I thought a ‘Game Design Spotlight’ might be a cool feature to run on this blog, an article series in which I critically examine particular design elements of existing games, elements which I find clever, interesting or original. Or, alternatively, elements I feel don’t quite work, or that are actually harmful to the overall package, and why I feel that way.
I’ll kick it off by looking at Banner Saga’s map feature. Now, I love fantasy maps, there’s something wonderfully evocative about them in general. You look at them and wonder, what is this or that feature? Who lives in this town? What are these mountains? Can I get there from here?
And it’s rather fun to be exposed to some snippet of lore from that world and go back and look at the to the map, to place that lore in context.
And video games, of course, can take things a step further, adding interesting visual effects and interactivity. With The Banner Saga, the devs have used that interactivity to take map annotations to the next level, if you’ll excuse the tired cliche. Just about everything on the map, every mountain range, forest, town, river passing, coastal spur of rock, can be clicked on, giving you some a snippet of lore about the world, its people and its history.
It’s a rather neat alternative to the “lore dump” exposition books and codices you often find in RPGs, I thought. Now, I’m not disparaging lore books, I love reading them, personally! And I’m probably one of the few people who do, if you listen to how many gamers complain that video games aren’t really a reading medium. Whatever. But it’s an interesting feature, especially since The Banner Saga involves a long trek across that map, Oregon Trail-style, so you can follow your journey and gain historical context to the places you visit without too much resorting to an “encyclopedia NPC”, who is just there for your character to ask questions to about the local area. The Banner Saga’s map acts as a very literal piece of environmental storytelling.
There’s an interesting point to be made here, about not being too trapped in the design of the physical thing you’re mimicking. A video game map is (generally) a digital representation of something physical. As a designer, you can set out to try to recreate the ‘feel’ of that physical thing. But you can also be trapped by the idea of that physical thing and its limitations. Constrained by a physical reality that is only imagined.
For example, in System Crash, when I designed the cards, I was basing them off of Magic the Gathering cards. I designed how the cards were laid out based on the MtG template, but that template was from a physical medium, where they had to make compromises with the space available on the physical card. When I play Hearthstone, I see a card design and layout that better takes advantage of the capabilities of the digital environment, with slide-outs and things like that.
Like putting the secondary information about type, artist and flavour text on a pop-up panel rather than trying to fit it all in on the card’s main panel. In a purely digital medium, you’re not constrained to one side of a piece of cardboard.
Small things, but they make a difference! Ah well. As with any craft, much of what you learn comes from trying things out and realizing what doesn’t work, seeing ways you could have done it better after the fact.