Jul 15 2009 10:49am

Beyond the Aryth Ocean: Part 2: A review of selected maps in fantasy computer games

Welcome back! Whether you bookmarked, RSS’d, or just wandered in, you’ve arrived at part two of our three-part series where I’ll discuss the maps found in various fantasy-themed worlds.

In case you missed it, you can go here for the first part in the series, where I showcased some maps from a few well-known fantasy novels. For this article, we’ll be exploring the terrains of maps found in some well-known computer games.

Now, at the risk of sounding old and “Get off my lawn”-ish, I’ll state that I believe they just don’t make game maps like they used to. Nowadays every game has an auto-map feature, which is cool, but I kind of miss having a good, hard-core RPG where I’ve got to map my own way. I’ll discuss a few of those games below, but one that comes to mind is the old Wizardry series. I remember playing Bane of the Cosmic Forge as a teenager and being scared out of my pants because I was lost in some dark, digital forest late on Halloween night one year. (I was also probably coming off of a sugar high, which couldn’t have been helping). The only way I could possibly have finished that game was to rely on my hand-drawn maps where every step was meticulously documented. Maybe “kids these days” don’t have the patience. Or maybe I’m just Old School, yo.

Let’s take a look at some maps, shall we?

The Bard’s Tale: Skara Brae

Now I realize that this fictional town from the 1985 computer game The Bard’s Tale doesn’t register very high on most people’s Lists of Imaginary Places to Visit, and also shouldn’t be confused with the real-world Skara Brae, nor with the one found in the Ultima computer games. But this Skara Brae was significant to me in that it was the setting of the first RPG I ever played on a computer. Each day after school I would whip through my homework and then play Bard’s Tale until Mom gave me that “Okay, that’s enough now” look. (You know the one). When my allotted time was up, I would grudgingly power down and go upstairs to mull over the map included in the game. Let’s take a look:

Looks simple enough, right? Perhaps. But man, was I enthralled by the mysteries within. Why are there two towers opposite each other on the corners of the map? How do you get past their gates? Who lives in the castle? Where does Sinister Street, in the southeast portion of the map, lead to? And where is the hidden Review Board, the in-game secret location where your characters could level up? Is there something special about that open area at the end of Fargoer Street?

Like most games of the time, The Bard’s Tale had no auto-mapping feature, and no option to save the game unless you were at a specific location (the Adventurer’s Guild. Look for “AG” on the map). With those two limiting features, I had to oh-so-carefully explore every inch of the city, carefully combing the streets in such a manner as to not get taken out by a roaming band of kobolds or whatever. The farther I went from the AG, the greater my risk increased. Because if your party was wiped out, there was no “Restore Game.” You had to make a new character and have them haul your veteran party to the Temple for resurrection and healing. It terrified me to explore those streets, and I loved every minute of it.

The Ultima series

If you ever purchased one of the Ultima series computer games, then you know how significant the maps were. Inside the box of each game was a cloth map of the world your adventure took place in. For Ultima II, the map looked like an ancient version of our own planet Earth. For Ultima III (the only Ultima ever made available for my beloved Mac Plus), we received this beauty:

“Sosaria.” That’s a whole continent's worth of exploring, my friend! For a game released in 1983 on a single floppy disk, that’s pretty darn good. Notice the runes used throughout the map. They happen to be the same ones Tolkien used for Thror’s map. Remember how I spent all that time translating the runes on that one? Well I did the same for this one only to have a strange realization mid-way through my translation: this map didn’t actually show me where the cities were! Today, I have a sinking feeling that I may have marked up my original cloth map with permanent ink as I found the cities within the game. Oh well. It just adds to the charm, I suppose.

The other cloth maps from the Ultima series were all strikingly beautiful. My favorite is the one from Ultima VII:

Even though I never owned the game (I didn’t have a DOS computer back then), I remember borrowing this map from a friend just so I could look it over, decipher the runes, and figure out where things were. It was around this time that I began to be able to “read” the runes as if they were regular letters. (Sounds cool, but it was actually just a simple transliteration).

I could be mistaken, but I believe the expansion pack to this game revealed another island located underneath the compass. Was it a cheap marketing trick, or a clever way to introduce new game content? Eh…who knows? All I know is that I gobbled up the idea and dreamed about what wondrous lands could possibly be beneath that compass. Terra Incognita indeed!

The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind
The games in Bethesda Game Studio’s Elder Scrolls series: Arena, Daggerfall, Morrowind, and Oblivion, are probably, without question, the largest and most open worlds in computer gaming.

Well, okay. Maybe not. If you don’t count MMORPGs anyway. (There. How’s that? Is that better for all you WoW addicts reading this?)

Potential hyperbole aside, each one of the Elder Scrolls games has a staggeringly huge world that can be explored. I’ve chosen to highlight Morrowind in particular for a few reasons. I’ll explain why in a second. But first, let’s look at the printed map that comes with the base game:

I chose the map of Vvardenfell because Morrowind was the first game in the series to not have randomly generated content. Every inch of the Isle could be explored in-game. See all those tiny dots just off the coast? Those are actually present in the game itself.

Morrowind was so huge that I would play for weeks, get burned out, and set it aside. But time after time I’ve returned to this game, and the reason I do, in each instance, is because I find this map and it calls to me. The game’s main plotline is somewhat lost to me at the moment, but that isn’t what interested me to begin with. I just love wandering the countryside, using this map as a guide, to find hidden caves or help wayward travelers find their lost ring/child/goat/whatever. The greatest compliment I think I can offer the game developers is that my character is somewhere around level 30, and I still haven’t discovered anywhere near the whole isle.

Honorable Mention
Here are some other games that came with great maps:

  • Might and Magic: Each game had a highly detailed map. The World of Xeen maps were probably the most unique, but my heart is with M&M III: The Isles of Terra.

  • Pool of Radiance: The original “Gold Box” game had a plot that was based around clearing an overrun city from monsters, one section at a time. The map of the city in itself was exciting to explore. But when I discovered there were cities and lands to be explored beyond the primary city walls, I was in adventurer heaven.

  • Baldur’s Gate: Both the original and its sequels and expansions had amazingly detailed maps that encouraged exploration and side quests.

Well that does it for this edition! What do you think? What games have you enjoyed that had outstanding maps?

See you next time for our concluding article on fantasy maps!

1. GoblinRevolution
I miss Bard's Tale. Thanks for bringing back so many great memories from my (misspent) childhood!
2. GoblinRevolution
I miss Bard's Tale. Thanks for bringing back so many great memories from my (probably misspent) childhood!
3. lerris
Bard's Tale was what hooked me on computer RPGs. I still have my graph paper notebook with all my maps from all 3 games in the series.
4. tamyrlink
baldurs gate and its sequal were my games!!! i dont mind games that let the map progress as you progress.

also a game with a very detailed and interesting map is the online game Runescape.
5. tamyrlink
baldurs gate and its sequal were my games!!! i dont mind games that let the map progress as you progress.

also a game with a very detailed and interesting map is the online game Runescape.
6. Teka Lynn
I'm a Morrowind freak. I have two games going right now, one with a level 53 on X-box 360 and one with a level 6 on the PC.

I was pleased as punch when my newbie character figured out on his first trip that you can walk from Ebonheart to Vivec, which my high level character had never discovered in all the time she'd spent running around both cities.
7. smcyc
Bard's Tale and Ultima (at least the up through 6) were my favorite computer games growing up. Found a site a few years back that has the Apple images of BT and UI-UVI, was still fun to go back and play thoses.
8. DemetriosX
I always hated having to do my own mapping, because it meant having to take time out of actually playing (even when you could just do basic boxes and directions) and prevented real immersion.

The Morrowind map is slightly superior to the Oblivion map, largely because of the way it paints where you have been. (And for all that I love a good game map, I loathe map painting.)

I think the original Monkey Island map is also worthy of mention. Even though it was a bit spare in detail, it was one of the first games to actually have one and it played a role in actual game play.
j p
9. sps49
I liked Wizardry- on an Apple with a cassette tape drive- but that was about the same time that the World of Greyhawk supplement came out. I dropped Wizardy and spent hours poring over the Greyhawk map & it's key.

Which brings me to the D&D 3.5 adaptation of The Temple of Elemental Evil (as fixed by This PC game has excellent maps that are faithful to the tabletop maps- and there's a lot- and this was my first experience with the game blacking out the map until your avatar(s) reaches the area. Sort of annoying, but a good representation of how you had to map out where you had explored.
10. mofojar
I was always fascinated with the two maps of Hillsfar (the city, and the countryside with it's dragon skeleton) when I was child in the 80's. My uncle had what must have been the first 6 inch B&W LCD screen laptop and this game. Later I found it for NES emulator and realized that it's possibly one of the hardest games ever made. But the maps were really cool.
Lou Anders
11. LouAnders
Loving these posts. I've had maps on the brain all week long before I saw this. For one, I made my own for a personal project, and for another, just got the map of Golarion for the Pathfinder RPG, so this is perfect timing. Thank you!
12. SgtNavy
There was and old game on the C64 called Questron and its map was awesome. It was the first rpg pc game I played and it was awesome. Also, the dungeon crawlers Phantasie I and II were great graph paper mappers that took two of us to play well. However, Skara Brae is my first rpg love and I still play it to this day! Thanks for the memories!
13. Padmehlc
My favorite is the map in Myst. I loved that it had portals to other worlds with thier own maps - enough that my PC version came with a paper atlas so you could find them all - esp since to win the game (which I have still not managed to do) you had to explore all the worlds and collect a very specific item or group of items from each. Of course it isn't until you get into a world that you realize you need to leave and go to a different one first to get something to unlock the item you really need from that one. Without the map I wouldn't have gotten even half the clues necessary to solve the riddle - though the other half are still hidden in the mysterious realms of the secondary worlds.
14. Quarex
I have an artist's portfolio filled with maps from (mostly) CRPGs. I suppose my professional (hahaha!) opinion is that some of the finest maps from games/game series you did not mention might include the usefulness-on-one-side-and-elegant-design-on-the-other of the Anarchy Online map, the almost perfect mixture of fantasy stereotype and here-be-dragons real-world map of the Tunnels & Trolls computer game, Magic Candle (I)'s map is excellently cartoony as befits the game itself, Worlds of Ultima: Savage Empire has an awesome lost-world-styled map, and Arx Fatalis and Faery Tale Adventure (I) both have crude-but-intentionally-so-and-therefore-quite-evocative monochrome maps.

I completely know where you are coming from with the Ultima III map worries. I just looked again at my own Ultima III map and smiled at the crude permanent marker notes I made as to where Lord British's castle and associated city were.

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