As someone who's stuck indoors for the foreseeable future, I've been thinking a lot about traveling. It's all I ever want to do, even when it's not financially feasible. But I can always travel in video games and marvel at the maps of each destination.
And where would we be without video game maps? Maps in games have long been our guide; our peek at a world much larger than our current, limited viewpoint. They illuminate the biomes of the planet; the mountains and landmarks that seem insurmountable. They reveal secrets to uncover, or familiar paths we've ventured before. Maps aren't just our guide through a game, they're our glimpse at the wider world.
There has always been a beauty to the video game map. Sometimes maps have stunning art, other times how they're implemented into the game itself is neat on its own. Video game maps are easy to remember, and hard to forget. At least the good ones are. The following are the 20 best video game maps.
20. Metro Exodus
Metro Exodus may be seen as the weakest of the Metro trilogy by most fans, where it succeeds is in how it implements its map. Set in post-apocalyptic Russia and Kazakhstan, the main character Artyom fights to survive mutated creatures amidst the biggest environments the series has seen yet. To help navigate such perils and find side quests and other secrets, Artyom is equipped with a handy map. The maps are clunky, and perfectly match the atmosphere of the game.
19. Planescape: Torment
There isn't a darker fantasy game than Planescape: Torment, wherein you play as a man covered in the tattoos and scars of lives you can't remember. The world map for Planescape: Torment directly reflects this morbid set-up: It's skin crudely stitched together, with locale icons visible as tattoos. As Andreas Inderwildi wrote for Rock Paper Shotgun, Planescape: Torment's map "works as a metaphorical representation of the patchwork-like Planescape multiverse: its regions often appear both material and symbolic, and their positions relative to each other can be uncertain and tenuous—as if connected not by solid earth and stone, but aether and old string." Planescape: Torment's map is the opposite of useful, but that's precisely why it sticks out in the realm of video game maps. It is pure atmosphere. Nothing less, and nothing more.
18. Dead Rising
Oh, the silliness of Dead Rising. Much like Dawn of the Dead, Dead Rising is set in a mall. Only the scenario is much more ridiculous, with literally anything usable as a weapon. Dead Rising was doing zombie apocalypse parodies before they went out of fashion (and continued doing them when they went out of fashion). It's the first Dead Rising, however, that has the best map. It's literally just a mall map.
I don't remember the last time I went to a mall, but I remember how I'd ogle at the expansive directory maps with dozens upon dozens of store names. Uniqlo. Hot Topic. Auntie Anne's. I remember going to malls less traveled too, and how desolate they looked walking around. Dead Rising, of course, is anything but desolate—it's filled with zombies and goodies to cobble together for makeshift weapons. I miss loitering at places that aren't my living room, so maybe that's why Dead Rising's mall map springs to mind so prominently.
17. Far Cry 2
Far Cry 2 has had a resurgence in popularity and critical respect in recent years. The open-world first-person shooter that plagued players with malaria, weapon degradation, and other nasty set-backs is also the most tactile feeling of all Far Cry games. A lot of it comes down to how its map is used: To figure out where to go, one pulls out a handheld GPS and a physical map at the same time.
In 2008, it was an innovative interaction, like a lot of Far Cry 2's mechanics. Set in central Africa, the map itself matches the very beige environments of the game. The more you progress, the more filled out the map becomes. There's even a tagging system. Far Cry as the series we know it today didn't start with Crytek's Far Cry. It started with Ubisoft's Far Cry 2—even if the series later cast aside the heavy dose of realism that defined it.
16. The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim
Elder Scrolls is littered with interesting open-worlds. Daggerfall remains, by most measures, the biggest open-world game ever made. Fans love Oblivion for some reason. Morrowind is by all accounts the best open-world Bethesda's ever cooked up. But when it comes to maps, Skyrim has them all beat.
It's perhaps one of the most immediately recognizable maps in the past decade of gaming. I'll never forget how many icons appeared when I pulled it up for the first time. It is a simple map, just showing the overview of the continent, but it is iconic nonetheless.
15. Skies of Arcadia
More than any other JRPG, Skies of Arcadia is truly about exploration, and taking to the skies to do so. At the start, the world map is empty, slowly filling out over time. These are my favorite sorts of maps: the ones that aren't given to you in their entirety from the start, but become charted and sketched out with every step you take. Also, they don't require a "Synchronization," a la Assassin's Creed, to see the goods. And watching the wind paths and floating islands of Skies of Arcadia shake out over time is a marvel on its own.
14. Dragon Quest 3
There is an aura of mystery surrounding Dragon Quest 3, or Dragon Warrior 3's, world map. It's not noticeable at the start, but slowly players realize that it's a rough estimation of Earth, right down to the famous cities. (Renamed for Dragon Quest 3, of course.) Having this knowledge makes the world map neat in retrospect, as it folds real continents into something unrecognizable for its fictional medieval-ish time period. It doesn't look like our home, and yet it is. Or at least, a stranger, Slime-ridden version of it.
13. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City
I used to have the map from Grand Theft Auto: Vice City hanging on my wall. I don't remember how I got it—maybe it was a weird promotional thing; maybe it was in the case. There it was for years, in its crease-folded glory, tacked directly onto the wall of my family's rental home, to the chagrin of my parents' deposit. Like a lot of teenagers, I played a lot of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. Dare I say it, it's the best Grand Theft Auto game with its sleazy '80s Miami sheen.
Liberty City may be a more memorable city, and the likes of Los Santos and San Andreas may quadruple Vice City's size, but it's Vice City that I remember most fondly, with its water-divided layout. It carries that familiar green, black, gray Grand Theft Auto color scheme, and not many other colors. It is the Grand Theft Auto map to beat, in my eyes.
12. Elite Dangerous
There is no video game map, or video game in general, that's more daunting than Elite Dangerous. The space-flight sim is famous for its impossible vastness, with its 1:1 simulation of the Milky Way Galaxy. It's always evolving; it used literal astronomy to build out its galaxy. Players to this day happen upon crazy, undiscovered stuff, like aliens, all the time. Elite Dangerous is alarming.
It is at its most alarming staring at its galaxy map. It's like looking out at a packed stadium during a slow song at a concert—phone lights and lighters held up high. Endless bright specs in a would-be dark space. Is this what our solar system actually looks like? I haven't been to space, so who's to say the stars and planets actually shine this brightly. I hope they do.
11. Persona 5
Persona 5's map, like Planescape: Torment's slim overworld map, is light on details, but loud with personality. Persona 5, like the rest of the series, is bursting with pizazz. From the music to the UI, it's hard to name a game with more style than Persona 5. This translates to its train-like overworld map, where neighborhoods across Tokyo, Japan are shown via black and white icons on a red background, matching the bright red nature of the rest of the game's motif.
On top of the world map is the stunning Mementos map, which emulates Persona 3's Tartarus tower in its vertical design. Mementos, however, scales downward rather than upward, unlike the Tartarus. Persona 5's maybe the only game on this list with not one qualifying, impeccably designed map, but two.
10. PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds (PUBG)
It's impossible to write a list about the best maps in video games without addressing a genre that's all about interrogating a map in a quick fashion: battle royale. The pioneer in popularity of the genre, PUBG, has the most iconic map of all. During its early access launch, there was just one single map: Erangel. After its 1.0 launch, PUBG got more maps, like the desert of Miramar and the close-quarters of Sanhok. Erangel itself even changed. But it's the original structure of Erangel's map, however, that is truly the definitive "battle royale map" to me.
When dropping in a battle royale, a solo player or squad first eyeballs the map. We see the trajectory of the plane (or bus). We have an in-depth knowledge of where the "hot spots" are—the popular places people like to drop—and then we make the decision. We figure out a waypoint, and drop.
Erangel's lush greenery and Eastern European setting is a hodgepodge of styles. Its distinct lack of art direction is part of what makes it stick out. It's a utilitarian map, contrary to the diverse biomes that would come in later maps. For PUBG's first map though, it kickstarted a genre. We knew the towns, we knew the buildings, we knew the useful cliffs for sniping that were shrouded in trees. It would come to be eclipsed by the more colorful Fortnite and the chaotic Call of Duty: Warzone. For a time though in 2017, all PUBG needed was that one map.
9. Metroid Prime
Any Metroid or Castlevania can be argued onto this list, but most Metroid and Castlevania maps look boring on the surface. Mechanically, they are deserving, but visually, they miss the mark. Metroid Prime fixes that. The 3D maps cause us to rethink how a Metroid game works. They operate in the same way—with exploration revealing new avenues—but the 3D, vector-like framing of the maps is more slick, and matches the successful push to 3D made by Samus.
8. Red Dead Redemption 2
There are a lot of great illustrated maps in games. The aforementioned Skyrim, the painterly style of Ni No Kuni's fantasy world. Red Dead Redemption 2, in particular, is a special sort of map. Unlike Arthur's own doodle-filled journal, Red Dead Redemption 2's map looks carefully sketched out. The more Arthur and his camp explores, the more that's uncovered in it.
It's the font work that I really love about its map. Along rivers, the old timey font is italicized. Cities and towns get a strong bold. The icons are a simple black circle-never distracting too much from the slight detail. It all just fits the setting. For a world as hectic as Red Dead Redemption 2's, its map is resigned in comparison. But it needed to be that way, and that's what makes it a truly beautiful map.
7. Dead Space
Some of the best video game maps are the ones that are diegetic, like your character is pausing themselves to trace over their every step. Dead Space exemplifies this with Isaac Clarke's 3D map; it appears next to him as a hologram, or something. It adds to the tension of Dead Space too—we're never pulled away from the immediate Necromorph danger that's lurking every crevice of the USG Ishimura. While the map itself is straightforward, it's the expert implementation that sets it above most others. It is, by that measure, the best horror game map I can recall. (Sorry Resident Evil 2 and Silent Hill.)
Firewatch is not a game most would immediately think of as a "good map" game, but when I posed this list's formation in USgamer's own Slack, it was one of the first games brought up. I immediately remembered why it was worthy of such an honor: The map, really, is the game. It's art director Olly Moss' famous minimal aesthetic on full display. It's embedded in the game too: When main character Henry needs to head somewhere in-game, he pulls it out alongside a compass to find his way.
But it's how the map changes over the course of the game that makes it a cut above most others. Depending on how players play Henry when it comes to dialogue choices, different sorts of notes will find themselves scribbled onto the map. There's a lot of character in Firewatch's map, because it's an extension of who we're playing as ourselves.
When it comes to world map shapes, ActRaiser's continent is one of the first to come to mind. It almost looks like an Angelfish, when looking at it from far, far away. From its snowy north to its desert due south and the bloodpool, it all becomes a marker of our work rebuilding civilization from top to bottom. Its SNES graphics don't amount to much compared to some other games on the platform, but it manages to stretch a lot of environmental character out with its pixels.
4. Etrian Odyssey
Any Etrian Odyssey game really qualifies for this spot. Etrian Odyssey, of course, is a game all about building out maps. You trace your own path through a dungeon, dropping markers and other signifiers of your exploration. Etrian Odyssey, and its few spin-offs, make cartographers of everyone, and it's striking for that reason alone. Visually its map may not add up to much, but functionally, no other maps in games compare. The 2D functional maps are, at last, our creation alone.
3. Pokemon Red/Blue/Let's Go
The best Pokemon region is a contested one, but there's no denying that Kanto, the first and foremost land, is the most iconic of them all. Just uttering the name brings to mind the map: Its plain dots that signal towns, its plentiful water just waiting to be Surfed upon. It may not have the sunny Hawaiian influence of Sun and Moon, nor the British personality of the recent Sword and Shield, but Kanto has its own strength: It is what we think of first when we think of the epitome of a Pokemon map. There is no map that is better than Kanto's.
2. Super Mario World
When Super Mario Maker 2 was announced, the world cried out for one thing only: a World Maker. It didn't come at launch, but crawled its way into the builder this year. Toying with Super Mario Maker 2's World Maker has reminded me of one thing, mostly: That Super Mario World is perfect.
Super Mario World took Mario in a bold new direction and gave him a map to navigate Dinosaur Land. The map was full of secrets—bonus levels, alternate directions. It was no longer just running across a screen; it expanded the world of Super Mario in thrilling ways, and the intricate details of Super Mario World's maps were an extension of that. Even in 2020, 30 years after its release in 1990, it holds up. Arguably, there's almost no overworld that is more iconic and memorable than Super Mario World's. Well, there's one...
1. A Link to the Past
I'll never forget the first time I flipped to the Dark World of A Link to the Past's map—no longer forced into it, but with the ability to switch between it and the light-soaked Hyrule. Together, both normal Hyrule and Dark World folded onto one another. I flip-flopped as Link between the two; gaining access to areas usually inaccessible in one half, versus the other. A Link to the Past was enlightening and thrilling in this way. Its two maps weren't just beautifully designed, they were fun to solve too.
The Legend of Zelda series is overflowing with memorable maps. Twilight Princess reimagines a darker Hyrule. In Breath of the Wild, I became something of a cartographer, just like in Etrian Odyssey. I'd plop down markers signifying shrines I found, or secrets I couldn't crack yet. Breath of the Wild presented the most exciting Hyrule we've explored yet—but when it comes to the plain ol' map, A Link to the Past still beats it, because it's the most integral to the experience of playing A Link to the Past.
There is a reason why A Link to the Past is still widely considered to be the best game in the series. Its world design is perfect. Its story, its action, its puzzles are perfect. When it comes to the ever-elusive "perfect" game, nothing really tops A Link to the Past. Most importantly, its map is perfect, for how it folds into how we play the game itself. And that's why it has the best video game map.