Video Game Geography

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What the Earth would look like if video game maps were actually correct. Mmmm... toroids....


The World Is Square
Final Fantasy VI (Well, actually, in game, it's the solution to a puzzle: ERAU QSSI DLRO WEHT. It was Square's catchphrase at the time.)

There are logical and very justifiable reasons for video games to screw with geography.

This is a trope with two types:

Type 1 has to do with video game World Maps. You might think that the map you're looking at makes pretty good sense until the following Fridge Logic kicks in: "If this were really a normal spherical world, I ought to not be able to move like this." Common map oddities include:

  • Toruses ("donut-shapes"): Going off one side of the screen causes the player to appear at the opposite, implying a toroidal (or donut) shape.[1] Thus you scroll off the bottom and end up at the top, instead of going in the opposite direction from a different area at the bottom. It allows, among other things, faster travel around the map, allowing players to not have to cross the equator every time they want to get from the north pole to south pole and vice-versa.
  • Cylinders: Like toroids, but circumvents the polar issue by making them impassable, either with Invisible Walls or the geological equivalent of Insurmountable Waist High Fences - ice, glaciers and mountains. (This is believable in a game where you start out with primitive tech but gets less plausible when you advance up to airplanes.)
  • Flat and rectangular: You can't walk off the edge of the map at all thanks to Invisible Walls. In theory there may be more game world out there than the map shows but you'll never know, will you? Frequent in the case of video game Fantasy World Maps and many RPGs.

For all of these the technical justification is about the same: a spherical world is somewhat difficult to implement and display properly, especially on the computers and game consoles of yesteryear. Rarely are these ever a real Flat World, Ringworld Planet or other exotic World Shapes - they do exist in games but they're not the reason for this trope.

Type 2 is screwing with geography in order to comply with the Rule of Fun. Spending half an hour walking to your next destination, with or without Random Encounters to spice things up, is not very fun, so let's make the world small enough to be traversable. Sailing down what in Real Life is a calm and peaceful river is not all that fun, so let's throw in fast moving water and some rock hazards. Got the idea? Admittedly sometimes this happens because of laziness or tight deadlines: "we've got a forest and we've got a desert you have to go through and we don't have time or space to make a transition area." And sometimes it is genuinely Did Not Do the Research but those don't belong here.

Related to World Shapes. Compare Patchwork Map. Contrast You Fail Geography Forever. Has elements in common with Space Compression and Units Not to Scale.

Examples of Video Game Geography include:

Type 1 Examples[edit | hide | hide all]

Action Adventure Games[edit | hide]

  • The SNES game Terranigma, contains not one, but two world maps - underworld Earth (although there is no way for you to cross all the way around in any direction, as you cannot cross the lava seas), and overworld Earth - both of which are toroidal. In the overworld, which is supposed to be Earth, go north from Greenland and you'll end up in the Antarctic.
  • Tail Concerto uses the "there's more to the world but you can't go there" method (Justified by claiming navigation systems go haywire when you reach the edge of Prairie and it's just too dangerous to continue, but somehow Waffle and friends manage to make Continuity Cameos in Solatorobo). This map shows Prairie (Tail Concerto) relative to Nipon (from the Mamoru-kun games), but leaves out future installments like Shepherd (Solatorobo) and whatever land Strelka Stories will be based in.
  • Star Control 2 involves sending landers on planets. The surface of which is cylindrical.

First-Person Shooter[edit | hide]

  • In Tribes 2, the levels go on forever, but once you pass the mission boundaries, it's just looped copies of the main mission area, making it sort of a toroid.
    • I heard that they were mapped onto a gigantic globe that seemed infinite because it was too big to go around in a match time-limit, even in a Shrike.

Four X[edit | hide]

  • The Civilization series.
    • Civilization: Call to Power, in which the world forms were referred to as flat, cylinder and donut shapes.
    • The setup options in Civilization 4. North pole connected to the south pole? Don't mind if I do! A nice touch is that in the default game the world starts looking flat, turns out to be cylindrical when you explore around it and finally you can zoom out to see that it is actually round with extremely large uninhabitable polar caps. Also, on the opposite side of the earth is the same side of the earth.
    • Averted in Civilization 3 however. Hit the north pole and feel like you want to keep on going on? Sure, why not? Course, you'll end up on a different spot in the northern hemisphere, just as you would in real life.
    • Also of note is that the planets (at least in Civilization IV) have huge polar regions, which might explain why there is little Space Compression on different latitudes.
    • The world of Civilization Revolution follows the cylinder definition, and yes, that means fighters and bombers are unable to cross the icy ends.
  • Master of Magic has cylindrical world map.

MMORPGs[edit | hide]

  • Azeroth in World of Warcraft is apparently flat, judging from the fact the sun rises and sets at the same time all around the world. It's also very small (somebody calculated that the surface area of Kalimdor is a few hundred square miles).
    • Azeroth, in this example, would be a Type 2 flat world—do you really want to spend three days on the boat to Northrend?
  • Ultima Online standard torus world map.

Platformers[edit | hide]

  • The Blue Sphere special stages in the Sonic the Hedgehog series also take place on checkered donuts, though this could be chalked up to ring symbolism. If you're feeling incredibly charitable.

Puzzle Games[edit | hide]

  • Tetrisphere, of all things, really should have been called Tetristorus.

Real-Time Strategy[edit | hide]

  • Populous: The Beginning, is toroidal although it's drawn to look spherical.

Role-Playing Games[edit | hide]

  • In the Final Fantasy series at least from I to IX, if you fly off the east/west side of the map, you show up on the west/east side of the map. Good and logical for a spherical world, yes? However, if you flew past the north/south border, you would end up at the south/north border... thus leading us to realize that all Final Fantasy worlds in fact, behave as toroids like the picture above.
    • Taken to an extreme in Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings, in which an essentially flat Floating Continent works by the same mechanic.
    • Final Fantasy VIII allows its world map to be displayed in the corner of the screen as a flat map or as a globe, proving that this type of map can be drawn onto sphere, although with some necessary distortion.
      • Secret of Mana also lets you view its torus-world map as a plane or a globe.
    • Final Fantasy III actually starts you on a Flat and Rectangular floating island, with your character unable to walk off the edge. Once you get an airship you can fly off of the island and onto the larger, toroid map.
    • Final Fantasy IV is interesting because we know the world and its moons are spheres, yet the world and one of its moons has a toroidal map. There's also an underworld, which averts this by simply being enclosed in walls.
    • Lampshaded to some extent in Final Fantasy V: Not only is the map a toroid, but the landmass is a giant ring once you reunite the two worlds.
  • Like Final Fantasy, most Tales (series) have the toroidal world going on. And there are times when the whole planet is seen as a sphere in cutscenes.
    • This is an issue in Tales of the Abyss. Two dungeons, the Absorption Gate and the Radiation Gate, are supposed the be the respective north and south poles of the planet...except while traveling on the world map it looks as though both gates are right next to each other.
  • According to the cutscenes, Chrono Trigger takes place on a spherical planet. However, it is treated as a torus during standard gameplay.
  • Earlier Breath of Fire games have the toroid topology.
  • The "World is Round" discovery in Skies of Arcadia would be better named "World is Toroid".
  • Played straight in Nostalgia, especially egregiously since the world map is supposed to represent OUR Earth.
  • Averted in Fallout 3. The game world is a flat square in the area around Washington, but once the player reaches the edge of the world, the player can see that the world continues well past the limit of movement. There is even an entire district of skyscrapers across the Potomac from Rivet City.
  • Ultima games in general adhere to the regular torus model, but the first game in the series is an unusual case. There are four different continents in the game, with each occupying a roughly square space. If you go straight in one direction, you'll pass through all four continents and end up where you started. However, if you always make a 90 degree turn after you reach a new continent, you will also pass through all four and end up where you started. Try not to think too much about what kind of world shape allows this.
  • Golden Sun: The Lost Age has the world flat by making oceans spill into nothingness by the edges. This becomes a major plot point. Since the power of Alchemy was sealed, the world cannot survive without its power, so it is crumbling into self. This causes the world to shrink further and further until, if left unchecked, it crumbles into nothing. This is why the antagonists from the first game wanted to light the elemental lighthouses so badly since their hometown was on the verge of being swallowed up by a growing abyss, aka edge of the world.
  • All Dragon Quest games beyond the first (which has no way off the land mass surrounding the Dragonlord's castle) feature a toroid world. Dragon Quest III combines this with a Hollow World, the inside world being a toroidal version of the original Dragon Quest world. Now, figure that out.
    • The mon games have many worlds, though, and they're also toroid. Or, supposedly, since some of them take place on a Floating Continent.
  • The world of Hydlide was a 5 screen by 5 screen toroid.
  • The titular setting of Might and Magic III: Isles of Terra had a toroidal map. I, II, IV and V all had flat and rectangular worlds, but that was because they were Flat Worlds (in IV and V's case, opposite sides of the same world).

Shoot Em Ups[edit | hide]

  • Asteroids? More like As-toroids!
  • Star Control 2 had the various planet surfaces that you explore as cylinders (despite seeing the planet floating there as a sphere in 3 different modes of the game, and being able to orbit and run into them during Ship-to-Ship combat).
    • It gets worse. The space in which combat takes place is also toroidal.

Shooters[edit | hide]

  • Fury³ maps are donut-shaped, apparently, despite them supposedly taking place over a small portion of a spherical planet's surface.

Simulation Games[edit | hide]

Web Games[edit | hide]

  • Completely averted in Jeff Weeks' Hyperbolic Games. You can play a simply maze game or pool on the surface of a sphere (or torus, or even on something insanely exotic called a "hyperbolic surface").
  • Peasantry appears to be cylindrical. Going up the northern border will take you to the southern one, while passing the southern border takes you up north. East an west are blocked by an Insurmountable Waist High Fence, and a giant cliff. The former can be broken on one point by scaring a horse. This reveals a hidden area with a character you need to talk to. The later has a passage leading to Trogdor.

Type 2 Examples[edit | hide]

Action Adventure Games[edit | hide]

  • Averted in The Getaway series, the makers prided themselves that you could navigate your way through the game using a Real Life A-Z.
    • Played straight however in Black Monday on the tube train putting Knightsbrige as the next station on from Holborn on the Piccadilly Line.

Adventure Games[edit | hide]

  • Myst 4: Revelation has Haven, which prominently features a rocky seacoast, a jungle, a swamp, and a savanna all within yards of each other.
  • The Tomb of Sammun-Mak, episode 302 in the Telltale Sam and Max games, has the duo's Generation Xerox ancestors, Sammeth and Maximus, taking the Disorient Express train from New York to Egypt. Don't ask how that works. It's fitting, though; their descendants can drive to just about any destination they want, including Europe and the moon.

Driving Games[edit | hide]

  • The arcade game Harley Davidson: L.A. Riders includes Lincoln Fabrics, a relatively obscure local landmark, but doesn't put it on Lincoln Blvd. which gave the store its name. Why bother?

First-Person Shooter[edit | hide]

  • Soldier of Fortune's last mission involves invading a German castle, under which the enemy has a submarine dock. Except that the Castle is the mountains, in a part of Germany that is far from the ocean.
  • Averted by The Conduit, which features very accurate (in video game terms) depictions of various Washington D.C. landmarks and neighborhoods. Even the Metro subway system's signage and stations are duplicated with remarkable fidelity.
  • The maps are compressed quite a bit in the Battlefield series, because full-size replicas of the actual battlefields would spread the players out to hell and gone.
  • Metroid Prime does this. Magmoor Caverns is essentially a giant short-cut, and there are a lot of very, very convenient elevators to different locations. The world itself looks irregular and confused, but when you play through it, getting around feels mostly natural. It always seems like there's a quick route to where you need to go next. To understand why this is a useful trope, consider Metroid Prime 2 , which averts this. The world is very regular: there is a central hub world with elevators to 3 adjacent areas, and each adjacent area has elevators to the two areas around it. However, none of these entrances and exits are very placed for the convenience of the player. Getting around is painful, even if you don't count forced encounter rooms that you're frequently forced to go through. There is almost never a fast route to where you need to go next.
  • In the expansion for the first Call of Duty game, a part of the game takes part in the Netherlands. Particularly in a mountainous area. Good luck finding mountains in the Netherlands, the closest available can be found a couple of hundred kilometers away, far outside the country.

MMORPGs[edit | hide]

  • World of Warcraft also fits this, as the world is effectively compressed down, making all zones much smaller than they would be in "reality", which also leads to borders between zones being very clear (most notably in cases when there's two zones with very different terrain). An example of this can be seen when looking at any of Warcrafts comic or manga series. Traveling around in game will take a few minutes at most, but in the stories going from one place to another can take days.

Platformers[edit | hide]

  • Averted in Penn & Teller's Smoke and Mirrors's mini-game "Desert Bus", where the player makes a trip from Tuscon, Arizona to Las Vegas, Nevada by bus. Maximum speed: 45 kph. Pausing: none. Total trip time: Approximately 8 hours.

Role-Playing Games[edit | hide]

  • Later installments in The Elder Scrolls have explorable areas that are only 6-16 square miles. Compared to earlier installments with more realistically sized land masses (the landmass in Daggerfall is twice the size of Britain). This is largely the result of the switch between the randomly-generated content of the first two installments and the hand-crafted content of the later two. The time and expense of the latter method (which is the customary method in computer games) necessitated a vast decrease in the actual size of the game world. Using computers to procedurally assemble landscapes and settlements from basic building blocks allowed for the game world in the first two installments to have a 1:1 scale (and for the dungeons to be vast complexes) but had the drawbacks of making them seem generic and repetitive.
    • Morrowind is actually something of an interesting case, thanks to recent technological developments. Because the world was hand-crafted rather than randomly generated, it still seemed just as large to players as the (in reality) much-larger Daggerfall. However, the ability to remove the persistent in-game fog in order to increaese visibility to realistic levels brings with it the uncomfortable realization that all of Vvardenfell's major settlements are about 100 feet apart.
  • Shadow Hearts: From the New World takes place all over the Western Hemisphere. The real one, with America and Brazil and so forth. Which the characters navigate almost entirely on foot.
  • The scale issue, at least, is possibly justified in Dragon Quest VIII. If you check the battle log in eventually you'll get a message saying that you've traveled far enough to do a complete circumference of the globe. How far is that? A little over 200 miles, meaning that it really is an incredibly tiny planet.
  • The later Ultima games also did this—the earlier games had a world map and separate cities, but the later ones had a single map where everything was laid out, which meant that a city only had a dozen or so buildings in it and the world was only a few miles around.

Stealth-Based Games[edit | hide]

  • The first Commandos game presented a rather strange image of 1940s Norway. Civilian housing was depicted as either half-timbered (rare in real life, and confined to older buildings in the capital and nearby areas) or curiously medieval-looking. One mission centered around sabotaging a railroad gun located in the lapp village of Masi, with a large ruined stone manor nearby. The real Masi is located far from any past or present railroads, and any building found in that area would be wooden.
    • In Commandos 2, South American piranha can be found in Burma and Thailand, and penguins (southern animals) frolick around a German destroyer in the North Sea. The manual mentions these discrepancies, and others; they are merely included to make levels more interesting.
  • If one thinks a bit, one could easily infer that Assassin's Creed believes that Acre, Damascus, and Jerusalem are all ten minutes apart by horseback. If one thinks harder, one realizes that the Animus edits out the long periods of Altaïr's Genetic Memories of Nominal Importance by "Fast-forwarding memory to a more recent one." Altaïr remarks during the tenth mission that he's spent "weeks" on his past nine missions, when it's been five or six days for Desmond. Huge amounts of time were spent riding between cities in the Kingdom, but were edited out by the Animus.
    • If they put the real distance between the cities the game would've been much longer (which was a complaint about the game), but most of the time would've been spent riding between areas. Imagine trying to find the flags and viewpoints in an area that spans thousands of square miles.
    • In the sequel, during the Carnivale mission, Ezio can remain in disguise in a hostile city for a single night - but can still ride or take ferries to any location and back again and no time will have passed. Again, The Animus Did It - the rest of the game are just earlier memories, especially as other parts of Venice don't have Carnivale decorations. If one revisits the area after finishing the sequence, the decorations are still there.

Third-Person Shooter[edit | hide]

  • Metal Wolf Chaos has the hero defending the Statue of Liberty from a tank, which is rolling down a loooong suspension bridge that apparently leads right to the landmark. Perhaps the developers thought the tank would have looked lame if it took the ferry, which is the only real-life way to get to Liberty Island. Not to mention that, judging by the direction the Statue is facing, the other end of said bridge must be somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean.
  • Ratchet and Clank has a lot of unique geometries, including the outside of a tiny moon similar to The Little Prince, the inside of a sphere, and the outside of a cube with the gravity on the faces.

Wide Open Sandbox[edit | hide]

  • All of the Grand Theft Auto games have had some form of this. The first 2-D games had you restricted to a completely self-contained city with no way out. GTA III had Liberty City walled in by ocean and mountains. Vice City, San Andreas, and the GTA IV Liberty City are all surrounded by ocean with no land in sight. Trying to go too far out makes you hit an invisible wall. However, the canon treats them as your usual coastal cities (e.g. one of Johnny Klebitz's patches states that he went to Los Santos on a motorbike). This is even noticeable in-game for GTA IV, as the hills to the west of Alderney cut off rather abruptly into the ocean.
  • Red Dead Redemption does this but does it better than the GTA games. The game world is almost entirely landlocked and there is land stretching out as far as the eye can see, you just can't access all of it thanks to canyon walls, mountains, rivers and lakes. Its actually been discovered that you can glitch your way beyond the game's barrier and that there is plenty of fully detailed space outside of the boundary.
    • Fallout: New Vegas follows the same methods to box the player in. There are also a few blocked off roads to nowhere and collapsed caves that appear on the map but don't serve any importance, likely to be used in upcoming DLC content.

Non-Video Game Examples[edit | hide]

Web Comics[edit | hide]

  • Spoofed in RPG World, where the universe has a tendency to make things that go over any edge reappear on the other edge, for instance, on the world map. Diane demonstrates this with punching another character by throwing her fist across the panel border.
  • In Adventurers! (where RPG clichés have precedence over realism), a scientist makes the alarming discovery that it is impossible for the world to be round.

Notes

  1. Technically, worlds like this have the same topology as a donut, but not the same geometry. That is, they look the same until you try to measure something, and then they don't anymore. Among other things, a rectangular map of a toroidal world should vary in width at different latitudes (or, equivalently you should move across the map at different speeds horizontally at different latitudes)