In this GAMEOLOGY episode we discussed ‘signposting’, or the act of telling the player where to go and what to do.
Earlier era games are often criticized for dumping the player on their own and putting the responsibility on their eyes and ears (or guesswork) to find their way to the end of the game. The first Zelda is a classic example of challenging-yet-intuitive design. Link begins the game with nothing but the instruction of finding 8 ‘unit’. Plopped onto the map with the freedom to go anywhere could be daunting, but there are several subtle forms of guidance.
Firstly, a black door is present. This is where Link gets his Sword. It’s possible to skip this entirely and never receive that sword, but the placement and visibility ensure the majority of players will head to the door first.
Many players might choose to go left first, but there are two clues there to encourage the player turns back.
Firstly, these environment objects form a gigantic arrow pointing back.
If you ignore the visual clue, you’ll be faced with a screen full of powerful enemies. A death sends you back to the first screen. Most players would choose to explore a different path after such a decisive defeat.
Exploration of the World Map and seeking the 8 units is done with many of these tricks. An area could be nearly impossible to navigate without a more powerful shield for example.
Mini-maps became more prevalent, and were soon filled with indicators of which direction to go, as well as more icons signifying quests/items/etc. This is obviously helpful, but I’d argue it can break immersion.
Metal Gear Solid 1 fell victim to its powerful mini-map showing the location of guards and their cones of vision. The mini-map was more effective at judging incoming danger than the main perspective, causing the player to spend the majority of their time ignoring the beautiful visuals in lieu of a primitive radar.My first few hours with The Witcher 3 impressed me with mature story-telling, but also put me off with the constant addition of icons to the map. Ride a horse near an area with a quest and the icon is immediately added. I felt this betrayed the natural sense of discovery I adore in most RPGs. Even linear RPGs can still provide a feeling of exploration if they don’t tip the hand prematurely.
Elder Scroll III: Morrowind used a lot of literal sign-posting, as well as old-fashioned directions. Hearing from NPCs (because you asked) of interesting areas and having to navigate using only signs or spoken directions is far better than staring at an arrow on the mini-map. If the player has to use the actual environment to find their way, they’ll develop a connection with it. Perhaps encountering tough enemies on a treacherous road, or taking in wonderful vistas that act as landmarks.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild went back to its 8-bit roots and basically re-imagined the opening of the NES title. This time, Link emerges from the cave and is able to see the world before him. The player is informed of where to go by how interesting a distant landmark looks, or by NPC conversation. The game’s structure of completing four main temples in any order works perfectly with this type of free-form exploration.
I recently played NieR:Automata based off the glowing reviews from just about every corner of the internet. Unfortunately, the second level starts you on the same map as the first, but this time at the end. You are tasked with finding an entrance and after backtracking through as much as I thought possible, I hadn’t found the entrance. Perhaps I missed what was obvious to others, but I spent 20 minutes frustratingly wandering around. There was a map with a highlighted portion but the pathway to it seemed unclear to me. Again, I could be the minority here but this felt like terrible design.
Check out our video for a more thoughts on the matter from myself and game-dev Attila of Bluish Green Productions.