It’s Earth Day! That means, of course, that we’ll be waxing lyrical about our favorite in-game maps. From sprawling, lush woodlands to the wide open sea, exploration can be one of the most rewarding experiences when playing a new game. These maps stay with us long after we’ve powered down our preferred system, and often, returning to these digital worlds is like returning to a second home. You can almost taste the salty sea air just hearing the well-loved refrain from the original soundtrack. If you explore these places for long enough, you just might learn more about yourself than merely which direction to walk in. Naturally, I put the question to our writers—and they shared what maps inspired their exploration and shaped their gameplay experience. What about you? Tell us the game that changed your perception of exploration!
My favorite world comes from one of my favorite games as a child, Myst III: Exile. One of the first worlds you can go to is Edanna, a small place created to impart a lesson on its visitors. From the outside, Edanna looks very blank: it’s a massive, hollowed tree trunk that’s isolated in the sea. But inside, it teems with life, and all of it interacts together to let you go from the top of the trunk—a canopy with colorful birds and flowers that spread heat—all the way to the bottom, where things get very dark, and most plants reflect light or conserve water. Everything spirals downward sharply, so each progressive level gets larger and darker as you get closer to the roots of the tree. The only way down is by understanding the plants and animals around you: you need to use some plants as stairs, others to bend light through dark areas and open up pathways, a few will help you bring water down the tree, et cetera.
The only way to finish the Age is by freeing a trapped mother bird so that she can return to her nest back on the canopy. In exchange, she’ll help you leave so that you can continue with the story. The vertical map design makes progress very linear, but with plants taking the role that technology often does in other games, you’re encouraged and rewarded for experimenting with all of the plants, and seeing how they connect together. Without having any written tutorials, the gameplay in Edanna helps you to learn the Age’s lesson: “Nature encourages mutual dependence.” You are barred from progressing unless you interact with and understand this world around you.
Aesthetics are always what grab me in a video game, and I find myself returning to games with big, open seas. So, naturally, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker is one of my favorite games to soak up the view! Right from the start, the big, open ocean that surrounds your little island drew me in. Not to mention the fact that the oceans are so vast, it’s easy to have fun getting lost for a while. I will admit, however, any game with a nature-heavy open world will keep me playing for months. Cities are fun in-game, sure, but the natural world gets me every time.
There are a lot of game worlds that leave me breathless and in awe of their scope and vision. Obvious answers like Dragon Age: Inquisition, Skyrim, Mass Effect, and Final Fantasy XII come to mind first. I’ve spent hours in those games rotating the camera around for a better look at the world, and don’t regret the time spent. I even considered talking about the ST:KOTOR maps (gorgeous) or the nostalgia I still have for the Tenchu: Wrath of Heaven settings (also gorgeous), despite their linear and rather small sizes. But when considering a map that felt like home, like a place that I would be perfectly content sitting and just being in, my heart always goes back to the Portal series.
Portal was the first game that made me feel like a real gamer, someone who would be doing this for the rest of her life, and returning to those maps feels a lot like going back to an old well-loved haunt. Portal 2 is the kind of game setting where I would probably give a significant organ for the opportunity to be there in real life, exploring the nooks and crannies and sitting idly on the edge of a vast, inscrutable abyss. The dark, the quiet, and the solitude are comforting for me. The absurdity and magnitude of the facility fascinate me. It’s the kind of setting that draws you in again and again, as much because of the mystery as the familiarity. I’d love to be there—you know, as long as it wasn’t about to go up in a mushroom cloud, of course.
Probably my best memories of a gaming world are from vanilla World of Warcraft. Azeroth is a land with a huge amount of variety. Almost every zone had its own distinctive feel and art style. There were deserts, mountains, bustling cities, jungles, and a country on top of a tree. I loved the idyllic glades of Elwynn Forest, the eerie emptiness of Desolace, and the serene beauty of Moonglade.
Ordinarily, I don’t like to travel a great deal in a game; exploration is low on my list of my preferred activities. But in WoW I did a lot of aimless wandering around. Once, I rode all around Lordaeron for an afternoon. Another time I tried swimming from one land to another (Teldrassil to Darkshore). I think I actually managed it with a low level priest—I had to keep healing every five seconds or so, though. And the gryphon rides! Every game would be vastly improved by gryphon rides. Especially Gone Home.
WoW has a distinct cartoony feel, which might not be to everyone’s taste. As for me? Well, while writing this piece I actually decided to download WoW again. So, I hope you’ll understand if you don’t hear from me for about a year.