How Amelia Watson convinced me to turn off my minimap

I’ve been playing The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion lately. While this game is a little outside our usual wheelhouse here at Rice Digital, the reason I am playing it is at least vaguely relevant: I saw Hololive EN’s Amelia Watson playing it, and I thought it might be fun to revisit it fifteen years after achievement-whoring my way out of enjoying Bethesda games.

I found Amelia’s playthrough particularly striking, because she was enjoying the game it was clearly meant to be enjoyed: by just wandering off in a direction and pissing about in the open world. Occasionally she’d participate in more structured activities — over the last few episodes she has contracted and cured vampirism and done a bit of the main quest — but more commonly her play sessions involve just seeing what happens if you explore in a particular direction.

A big part of why Oblivion works so well for this sort of play style is because of the fact it doesn’t have a minimap. And that got me thinking: minimaps kind of suck. Not in terms of usefulness — in many games they’re very helpful or even essential for tracking down quest objectives or key locations — but in terms of how much flavour they drain from open-world games.

To put it another way, contemplate the last open-world game you played that had a minimap perpetually present in the corner of the screen. Be it Final Fantasy XIV, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 or Ubisoft Game #429, chances are if you’re anything like me, you spent a significant proportion of your time staring at nothing but that minimap as you proceeded on your way to your destination. In doing so, you likely not only missed out on a fair amount of the beauty of the world around you, you also deprived yourself of an important and helpful part of immersing yourself in an unfamiliar location: being able to navigate visually.

Final Fantasy XIV minimap

In some games, this isn’t a huge deal, because you can just teleport around to all the most important locations. But in others, it’s surprising how “lost” you can find yourself in a location you’ve visited numerous times previously if the game suddenly requires you to, say, track down an item or character that is placed deliberately awkwardly. Your minimap may say it’s “over there” and you might even be able to see your objective standing on a rooftop across the street from you — but how on Earth do you get there?

If you’ve taken the time to explore your environment thoroughly without the aid of a minimap, this won’t be an issue. You’ll be familiar with all the interesting little passages that are off the main thoroughfares of the city; you’ll know exactly how to get up onto the rooftop. You might even know how to get yourself into a few places the game developers never intended you to reach — and that’s always a lot of fun.

Not only is it more convenient, it’s more fun and interesting, too. Rather than just pointing in the direction of an objective marker and running/riding/driving/flying in as straight a line as possible towards it, exploring the world without the aid of a minimap means that you’re more likely to stumble across interesting bits of landscape, hidden quests, valuable items or just some breathtaking vistas. You get a much stronger feeling of inhabiting the game world, and it starts to feel more like a real place.

Recent doujin platformer Tasomachi: Behind the Twilight is a great example of this; you don’t even have the option for a minimap in that game, so you have no choice but to learn your way around.

Tasomachi: Behind the Twilight minimap

All this isn’t to say you can abandon any sort of map altogether, mind — though doing so can present an interesting challenge in some games. The reason for this is that a lot of games aren’t designed in such a way that their characters give you particularly helpful directions; instead, they say your objective is in a particular region of the map, and then once you’re in that region you just look for the marker or the blip on the minimap and the job’s done.

Final Fantasy XIV strikes an interesting balance at times — sometimes you’ll get a quest objective that is shown as a circular area on the minimap rather than a specific blip, and then be expected to comb that area until you find a sparkly thing on the ground. So long as you can navigate to that circular area to know where to focus your search — which you can do using the game’s large map and your own local knowledge — you can track down your objectives without the need for a minimap in the corner of the screen.

One thing I found striking in this regard when it comes to Oblivion is that characters do give you directions as you would receive in the real world. “I need help with a necromancer,” one NPC says. “They’re holed up in a cave north of this inn.” Sure enough, there they are, exactly where the innkeeper said they were — no minimap required.

And upon my return to the inn — which, obviously, is south of the cave — I enquire about a bed where I can spend the night after a hard day’s necromancer-stabbing. “Of course,” says the innkeeper. “Upstairs, second door on the right.” Again, no minimap needed, no marker on the head-up display — just verbal directions, and a sense that you’re being trusted to find the right place yourself.

Xenoblade Chronicles 2 minimap

Abandoning your reliance on a minimap presents an interesting challenge in a lot of games — and a whole new way to appreciate the amount of work that artists put into modelling the myriad other worlds we explore through our favourite hobby. So from now on, I’m going to be making a specific effort to play games without using a minimap whenever possible — and I invite you to join me.

The experience doubtless won’t be to everyone’s taste, so don’t feel bad if you do find yourself irresistibly hungering for the security of that ever-present little helper in the corner of the screen. But give it a try; you might just find yourself appreciating some of your favourite games in a whole new way!

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Pete Davison
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