Poetic Cartography: the use of decorative, non-utilitarian maps in games


[~1500 words]

The first image isn’t actually a good example of what I want to talk about; it’s just a cool map in a video game. What I want to talk about in this post are maps that actually represent the level or playable space in a game, but which don’t actually serve a gameplay purpose to the player.

Let’s dive in.

Red Sky

Many years ago I payed Red Sky by Terry Cavanagh. It’s essentially one level that you platform your way through, and that’s it; everything is red. I wouldn’t be surprised if he just made it as a way to learn Unity.


The interesting thing is that at the end, once you’ve climbed your way to the top of the level, you find a rotating map of the level you just walked through. That’s it, that’s your only reward. Then you quit the game.

And you know what’s crazy. It totally felt rewarding. That miniature version of the level totally felt like a legitimate prize for completing the level. It was like after conquering the level by traveling through it, I conquered it a second time by being able to view it in its entirety.


I’ve thought about that experience over the years and it’s really made me realize how satisfying it can be to find a decorative map in a game. I’m talking about a map that represents the actual gamespace, but doesn’t serve a utilitarian purpose the way minimaps or automap systems do.

By representing the level in microcosm it gives the player the chance to engage with the level in a way they couldn’t before. Seeing the entire level as a whole gives the players a chance to reflect on the small experiences they’ve had throughout it and bring them together into one larger, cohesive whole.


A decorative map makes it easier for the player to come to grips with what they’re doing, what they’ve been doing, and what’s going on in the level. They get to process their experience from an alternate viewpoint (literally and figuratively).

I think that’s all part of why I felt the map in Red Sky was actually rewarding.

Something in this idea reminded me of a level in Psychonauts. In Waterloo World you explore a hex strategy board by shrinking down to the size of the buildings and trees on the board. Then you can shrink down one step further to the size of people so you can explore the hex board in greater detail.


I made a note of that while writing this, but now I don’t remember what point I was going to make. Something about this mechanic in Psychonauts being a metaphor for decorative maps in other games? I don’t know, but I always thought that level was a cool so I’m not cutting this out of the final post.

Making the world feel real: Immersion and verisimilitude

Alternatively, by showing players parts of a level they haven’t been to yet, a decorative map makes the world feel more tangible and real in a way an automap cannot; it gives the sense that the world exists even when the player isn’t there to witness it. The level is an actual physical place that is important to characters who live in that space, not just important to the player.

An example would be in Halo’s appropriately named level, “Silent Cartographer”. There’s several maps in this level, but one in particular shows you a holographic map of the underground facility you’ve been traveling through.


You can see a tall rectangular structure taking up most of the map and on the right side some smaller square structures. If I recall correctly, that smaller part on the right represents a playable part of the level. It’s a lengthy portion of the level, but it is dwarfed by the larger, rectangular, non-playable portion.

The map illustrates that the part of the level the players play through is just a small part of the facility which gives a sense that there’s more to the world than just what the player experiences.

Similarly, by existing in the actual game world, a decorative map gives that world a greater sense of verisimilitude. That decorative map may not be tremendously useful to the players, they cannot take it with them or use it to navigate, but it exists because it is useful to the characters of that world. I would almost say this makes decorative maps something akin to flushable toilets or functional vending machines in games: they’re useless to the player, but their obvious utility to the NPCs makes the world feel more lived in.

Take a look at some of the maps that decorate the walls in Quake 2.


They sort of represent the levels you play and they can give a general idea of how to get from one area to another. However, the player isn’t going to be able to use these maps for genuine navigation. They’re too obtuse.

Instead, the maps serve the purpose of establishing the realness of the space you’re moving through. These rooms and buildings serve a purpose to their denizens even if they’re really just murder boxes for the player.

Drawing the player’s attention to something unnoticed

By showing the players the entirety of a space, a decorative map can inform players regarding things they might not have noticed otherwise.

I wish I could give a better example than this, but I can’t think of anything else:

In Duke Nukem 3D you had an automap, similar to games like Doom and Marathon.

But, on one level there was also a complete map of the level decorating the wall of a command center.


Interestingly, this decorative map was drawn in the same style as the automap. So, you could pop up your own automap and resize it so it overlay the decorative map on the wall and you could see which areas you hadn’t explored yet.

I don’t remember whether this helped me find any secrets or not, but I still thought it was pretty cool

Whether the players have an automap to compare to or not, this is kind of an example of how a decorative map can be used to draw attention to something the developer wants the audience to notice. Or it can be used to reward players who actively engage in the game, where attentive players who actually study the map will find some secret or make some realization that less attentive players will not.

Showing the world through a character’s eyes: Gehn’s map of Riven

Let’s not forget an aspect of real world maps that can be used by games artistically. Maps are not just maps of physical space. They can also be maps of cultural space since the cartographer only shows what he, or his culture, views as important.


In Riven you can find a modular, topographical map of the islands in the game. You select an island and then select a sector of that island and the 3D landscape gets generated. Within the lore of the game, this map was made by Riven’s tyrant Gehn, and he’s the only one to use it.

You use this map to get coordinates of special “power domes” which are necessary to solve a broader puzzle taking place. When you solve the power dome puzzles they will let you travel to another world, specifically the world that Gehn call’s home.


The thing is, the map shows only two things: terrain and domes. No vegetation, no buildings, no bridges, no towers; nothing but the cold, hard, rocky ground and Gehn’s domes.

By doing this the developers show you something about Gehn’s character. You’re seeing the world the way he sees it. To Gehn, Riven is a barren landscape with nothing of value except the power it provides him to get to other worlds. When Gehn looks at Riven he doesn’t see people, forests, homes, animals, or even his own buildings. All he sees is power, and everything else is expendable.


I’m surprised decorative maps don’t appear more often in games. Most games either have decorative maps that look cool but don’t show anything related to the playable space, or they have utilitarian maps meant to help the player move around and find things.


Aside from that, I actually don’t have any final thoughts. I’ve pretty much said everything I have to say.

To anyone reading this, if you have examples of decorative maps in games (either cool or boring) please let me know in the comments or even on Twitter. I’ve gotten a little obsessed over the idea of decorative maps in games but I’m having trouble finding other examples through just google searches.


This space is reserved for when people let me know of other examples of decorative maps in games.

Down in the comments, Stuart mentions that Azurik: Rise of Perathia had two “semi-functional 3d maps” in the earlier stages of the Air Realm and Death Realm. I couldn’t find any pictures of these maps, but I did find this let’s play and around 16:25 you’ll see the holographic map in the Air Realm, which is used in part of a puzzle. And here’s where the same youtuber is at the map in the Death Realm (around 16:35) which is used to get through a puzzle maze. I like the Death Realm map a lot. Thanks Stuart!


One comment

  1. Stuart Odekirk

    Azurik: Rise of Perathia uses 2 semi-functional 3d maps during the first air realm and the death realm sections, in a game that really could have used more, rather than relying on “flying camera” style cutscenes to give a sense of space and organization.

    Liked by 1 person

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