realize it then. All I knew was I loved planning things out on a grid. It was all about those little squares. And everything went into those binders.
Truth be told, my maps were never really designed for a paper-and-dice RPG. They were too detailed, too precise. The one and only time I managed to persuade a few family members to play with me, the session ended in great fun for them… and great frustration for me. They hadn’t found any of the secrets. They hadn’t followed my plans. They made it their primary goal to derail my story in any way they could. I had to make things up as I went along. I was a born video game designer, but a rubbish GM.
I was a teenager when we got our first computer, and our first computer games: SimTower and SimAnt. Both lent themselves well to graph-paper plans. Eventually we got an internet connection and I discovered other types of games. Text-based MUDs just cried out for detailed maps. When I learned how to use a spreadsheet program, I started meticulously entering my maps into the computer using the digital grid. It was much easier (and cheaper) to find new games for the PC than it had been on the consoles, and I quickly got into the Ultima series and eventually online games like Graal Online and Dransik. There was a pattern here, of course: the grid. I naturally gravitated towards games I could map out on graph paper. And all those maps went straight into those binders.
I never even used most of them. I never even finished most of the games I was mapping. But I felt a need to get it all down on paper. Map out every square of those worlds. It seemed important to do so. It seemed like it would help somehow, make it easier to play. The game itself became secondary to the process of mapping it.
Eventually I stopped trying to map everything out, finally having discovered that computers had already done it all, and moved on with my life. I got over the need to put everything down on graph paper and started to focus on actually playing the games. But I still tended towards 2D grid-based games. Eventually I went back and tried out Final Fantasy. The games were excellent, which came as no surprise, as by then I had heard all the rave reviews. But the overworld map always felt like a bit of a waste to me. Why make the world so big, and yet so empty?
Looking back, I remember very clearly getting the N64 and eagerly looking forward to my first 3D RPG. At last, it came: Quest 64. My mother insisted on renting it first before I bought it, so I could make sure I liked it before spending all that money. The game was, like Final Fantasy, big and empty – but there was no overworld map. You had to actually cross all that empty space, and no one had taken the trouble to put anything interesting there. The disappointment with that took root in my mind, and it’s something I still consider when looking at new games. Game worlds can be vast and still be interesting, but this is rarely achieved. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why I prefer smaller games with small, detailed worlds. Large or infinite worlds are only acceptable to me when there’s a reason for them to be that way and there’s always something new to discover.
It’s amazing how the types of games we play growing up can shape our worldview. The generation growing up now is already surrounded with touch screens, realistic 3D graphics, online multiplayer with voice chat, and instant gratification. To them, 2D pixel art seems “lazy” or “cheap”. They love games like Minecraft because they have unlimited control to do or build whatever they want. But me? I love it because it gives me an excuse to buy more graph paper.
This post was written for the Critical Distance September theme “maps”.