The Silent Cartographers: Getting lost in Hollow Knight and Breath of the Wild

We’ve been drawing maps for millennia, probably for as long as we could communicate ideas. Marking the ground, the earth, rocks and primeval paper with important places, directions and coordinates. We use satellites to tell us at what exact point of the earth we are standing on. I need to use a map every time I get behind the wheel in Sydney. I’m not familiar enough with the streets to get from A to B. I don’t know that I will ever be.

I’ve been getting lost in two games recently — Team Cherry’s fantastic, dark, immaculately designed Hollow Knight and, that game that everybody in the world seems to be playing… Breath of the Wild. In both instances, I found myself glancing back and forth at the map and examining the importance of it to my particular play style. In Hollow Knight, I was constantly going in blind, as it were, not knowing what lurk around each corner, but in Breath of the Wild, I attempted to map out my surroundings before journeying onward.

I wondered why this was —likely, I thought, it was due to the style of game. But more than that, I was intrigued by the differing ways the map was drawn by the player and what this meant to the gameplay and feeling, overall.

The Legend of Zelda - Breath of the Wild

The Legend of Zelda – Breath of the Wild

Breath of the Wild uses a topographical map, complete with contour lines and far more detailed than, say, the Google Map of your neighbourhood. The locations of Hyrule are ancient, they’ve been discovered, named and catalogued. They are places that hold history in each ruined temple, each crumbling brick. There’s weapons stabbed into the soil as if left abandoned for hundreds of years. Rust settling on them like flies on a corpse. Each location feels lived in and at the same time, makes you feel like you’re the first person to set eyes on it. It’s an important feeling in an open-world game, where the experience is dictated by constant surprise, by a game world opening up before you and letting you share in its secrets.

The complexity and scale of the game reflected in each geographical fold of a mountain, the text hovering above each township and village giving each place a name to remember. If you want to find something in Breath of the Wild, there’s likely a point of interest nearby, a stable or some ruins — perhaps there’s even a shrine you can teleport to. There usually is. The game is designed that way. It’s vast and expansive, but its map is an asymmetrical list of locations and landmarks you can bounce between.

Initially, only a slice of the map is revealed, and to unveil more you must climb giant towers that upload additional areas into your personal map. The tried-and-true open-world mechanic of cartography. At the apex, Link looks out and surveys a slice of Hyrule as the map ‘downloads’ into his Sheikah Slate — a seemingly GPS-enabled tablet that tracks his every location. The ‘reward’ for scaling towers — a menial task — is the entire area being accessible. Like using Google Maps to choose what cafes are in the vicinity, the towers in Breath of the Wild are a planning tool. They allow you to hypothesize on points of interest and places to visit, work out where secrets may be hidden and ultimately decide which direction to go.

You can only plan to get lost in Breath of the Wild. You can’t actually get lost. You may not know where you are, but you always know which way is which. North, South, East and West.

Hollow Knight

Hollow Knight

In Hollow Knight, a complete map of the bug-infested underworld of Hallownest doesn’t come quite as easily. Hollow Knight operates like a classic Metroidvania title, where moving between rooms means moving between screens. The labyrinthine underworld of Hollow Knight twists and weaves around on itself, connecting at unexpected places. Unlike the open plains, deserts and mountains of Hyrule, where even without a map you can see as far as the game’s draw distance allows, Hallownest always feels oppressive, dark and tight. What lurks behind the next screen, in the next room always remains a mystery. It’s easy to get lost in Hollow Knight.

To reveal the map, you must do two things: you must have purchased the Quill from one of the games early vendors and you must ‘rest’ at one of the games benches. The benches allow your character to sit down and update their map, drawing in each of the rooms that you’ve visited. As such, cartography is an active gameplay element of Hollow Knight. With it’s twisting corridors and dead ends, Hollow Knight’s dark halls are disorienting and nearly impossible to navigate.

The map also makes the world feel legitimately uncharted. There is a character that looks like a 17th century plague doctor, Cornifer, who has a keen interest in cartography, but his maps are never complete, rather, they only offer a rough outline of each section of the underworld and the various in game locales. If I were to evoke the oft-quoted Newton line: “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants” to describe him, then Cornifer is no giant, he is a dwarf, and on his shoulders you barely see over the horizon.

And I like that.

To be lost, without a map, in Hollow Knight is to be truly lost.

Hollow Knight

Hollow Knight

Maps are also records of achievement. Opening the map in both Breath of the Wild and Hollow Knight allows me to gaze over the distance you’ve journeyed. Particularly in Hollow Knight, you begin to trace a line from point A to point B as you spelunk further and further underground. Breath of the Wild, with its stamps and pins, allows you to see the path you took after you exited the Great Plateau carved out in yellow pots and skulls dotted across the landscape.

Do these games function without a map? Of course they do — you don’t have to reveal their maps at all to venture deeper into their worlds. The map, like it has been for millennia, is a tool that we use for direction, for recording and for making sense of a world. It depicts a relationship between user and the world around them, in addition to the space in between.

But the way they are implemented in video games also dictates how you interact, and more importantly — how you plan to interact, with video game worlds. The map in Breath of the Wild and similar open-world games allow the player to dictate where they go next, based on how they want to play, but in Hollow Knight, the map is an incredibly well-implemented gameplay device, one that controls the player’s movement and relationship with each room, all the while maintaining a ghastly aura of suspense and surprise.

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