Sorry that I wrote this up I have the brain worms.
A few months ago I took it upon myself to catch up on the years of Assassins’ Creed games I’ve missed out on and ran into a pretty embarrassing problem. I zoned out for a second and after the screen turned black for a crushingly long amount of time —greatly optimized game by the way, Ubi— I found myself trapped into the first mission of Assassin’s Creed Unity’s bundled-in DLC with no way of returning to my previous plans until I completed it.
In the process of Googling to see if there was a way to abandon the mission and come back when I had the proper context, I discovered a fair amount of people had run into this issue as well. After doing some detective work, I concluded I had mistaken the map icon for the shops in the game, which looks very similar to the icon marking the carriage that takes you Franciade, where the DLC takes place. I would assume most players were just trying to restock on some assassin goodies when they made the same mistake as me. Which would also explain my crippling lack of smoke bombs throughout the whole ordeal.
My clumsiness is all my own, of course, I would never characterize myself as being the most “on it” player of any game, but this kind of spacing out was a new low, even for me. Of course, a lot of it can be attributed to the copy-paste approach that Ubisoft has taken to their open worlds ever since they decided to expand them to ridiculous sizes, but I’d name map markers as the main culprit. For the first time I understood the complaint that many people had voiced: saying they allow you to disconnect from the play area and simply follow the shiny indicator all the way to your goal.
A few months prior to this event, whilst exploring Genshin Impact’s Liyue Harbour, I felt a similar disconnect from the city. As I clambered and climbed the beautiful, traditional Chinese influenced architecture, drawing diagonal jumping lines trying to get to Yujing Terrace in order to steal some fish and plants from a gorgeous public plaza, it struck me that I had no blooming clue how to get there “the proper way.”
Not willing to lose my “immersion” as the kids say these days, I decided then and there to learn my way around the city the conventional way. Use the walkways, learn what connected to where, and all-around learn the lay of the land. I did the same with the other city in the game, Mondstadt, and I generally made an effort to relearn which roads lead to wherever I wanted to go, even if I still chose to take the shorter and more ridiculous way there.
My disconnect was easily remedied in Genshin Impact because despite its colossal map size, its key locations are all fairly small and distinctive on account of its fantastical bend. But this is flat out impossible in games like an Assassin’s Creed. Whether it be works of art turned streets like Paris and Florence, or the boring colonial American cities, these are locations that by necessity have to be mostly made up of mundane locales. In between the churches, palaces and gardens, there have to be houses, storage spaces, businesses the player can’t interact with, and many more.
Turn off the map markers in Assassin’s Creed III and no matter how well you know New York, you won’t be able to arrive at a local landmark beyond knowing the cardinal direction you’re supposed to keep running towards until you stumble upon it. Modern cities have evolved beyond the more small-scale locations of Venice and Florence, with important landmarks every few blocks that make a triangulation of your location possible. Of course, if you live in these places, you know the local store and the bus station five streets down after which you’re supposed to keep going south, but within a video game these locations are very easy to miss if they exist at all.
Not to mention that in a virtual space, many of the resources a person would use to find their way about are simply not available. The wind direction, the distinctive shadows, and the burn on your skin that tell you the position of the sun, the very loud workshop you passed 10 minutes ago, the weirdly wet pavement section and that really yappy dog. All these little indicators that make winding, grid-like streets easy to manage in real life are impossible to create on any reasonable budget and time frame for a video game developer. There are 10 dog models in the whole game, 5 puddles, and for all you know the NPCs have 20 lines to populate a city of thousands.
It seems that for the time being, and so long as Assassin’s Creed insists on expanding its scale with every release, map markers are a necessary evil. The only recourse of the player being a robust options menu to allow them to turn any unwanted icons off, and not using the same bloody icon for your DLC missions as you do for the generic shops in the game. However, there are other games that could do with much better signposting that would allow the player to rescind from the map marker entirely that simply do not put the work in. Even when such signposting would feel quite at place within their chosen locations.
Take games like Skyrim or Fallout, built entirely around immersion. They often take pointers from real world signposting for their cities, but these are rarely that useful or even looked at by most players unless they are completely lost. Leading again to the over-reliance on following the trail of objectives without taking in your surroundings.
To try not to split too many hairs: your average street sign is scaled and proportioned on the assumption that a human will be looking at it in their field of vision, and is designed with attention grabbing colours for this exact purpose. It is not designed to be noticed on a screen, many times smaller than your actual field of vision, through a filter that changes the colour and stylized decay on its lettering. If you make your sign hard to read, people won’t try to read them, if they even notice it.
Something as simple as making the signs for important places a little bit bigger than they would usually be, keeping the sightlines a little bit cleaner, and maybe not washing everything with whatever colour Bethesda was obsessed in the months leading up to release, would do wonders for players’ capacity to get around comfortably without any external aide. Do you expect me to believe every blacksmith in Skyrim has the equipment to fashion dragon weapons, but none of them have a bright paint at hand? As it stands, organic traversal in these games is possible, but far from optimal, and defaulting to the optimal way of traversal is a signature habit of humans.
Our very own Rose here at the Chooch said she had an easy time getting around Control due to common references like office signs, and lifts that take you to different floors. And the best game of 2020, 2001’s Gothic, takes a fair amount of care into making major roads in and out of cities only bifurcate at most, making it easy to build a mental map when most locations can easily be referenced to be “to the right/left turn” of some other major and frequented landmark within the canyon the game takes place in.
This is, of course, not to say that map makers are to be done away entirely. Some people have an incredibly poor sense of direction and need all the help they can get. Some people don’t care about slowing down and taking in the atmosphere of your virtual world; I’m sure there’s lots of New Yorkers playing GTA IV and just as many Parisians playing AC: Unity who just want to get up to crazy video game antics and not indulge in digital tourism.
But part of being in a location is also learning to get around the same. Routine is an integral part of familiarity with any place. We all have our four or five routes home depending on where we’re returning from, and it’s a great contributor to the feeling that we truly know the place we live in. When you take away this capacity to orient yourself based on the organic features of the landscape, any building you climb to keep moving in a straight line to the objective is functionally interchangeable to the last, and the world map dissolves into an indistinct urban sprawl dotted by a few recognizable spaces.
And if you’re going to put in the work to make beautiful spaces, you might as well help people appreciate your labour instead of handing them a tool that makes them bypass it at the fastest possible speed.