Space Compression

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Lashowe: Do you know how many Sith there are on this planet?

Jolee Bindo: Twelve! No, wait! Thirteen!

Sometimes a game's environment is blatantly not to scale. The usual culprits are fantasy RPGs and Wide Open Sandbox games. This freakish distortion of space is becoming more common these days, as the fashion is for photorealistic detail difficult to execute uniformly in a huge world and the banishment of abstractions such as World Maps.

Note, of course, that even in games with a City Map/World Map separation, the scale will still be substantially reduced relative, at least, to the real world. Remember that it was the ninteenth century before 80 days became a plausible amount of time in which to circumnavigate the globe; walking from one side of the World Map to the other would take years in a realistic scale. Heck, walking from one major city to another would take days if not weeks.

Common traits:

  • The distance between settlements is very small, allowing to walk from one village to another in a matter of minutes.
  • Settlements themselves are very small (but contain all necessary features). Even the largest cities aren't larger than a village in real life.
  • Forests and deserts aren't more than a few square kilometers large. Fields are so often so tiny that they wouldn't feed even a single person. The amount of space taken by settlements is also larger than in real life.
  • Mountains aren't really mountains. Just hills.

A subtrope of Acceptable Breaks From Reality for several reasons:

  • Using real-world travel times in a game tends to quickly become tedious. Especially if the player's walking.
  • Pick your poison: Loads and Loads of Loading so your hardware isn't put under too much strain as you move from one area to the next, or Loads And Loads of Lagging as your hardware bakes itself trying to render it all. In the case of PC games; it's not always a good thing for a game to overload and melt most computers available on the market trying to run it.
  • Cutting corners to reduce business costs. Making realistically sized worlds and realistically populated cities is Awesome but Impractical without using randomly-generated maps or NPCs to cut corners. It's also a waste of developers' resources to program a realistically sized city when less than one percent of the population is of any relevance to the player.

May be justified - since gamers would often prefer a small but detailed world, rather than a large empty world full of blank space.

See also Units Not to Scale, Clown Car Base and Thriving Ghost Town. Not to be confused with either use of the phrase "Time Compression".

Examples of Space Compression include:

Action Adventure

  • Hyrule's size fluctuates wildly over the course of the Zelda games but it never seems big enough to be the powerful kingdom it claims to be (except possibly in Zelda II.)
    • Also; this was part of what made the sailing so tedious in Wind Waker. Rather tellingly, the world of Phantom Hourglass, while using the same "boat on the water" mechanic, is much more densely packed.
  • Also, Gun, in which one can travel on horseback from Kansas to Montana in ten minutes of real time and approximately a day of game time.
  • Oddly inverted in Castlevania: Curse of Darkness. In the game, Cordova Town is described as a "small mountain village". However, if you climb up to a high place in the town and look to the inaccessible background areas, you can see rows upon rows of buildings stretching out for miles in all directions. Apparently, this "small village" is about the size of New York City.
  • Taken to ridiculous heights in Star Fox Adventures, where the setting is supposed to be an entire planet. Let's say it's not very big...

Action Game

  • Solar Winds lets you fly from one end of the (ridiculously large) solar system to the other in about five minutes, even before you get the faster-than-light drive. It gets worse when you fly up to a planet and see that it's only slightly bigger than your one-man fighter (which is shown in the intro to only be about 20 feet/6 meters long).
    • Ditto the Escape Velocity series and Ares. To be fair, perspective means that planets, space stations, capships, and fighters could be much further from or closer to the “camera,” distorting their apparent size.


  • Galactic Civilizations II takes this trope to the literal extreme—due to the way stars and planets are handled on the game map, it's possible for a planet to be closer to one in another system than to another one in its own (or even to its own system's star). The game lore justifies this (somewhat) by saying that the map is a map of "hyperspace" and that a star's gravity distorts that dimension.
    • To expand- each hex represents a unit of travel time, not literal distance. As star drives are affected by gravity and what not, a ship is moving slower within a system's radius and within a planet's gravity while moving faster between systems and planets. An empire's borders are calculated similarly because the lack of natural boundaries as well as the three dimensional nature of space means that an empire's influence is more a function of time and the ability to travel rather than physical distance.


  • Very evident in World of Warcraft, where it takes about two hours to cross Azeroth by foot, and the villages and cities are visibly too small to host any population apart from shopkeepers and other interactive NPCs. Goldshire, for example, consists of about 3 houses at a crossroad, one of which is an inn and the other two shops, yet it's stated in RPG supplements to have a population of 7,000.
    • Goldshire was quite large in the early in the beta, but players found it confusing and all towns were shrunk to necessity. Not much of a need for 7000 NPCs when only about 15 do anything.
    • People have used the Cartographer mod to measure the continents. Kalimdor and the Eastern Kingdoms are each just over fifteen kilometers long, north to south.
      • Apparently in early Alpha builds the continents were much more realistically sized, testers and employees rapidly realised that this was incredibly boring. (A good hint...back in "Vanilla", people would complain about the flight from Moonglade to Thunder Bluff. Imagine how it'd be if it were realistically sized.)
    • Wrath of the Lich King throws in some in-game dialogue to the effect that Howling Fjord and Borean Tundra, the two "starting" zones in Northrend, are several hundred miles apart from each other. It's nice for flavor purposes, even if it's obviously a much smaller distance than that.
  • One of the complaints in Vanguard was that while the world wasn't as compressed, it unfortunately had a ton of blank space that wasn't used for anything, even mobs wouldn't spawn there. Generally, it's better for there to be a small but detailed world than a large but dull world.
  • The world of Tibia has major towns quite close to each other, though the towns aren't the usual five building metropolises, since all the towns have lots of houses for the players to rent. Some small towns are hardly anything but player houses.
  • In Final Fantasy XI, not only does it take roughly twenty minutes to ride from one end of the continent of Quon to the other, it takes a mere eight game hours. Mindartia is slightly smaller. Apparently even if they were designed to scale, the continents would be no bigger than, say, Maine, Ireland, or Portugal -- if chocobos are comparable in speed to cars and Vana'diel has the same day length.
    • To be fair, there's a lot of evidence that Vana'diel is not the only continent on the game's planet. There's the entire region of Aht Urhgan, two other significant regions that are not accessible in-game, and several others that are hinted at.
  • Subverted in EVE Online. Everything in the game is to scale, which is impressive considering that most distances in the game are measured in Astronomical Units.
  • In City of Heroes, the main action takes place in Paragon City (an alternate-reality Providence, Rhode Island), a huge port city with islands and one of the ten largest cities in the world... but the player-accessable zones are conveniently segregated by a system of 1500-foot tall "war walls" that divide the city into conveniently orthogonal zones, no wider than seven kilometers in any one direction. (Even the occasional alternate universe or time-travel battlefield hews to this rule.)
    • However, looking at game maps shows that the accessible zones are not contiguous and indeed, there is a large portion of the city that the players never enter.
  • As a text game, Achaea attempts to avert this trope using various mapping tricks, including the Wilderness (a Roguelike-ish ASCII map put in so that the developers could create distance without writing thousands of unique room descriptions, and only visible to the player a little bit at a time as he travels across) but patched-together maps made by players show that the 'continent' (which can be walked across in a game day) has significant chunks missing. The 'cities' are also very, very small by anyone's standards.
  • RuneScape is one of the offenders. Towns take as much space as forests, yet stories of NPCs and history of the land might leave you another impression. One of the examples is how vampyres in this game are unaware that the town called Burgh De Rott is not abandoned at all despite them being only 20 meters away from it.
    • This is often explained by people who are interested enough to care with Scale Theory: The world as it is stated (where what takes a few minutes for a player to cross is described as taking days); but things that are not important for the player character are cut out from view, leaving a much smaller and practical world for gameplay.
  • Blatant in Star Trek Online. There are instances of orbiting asteroids wider in diameter than they are distant from the planet's surface.
  • In The Lord of the Rings Online, a player can run from the Shire to Rivendell in a single in-game day. It took Frodo over two weeks.
    • Although still an example, it is worth noting that it's highly unlikely that Frodo actually ran the entire distance.
  • Zig-zagged in Guild Wars Some places seem incredibly small (Lion's Arch; Kamadan) but others are huge like Kaineng City. You don't go to towns in Factions unless you're on Shing Jea Isle, The Jade Sea, or Petrified go to parts of the town. And some of the more densely populated areas of Kaineng City have civilians walking around.

Platform Game

  • DK Isles seems to shrink in size between the 2D Donkey Kong Country and the 3D Donkey Kong 64. This is because it's meant to be like a 3D version of the map screens from the 2D games. That's why the jungle, which is inside the island, has an open top sky.


  • Dwarf Fortress' tiles are "the size of a dragon", a joke on the fact any given tile can contain a single standing creature of any size (whether a cat or a dragon) and any number of 'crawling' creatures (so you can squeeze through cramped corridors by crawling). Multi-tile monsters are planned, as soon as the ensuing pathfinding nightmare can be worked around.
    • This is still a tiny improvement over the game's model, Roguelikes, where each tile can support only a single monster and monsters can't push past each other. This can be used to your advantage by clogging the map with trash enemies while plinking something dangerous from long range.
      • Averted in Incursion, where huge monsters take up more than one tile and a single tile can be shared by more than one normal sized monster. This realistically prevents huge creatures like dragons from moving down human sized corridors.

Role-Playing Game

  • Happened when the Ultima series stopped using an overworld/town/dungeon split from Ultima VI onwards. The kingdom of Britannia went from spanning multiple continents to approximately the size of a suburb.
  • The world of Morrowind is perpetually shrouded in fog. This was originally for technical reasons... but if you download a no-fog patch, you can see it was also to disguise that all the major cities of the world are less than a hundred meters apart.
    • Morrowind also made use of terrain to make it really hard to travel in a straight line between towns, instead requiring winding detours through channels, bridges over gaps and around the ghostfence. All of this extended the time it took to go places and made the game feel much bigger then it really was (because traveling took so long). This, along with the absence of universal fast travel like in Oblivion led a lot of people to believe Morrowind's map was bigger than Oblivion, despite it being the opposite (as travel by foot in Oblivion tends to involve far less detours and it was possible to fast travel between any two explored destinations).
  • The newer Oblivion doesn't even pretend to be to scale. The imperial island, which on the world map is about the size of Great Britain, is scarcely large enough to contain the Imperial City, which is as big as a large parking lot.
    • And the country itself is small enough that if you turn off fogging and increase visibility range to maximum, you can still see the Imperial City's central tower when climbing mountains near the border. The in-world info would have you believe Cyrodiil is a huge empire; on in-game scale, it's smaller than most of Europe's micronations (under 42 square kilometers according to official data from Bethesda.)
    • The level of vertical exaggeration applied to said mountains is fairly incredible too; the road from the Imperial City up to Bruma is almost all at a 30 degree (or more) slope. The chances of ever getting eg. a horse and cart up there don't seem good - or wouldn't be if the citizens ever needed to transport anything…
    • And if the horses in the game weren't part mountain goat judging from how well they climb.
  • Skyrim features a return to Morrowind-style twisting roads and obstructing mountains, in an effort to visually avert this trope. While the world itself is only about twice the size of Cyrodiil in Oblivion, as a result of the redesign it looks much larger.
  • Soundly averted in Daggerfall, which has a map twice the size of Great Britain and loads of randomly-generated maps. However; try walking from privateer's hold to Daggerfall City without going crazy - it's like "Desert Bus" on the PC. Try walking across one city state, even.
  • Pokémon's towns and cities are remarkably close together; even taking into account all the Random Encounters, once all the Broken Bridges are fixed, it takes maybe an hour to circuit the Kanto region. Even the largest cities have a few dozen buildings, and maybe eight you can actually enter.
    • Not to mention that in Heart Gold and Soul Silver, the Pokemon following you usually takes up one square, regardless of how big the 'Dex says they should be.
  • The latest entries in the Avernum series effectively compressed the map by replacing the overland map with a continuous series of Geneforge-style town-scale maps, reducing the distances between towns down to few kilometers.
  • In Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door, most buildings are the same size both inside and out, but by comparison to real-life buildings are ridiculously small. Possibly lampshaded, too: battles take place on a stage in front of an audience, but many bosses are so large that they can't actually fit on the stage (an early-game boss has to bend over to fit its head on the screen, which is conveniently an ideal thing to attack).
  • In Dragon Quest, like most RPGs, you Walk The Earth. Normally, this trope can be avoided by assuming that only the important stuff is shown, not to mention World Maps in Eastern RPGs are deliberately on a wider scales than the towns. In VIII, however, the game keeps track of how far you've walked. By the end of the game, once you've walked over more or less every square inch of the planet, it tells you that you've walked maybe 500 kilometers.
  • In the first Wild ARMs game, you can walk around the entire world on the world map (yes, it's spherical) in a minute or two, though you'll need a plane and/or boat to get though the ocean areas.
  • Fallout 3 is nothing out of the ordinary for this article. It still hits home hard when you're familiar with the (real-life) areas and realize you'd kill to have those kind of commute times (think minutes on foot versus half an hour in traffic)....
    • A big step up from the maker's previous game, Oblivion, though.
    • Compare to the first two Fallout games - the world map was realistically large (so the player travelled between places on an overworld map), though the towns themselves weren't very big.
      • Still, the kicker is the Vaults themselves: The typical capacity of a Vault in the canon is 1,000 dwellers. No single Vault depicted in any game is close to holding a tenth of that.
    • For your information, the Capital Wasteland is about 50 km in each dimension. That takes about 5 to 10 hours to cross. You might even be able to get this in-game ... but the Fallout time is sped up by a factor of thirty.
  • The Mojave Wasteland in Fallout: New Vegas is even worse. The area covered is about 10,000 square miles, the in-game world ... not so much. This is most notable around Hoover Dam, which, when overlaid over the actual map, grew by several orders of magnitude.
  • Final Fantasy X replaced the overmaps of earlier games with life-size 3D environments that the characters walked around in. A lot of the playable areas are contiguous though, which led to you being able to walk across a whole continent in under an hour.

Simulation Game

  • Freelancer did something deeply weird with the fabric of space and time where planets are only a few kilometers in diameter, five minutes' flight apart, and motionless relative to one another. They're actually smaller than some of the starships you fly.
    • Star Trek: Bridge Commander does the same thing, with planets that show as small circles on the area map measured in kilometers.
  • In Animal Crossing, outdoor and indoor maps are square grids. Character interactions with, say, furniture show that each cell of an indoor map is about one meter by one meter in size. But outdoors, an "acre" is 16 cells by 16 cells. If this is intended to call up the standard acre of 4047 m^2, that means each cell is closer to four meters on a side, and the characters don't shrink to fit.
  • The Battlecruiser, Universal Combat and Galactic Command series by 3000AD totally averts this trope and pretty much everything is to scale. A planet is literally planet sized and it takes hours if not days to travel around it once. If anything these games lampshade why space compression is one of the Acceptable Breaks From Reality.
  • The Naval Ops series often uses recognizable locations (say, Sicily and its immediate surroundings) on maps, but completely out of scale with everything else. A well-equipped battleship can easily cruise at 60 knots, which is ridiculously fast in naval terms, but only takes minutes instead of hours to circumnavigate Sicily.
  • Totally averted in the Silent Hunter saga, where a patrol could take weeks mainly due to the time required to arrive to your destination and to return to your base (plus extra time if you decide to wander around). Excellent examples of this are when you have a type IX submarine and are ordered to patrol the North American coast or the seas near equatorial or south Africa, and the vastness of the Pacific Ocean ('nuff said). They show quite well why time compression is a must on that kind of games.

Turn-Based Strategy

  • Combined with the units not being to scale, Space Compression makes Battle for Wesnoth's scale very mutable. One of the common abbreviations seen on the forum is HAPMA - Hexes Are Possibly Miles Across - explaining why, for instance, archers can't shoot further than a single hex. The terrain graphics are also very variable, with a stand of trees being the same in-game size as a mountain, a house, or a patch of flowers.

Wide Open Sandbox

  • The cities in the 3-D Grand Theft Auto series are kinda like miniature megalopolises: Liberty City is the size of a small suburb, Vice City is the size of a coast town, and the entire state of San Andreas is not even bigger than a large city.
  • Ironically, the need to keep the player from traveling out of the city when the game added flying vehicles led to this trope going in the exact opposite direction and essentially turning Vice City and Grand Theft Auto IV's Liberty City into isolated city states and San Andreas into a Hawaii analogue by surrounding them with miles of ocean and absolutely nothing in the distance. It can get a bit odd when you take your helicopter out of the fake New York City and discover that you can't even see the nearest land....
  • Spectacularly averted by the Elite games, most notably Frontier and First Encounters. All the planets and systems are FAR apart, there are orbital patterns to contend with (try approaching a planet from the 'wrong side' with damaged engines), gravity and atmospheres functions realistically, combat is performed at a distance of several kilometres etc. etc. About the only Space Trope not averted by an Elite game is Space Is Noisy, but that's likely Rule of Cool: noone wants a silent space battle.
  • Planets in Spore. You can find Earth and lay a colony down on it. The only areas large enough to facilitate the room of a single colony (which, in Spore, contains roughly 10 major buildings or so), without deforming the shape of the land, are Antarctica and Asia.
    • On a similar note, most planets can only have up to 3 colonies. Homeworlds start with 10. A city cannot have a population over about 175; the effective max (i.e. assuming you're putting entertainment buildings and/or factories) is about 100. So, a stellar empire on a dozen planets...won't have a population over about three or four thousand. Even the Grox, who have thousands of colonies, only have a total population in the tens of thousands or so.
  • The Saboteur places Paris within 30 minutes driving distance of Le Havre and Saarbrücken, and squashes the city of Paris into a smaller scale version. In reality it's a 2-3 hour drive from Paris to Le Havre, and a 3-5 one to Saarbrücken.
  • Prototype's mini-Manhattan where the also-scaled down Central Park is ludicrously small.
  • In Bully, the town appears to be the size of a suburb. But the boy's dorm appears to consist of literally one floor, for over 40 students. (The girl's dorm seems disproportionately bigger, too - since there are less than ten girls in the entire student body,)
  • Subnautica has a curious variation. The volcanic caldera in which you've landed (and which is almost the only part of the water world you're on which has seafloor anywhere near the surface) is only two kilometers or so across, which you can travel in reasonably realistic times. However, in that small area are something around a dozen different biomes ranging from warm shallows to underground caverns filled with lava, each with its own set of distinctive flora and fauna.