Landmarks, of sorts.

de_dust overhead map 2de_dust overhead map 3

In a recent posting, Stephen Totilo lamented the absence of landmarks in games:

Thirty, forty years in, video games, I am sad to report, are without many famous landmarks and places. N’Gai, can you name a single famous video game building? Princess Peach’s castle (and courtyard) from “Super Mario 64,” maybe? Anything else? Yes I can recall locations in games. For example, I remember the giant vat containing a massive, submarine-sized floating mechanical shark in “Banjo Kazooie,” and I remember the green hill zone of “Sonic: The Hedgehog.” But the truly great places — the postcard-worthy ones — include, for me, just the moon in “The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask,” the big sword bridge in “God of War,” Sanctuary Fortress in “Metroid Prime 2: Echoes,” and, not much else. Almost every other spot — even the fun ones — from Dracula’s Castle to Vice City feels generic, familiar, or plain unspectacular.

My first reaction to this statement was that I could only think of one truly stand-out location: the final level of Painkiller, which contains a unique vision of Hell: the entire history of warfare, played out from primitive rock-bashing to a modern nuclear war, frozen in time for the player to wander through.

Painkiller Hell level

(Unfortunately, this is the only screenshot of that level that I could find given 45 minutes of searching, and it does not depict the epicness of the level, instead showing just one small part. Trying to find things on the Web is really sucky sometimes.)

But after sleeping on the question for a few days, this occurred to me: if we judge landmarks by their visual impressions, we tend to ignore what games are about, a large part of which is interactivity, and the player’s understanding of the way things work within that game world. If locales are really going to be game landmarks, rather than fanciful imitations of real-world places that you could experience as well in non-game media, then the impression they leave needs to happen through gameplay; they need to be memorable because of the things they encourage to happen within them, not (just) because of the way they look.

With that new way of looking at things, right away I thought of two places that clearly fit the bill: de_dust from Counter-Strike, and 2fort from Team Fortress. Each of these maps has been remade several times through different iterations of these respective games; though the visual elements have changed, sometimes drastically, the core spirit of the levels remains consistent. Visiting 2fort in Team Fortress 2, running through the halls and up onto the battlements, I instantly recognize it as the same place where I spent so much time in the original Team Fortress.

2fort from Team Fortress (small version)2fort from Team Fortress Classic (small version)2fort from Team Fortress 2
Screenshots of 2fort from Team Fortress, Team Fortress Classic, and Team Fortress 2.

When Wikipedia editors wanted to make a visual comparison between the original Counter-Strike and Counter-Strike: Source, they used screenshots from de_dust; using another map would seem a little bit wrong, because de_dust is the canonical Counter-Strike map. In a sense, de_dust is Counter-Strike, and it doesn’t matter which revision of de_dust you are talking about. (This is especially striking because de_dust was not in the original game. It is made for the Bomb Defusal gameplay mode, which was not added until Beta 4, about 5 months after the initial release).

2fort comparison between team fortress and team fortress 2

This is Wikipedia’s image comparison between two versions of Counter-Strike, showing the view from the same place in de_dust. Cosmetically they appear different, but gameplay-wise they are very similar.

So it seems to me that these places are landmarks, but not in a visual way. Rather, they are landmarks in a conceptual space, a space of understanding where to go and what to do; that when A happens at location X, then probably B at Y and then C at Z.

Here’s a sand-castle that someone made of de_dust:

de_dust sand castle

Note that it’s a model of the full space (possibly from memory). Pictures of what the view looks like from particular places in de_dust, as you might get as a photographer in a virtual space (or in the screenshot above), are not so compelling. The landmark I am talking about is the entire structure of the level, along with the collected experience from playing it, not a view from a single point in the level at a single instant in time.

It’s worth pointing out that these maps became canonical because they were so compelling to play. They survived the tests of time and rose above the other maps.

Now, I realize that my definition of “landmark” has come pretty far from the meaning that Stephen originally intended. But to me that’s what is so interesting about games — they help us to see things in new, possibly deeper ways. What I have described above is sort of the super-nerdly version of a landmark, but I tell you — if back when I was 15 I understood that “normal people” in the year 2007 would be spending so much time doing the modern version of the same things that I, in 1986, was so shunned-as-a-nerd for (logging into BBS systems and typing messages to people!) then I would have had a very different view of my life at that time. So if anyone out there understands what I am talking about in this post, let’s just think of ourselves as trailblazers.

Stephen casually mentions fame as being one criterion for landmarks, but I’m not sure that’s a good gauge. Most Americans have heard of Niagara Falls as some kind of great waterfall, but Victoria Falls is much more spectacular. (Just to take one measurement for example, Niagra Falls is about 60 meters high, while Victoria Falls is 100). Victoria Falls is a better landmark, but it’s harder for Americans and Europeans to access, so it is less famous for us (though it is considered to be one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, whereas Niagara just isn’t on that list. [Though there is no full consensus on what the Seven Natural Wonders of the World actually are, some items are on pretty much everyone’s version of the list: the Grand Canyon, Victoria Falls, Mount Everest, the Great Barrier Reef.])

Then again, de_dust is the most famous Counter-Strike map, so, who knows.

32 thoughts on “Landmarks, of sorts.”

  1. Even though I am sick of everything about the franchise at this point, I’m thinking that the giant ring that is Planet Halo or whatever it’s called int eh game is pretty iconic. However, this does contradict Jonathan’s point as you never really get a feel that playing on it is any different than a spherical planet.

    Regardless, thank you Jonathan for the breath of fresh air that is all of your writing and insight.

  2. I feel like Facing Worlds in Unreal Tournament falls in this category too, that’s pretty much the canonical UT map. Possibly also Big Game Hunters for Starcraft geeks, I’ll have to ask my friends who still play the game about that one.

  3. One possible explanation for the apparent lack of videogame “landmarks” may simply be how 3D environments have been constructed, historically.

    From the days of Doom onward, and with only a few more recent examples to the contrary, the world representation has been based around the BSP tree. The optimal BSP tree is a map full of tight corridors with as little visibility between zones as possible. The “sky” in 2fort and dust is just a special texture on the ceilings that tells the renderer to draw the skybox instead of something solid. The rudimentary outdoor-ness of those maps is an illusion.

    So it’s unsurprising that so many game environments don’t feel like real world architecture… they’re networks of tunnels instead of free-standing structures. That short-circuits a lot of the patterns we’re used to matching when we walk through a real city. Only gamers have developed the ability to parse Quake-like dungeons as “spaces” in depth.

    Newer engines are typically more flexible, so hopefully we are becoming more free to build spaces that go against the grain of how the tech represents the world… not that the existing examples aren’t classics and highly worthy as game spaces, where as you say the integrity really is the game dynamics within the space.

    In the very long term I think this will be analogous to the forced perspective in many ancient cultures’ art… people are standing oddly sideways in Egyptian hieroglyphs because of both a limitation of the medium (bas relief) and the artist’s sophistication with it. Classical and Renaissance art became deeper and more nuanced in their understanding of space, and then the Modernists compressed and exploded it either way once people understood the true boundaries of the domain.

    Likewise I think the hieroglyphs of 3D game spaces are the Quake dungeons, we have a few examples of Classical (or Hellenistic if you prefer) – anything from the Milkman Conspiracy in Psychonauts to a Battlefield 2 map – and someday we’ll be at Modern/Post-Modern where the construction method is nothing more than the means to the end of artistic intent… much like making a game 2D has become a perfectly valid choice after a long cold winter of 3D chauvinism.

  4. What about the massive tower in Half Life 2 and HL2:Episode 1? It’s pretty compelling visually for me, and it brings with it all sorts of unique gameplay elements (the type of environment, having the superpowered gravity gun, etc.) You also start out Episode 1 staring up at it, and then it explodes at the end.

    Seems pretty iconic to me.

  5. Interesting topic. I think that part of being a landmark is the fact that many people use the same location/object/structure over time to locate themselves and others in a space. Therefore to me landmarks are more powerful and obvious when re-used or given enough prior context to make them iconic.

    There are examples of Real-World landmarks being pilfered for game ike Tomb Raider. Some game environments use the connotations of large architectural forms to reinforce narrative and atmosphere, perhaps the whole set of psychogeographic implications a ‘tower’ has- in HL2 or Devil may Cry3.

    However I also think that MMOGs create another method by which landmarks can be defined, through player reference within the game itself. I have occasionally found myself telling people to turn southeast from the great lift in thousand needles or to head north from tarren mill.

    I think that although many landmarks are design to be landmarks, some of the most effective ones become landmarks through use rather than intention.

  6. The more I think about Jonathan’s original point the more insight it offers. Going on Chris Crawford’s old idea that games are more about process than data, interactive landmarks are more about the experience of using a space than any given snapshot of it. It’s the difference between a photo or blueprint of Grand Central Station and the experience of moving through it.

    People really do stop at the visuals and ignore the deeper integrity of a system. That’s clearly where so many game+film analogies go wrong.

  7. It’s not really in the same vein as the games previously mentioned, but I think the castle from Mario 64 and Mario Kart 64 is a pretty good video game landmark.

    While you are only outside of it for a small portion of Mario 64, in Mario Kart 64 it’s constantly peeking out from around corners to remind you what whimsical world you are racing through.

  8. It’s not a mass-market game, but Guild Wars has fantastic landscapes and spaces, such as the Warrior statue in the Crystal Desert.

  9. Myst and Riven are great examples. So much stuff from there will stick in my mind forever. From the Telescope thing over the Star Fissure to the cliffside village, to the island that is far removed from the others and all you can see around you is ocean. VERY memorable landmarks.

    Oddly enough I think a great deal of Mario 64’s levels stick in my head and seem to be vivid landmarks. Zelda: Ocarina of Time has many of these places as well. I would still agree that the vast majority of games have blah unremarkable easily forgettable locales though.

  10. How bout Orgrimmar or Stormwind of World of Warcraft, every adventurer remembers that these two locations are your primary “home” towns and spends a good portion of time here. Everytime you come flying in, or running through the gates, there are a series of emotions and memories of past activities that come back.

  11. I think, to really get a meaningful landmark, it has to be one that a good majority of gamers have experienced. I hate to do it, but I think that criteria rules out today’s modern multi-system generation. If we go back to a time where there was only one major system (NES) and one game that almost everyone played (Super Mario Brothers) I’d have to say that the initial environment in that game would be one of iconic status. World 1-1 of Super Mario Bros. is something that nearly everyone from that era has experienced and can recognize. While in recent years, the overall gaming population has expanded, it has also fragmented into various camps. I don’t know too many people who own all three current-gen consoles. That prevents many games that come out for only one system from being universally acclaimed as iconic. Counterstrike is a bit of an anomaly, as the game was so compelling and popular, not to mention ubiquitous, that nearly everyone who played it, ended up experiencing de_dust, the game’s iconic map. World of Warcraft may end up conjuring those same iconic thoughts, due to its immense popularity as well, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and call it a little to recent to wax nostalgic over.

  12. tiny islands in various final fantasy’s where you find the hardest monsters.

    the floating continent in vi. specifically the three statue’s.

    i could go on, but the only thing that’s coming to mind is final fantasy games and i don’t want to be too redundant.

  13. Jonathan,

    I’m glad that what I wrote got you thinking. And, yes, I agree that the most important value a location in a video game has is, as you put it, involves “the things they encourage to happen within them, not (just) because of the way they look.”

    This idea is even relevant to the world outside gaming. That’s why I consider my local New York City subway system one of the most important landmarks in New York, as relevant and worth a visitor’s investigation as the Statue of Liberty or the Empire State Building. There isn’t even a way to really look at the subway system without being in it. It’s value as a place is as a means of conveyance, social gathering and simultaneously logical and idiosyncratic design.

    All that said, I maintain that video games could use a few more great buildings. Creating them is justifiably among the lowest priorities for game designers for the reasons you cite. After all, a building that is interesting to look at serves minimal gameplay purpose.

    I think commenter JP is on to something when he suggests that standard game-level-design of 3D corridors is a significant factor. One need only to think about the Eiffel Tower, the Washington Monument or the Taj Mahal to realize that many of the real world’s great buildings were meant to at first be appreciated from afar and not from a tunnel. Games haven’t been that well-tuned for letting us appreciate something from afar– certainly not to let us then approach that distant thing and develop a visual and spatial relationship with it as we take each closer step.

    The city in the game Crackdown is worth checking out. It’s one of the few exceptions I’ve encountered: a 3D world full of interesting structures to look at and to “exist” along side of.

    Thanks again for your feedback to my post.


  14. A lot of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas really gave me the impression of a real world – especially the mountain. That mountain is one of the first places I think of when I think GTA:SA. the view from the top is great.

  15. I like the idea of “playability” being integral to the idea of a game landmark. Super Mario Bros. 1-1 is a good example. I think Halo’s “Blood Gulch” multiplayer map is another.

    I’m not so sure about the assertion that a landmark is necessarily one that most gamers have to have experienced. There are probably very few games that meet that criteria. It’s possible to have local landmarks that are known to nearby residents but of which outsiders remain ignorant, so it’s reasonable to think that Xbox fans could have a set of landmarks or reference points that are different from, say, DS fans.

    I also think Stephen was talking more broadly about simple visual aesthetic appeal, of which several good examples come to mind.

    “Oblivion” had several awesome sights, not least of which was the central palace. There was also the Cloud Temple, the Wizard’s Keep, and several others.

    “Battlefield 2” had the dam level and a few hilltops with views that are among the most stunning I’ve ever seen in a game.

    And, as noted, “Crackdown” had several memorable buildings.

  16. The Tower of the Gods in “The Legend of Zelda: Windwaker”.
    Hyrule Castle, especially in “The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess,” and especially, for me, while in the Twilight.

  17. I have to concur with the Citadel in HL2. It’s immensely iconic, and its sheer size means it’s visible on the horizon for a good chunk of the game. And the first reveal of it when you leave the train station at the start of the game is brilliant.

    Oh, and the gates of Ironforge. I remember the sensation of my jaw hitting the floor when I saw them for the first time.

  18. In particular about the Citadel; the thought that comes to mind is that it isn’t much of a landmark for me, because the gameplay once you get inside is not very different from when you were outside, so it just blurs together into the rest of the game. (Yeah, the ending sequence is pretty different, but that is just a portion of the Citadel stuff, especially if you add Episode 1; and it still isn’t really *that* distinctive).

  19. Thinking way back to Atari 2600, those are some of the most ingrained locations in my mind. Combat’s complex tank map, Yars Revenge’s Neutral Zone, Adventure (Yellow Castle and the red & grey catacombs), Pitfall 2 to name a few. Even simple ones like Circus Atari and Kaboom! evoke rich memories and emotions for me. In those old games you usually spend so much time in a single location that can hold more feelings of gameplay.

    That’s sort of missing from a lot of modern games. If you’re playing in a GTA game or Doom and such you are just zooming through locations and not really exploring them. I was just playing Saint’s Row again and was struck buy how beautiful some of the locations are in that game. I was thinking, um, why didn’t I notice how cool this looks before? I mean, I think I sorta noticed it from the screenshots before but while playing it I was so busy following the path on the radar or shooting enemies that it was mostly lost on me at the time. All the gameplay overshadowed the locations so there is no concrete sense of space. It just all became something like “you got to go about half-away across the city to location B to gun down so-and-so of such-and-such gang” in my mind.

    If you spend a lot of time in one location you start to notice how the location itself can help in your gameplay goals. That’s one reason that de_dust is such a great example of a location. In order to play that map well you have to know that map well because that’s the first thing that players will exploit usually.

  20. “If you’re playing in a GTA game or Doom and such you are just zooming through locations and not really exploring them.”

    GTA, not so much. In the course of a typical play session you crisscross older routes quite frequently. Most of the people I know who’ve played those games develop a decent mental map of the cities.

    And actually Doom1&2s’ levels are less linear than you may remember. They’re kind of like more complex versions of Tempest levels to me, variously-shaped prisms for the core mechanics.

    The modern games that really defeat landmark formation are linear, single-player FPS games where every environment is just a tunnel of scripted sequences. You get to the end of the current tunnel and never look back, so all the layouts and flow of the spaces slide out of your brain like teflon. That there are so many such games on the market today probably goes a ways towards explaining the lack lamented in the original article.

    Valve did a good job establishing the HL2 citadel as a persistent visual landmark, but it’s always just skybox – there’s never a point where you move right up to it in contiguous physical space like you can walk up to a particular building in a real downtown city area. So it’s not a landmark to me in any of the ways that various buildings here in Boston are.

    In a sense, a game landmark is only a landmark if you have enough agency in the space to situate yourself relative to it. Multiplayer maps have it easy in that regard.

  21. JP,

    You’re right about GTA. That was a probably a poor example on my part.

    In Doom I, I do remember now going back and forth across some of the maps, but still very uninteresting from a landmark point of view. Part of the puzzle seemed to be to find your way through a maze of similar corridors and rooms.

  22. The only really good example I’ve seen here is the first level of mario or on line multi-player maps and that’s because people have experienced them enough to be etched in their heads. They are not memorable land marks on first experience, so not much of a landmark by any interpretation. That’s not to say I don’t think they are good game play and worth remembering, it’s just that we need to be considering different words such as “seminal” or “just bloody good” etc. There are reasons why people in games don’t talk like people in movies at the end of the day.

  23. great article! i couldn’t agree more. unfortunately, _visual_ variety seems to be more important these days than _interactive_ variety.

    i think the original DOOM games were great examples of interactive variety, even tho almost every level looks the same (same textures and what not). i still remember maps like “Phobos Anomaly” from Doom1 (with the barrels at the beginning…then the bridge to horrifying twin barons)…and from Doom 2, “Barrels of Fun”, “Tricks and Traps”, “Gauntlet”, and “Sewers”..and some others i can’t remember by name. each of those maps had pretty unique personality in their lay out and monster placement. hard to find in modern FPS’s…

  24. The concept of Landmark Moments are an idea that has been around for a while, and is often a key element of the best games. Thinking about that surprising moment when the giant foot smashes down on Kratos in GoW. Thats something that you can talk about with your friends for a long time afterward. I tell my teams that each location needs to have something unique in gameplay and look that is clear enough for a player to convey by saying “hey, did you reach the part where…”. Thats a landmark.
    When you take a road trip, 99% of the trip is non-remarkable. The things you remember are the unique experiences. This works well for games if you plan for it, as most of the gameworld can be repeatable instances with a few well chosen unique things for the player to focus on and remember.

  25. Rapture in Bioshock (the view of the tower that stands alone in the middle of the ocean in the first minute of the game is impressive), the Halo structure in, well…Halo. I liked the first game better then the sequels exactly becuase of that. It reminded a sci-fi book i loved as a child with possibile views of future space colonies. The Halo structure was very similar. I loved how you have no line of horizon in most of the game since it bends to form a cicle. And if you look on the side, you see just the stars. Inspired design.
    Ironforge is easily the best thing in World of Worcraft.
    The islands in Monkey Island are easily recognizable.
    The house/dojo of Ryo in Shenmue.
    I could go on and on. There’s several.

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