Paper Maps Make Fantasy Games More Immersive

Opinion: In-game paper maps add that little touch of verisimilitude that makes them so cool and makes the fantasy games they’re a part of all the more immersive.

Published: February 8, 2023 11:00 AM /


Map while travelling in Pathfinder Kingmaker

Fantasy is one of the most popular genres of fiction, and at its core, it relies on presenting an alternate world that its audience can become invested in, moved by, and perhaps even escape to. Fantasy video games are no different, presenting an extraordinary world separate from our own for the player to engage with. Immersion is an invaluable tool in the fantasy genre, and great use of it is made by game developers to make their fantasy worlds and the stories within them believable and compelling. Just how much a game can immerse me in its setting is an important part of my own enjoyment of a fantasy video game. In general, the greater a game’s ability to make me feel as though I'm really there, the more fun I’m going to have. Of all the methods a game can employ to accomplish this, however, nothing makes me feel more immersed in a fantasy video game than good old-fashioned paper maps.

My love of paper maps started early. Reading fantasy novels as a wee lad, I used to find out if a book I was reading had a paper map in the back of the jacket, and if so, I would flip to it every time a new location was mentioned. Placing the environments described in my mind’s-eye version of the world became half the fun of reading. Eventually, when a location was mentioned by a character in any of these books, I would know where the place they were talking about was, roughly how far away it could be found, and the kind of things the characters would have to go through to get there. The paper maps the authors provided helped me to understand the world better, and I was all the more immersed in the setting of these novels for it.

By the time I was playing video games, fantasy RPGs such as Fable and Oblivion took me to levels of escapism far beyond what I expected them to, and their map menus - specifically, their paper maps - played no small part in it. The lovingly rendered regions of their paper maps took me back to my days of pouring through fantasy novels and learning the layout of their worlds with the characters and the maps they used. This time, however, I was the protagonist, exploring the world my own way and filling out my own paper map with my discoveries as I went.

Journal menu of Oblivion featuring a very cool paper map
The menus of Oblivion are lovingly crafted and intricately detailed, and the world map page is no exception!

That’s just my experience, however. As far as immersing a player into the world by allowing them to understand the layout of a setting goes, non-paper map interfaces with a more anachronistic design such as those found in Skyrim for example have plenty of advantages over the paper cliché. Skyrim's map is presented as a 3D render of the world, and has the potential for a shocking amount of detail (as Skyrim has previously demonstrated) that you couldn't hope to see on paper. Its nature as a render of the playable environment means that it can also communicate elevation in a way a paper map without contour lines can't. I love paper map mods for Skyrim, but immersive as they are, none I've found have come close to presenting just how large the Throat of the World really is as Skyrim's unmodded map does. 

The obvious notion that a paper map interface could feasibly be the same piece of paper that your character is navigating by isn’t always compelling either, as immersion can mean more than a game’s interface looking authentic to its setting. I believe, however, that the design of paper maps specifically serves an additional function that makes it easier for the player to become immersed in the fantasy world it portrays. In the logic of a setting, paper maps cannot have existed without someone having drawn them in the first place: thus, they must be biased.

A good paper map is more than simply an aesthetically authentic tool that shows you the definitive geography of a setting. In reality, it is anything but definitive - it’s an educated guess on the behalf of its fictional cartographer, and so it only depicts its fantasy world from the perspective of its inhabitants. These little scraps of paper become real pieces of their setting through their bias - their ability to show only what the character who made the paper map knows about the world.

What’s not displayed on a paper map is just as important a factor as what is when it comes to immersing its navigator into the setting. What’s shown on a paper map is common knowledge, meaning that unmarked trails, new landmarks, forgotten ruins, or even whole uncharted regions are your discoveries. A paper map is imperfect, and you fill in the gaps yourself, contributing to the charting of this fantasy world and becoming a real explorer of it. At this moment, you are a part of the world, and this is the very spirit of immersion.

This analogy isn’t universally the case of course. FromSoftware’s 2022 title, Elden Ring, is just one outlier: The game possesses a paper map, on which important landmarks such as ore mines and evergaols are fully visible if you know what to look for. Instead of hiding sites such as these, the map encourages exploration by giving them no label or description until you venture out and discover the landmark itself. However, I believe Elden Ring’s paper map actually still does wonders to enhance the immersion of its exploration process despite its subversion of the above argument. 

Paper map of Elden Ring's gameworld, though only half uncovered
The map of Elden Ring is uncovered one small piece at a time as you explore the Lands Between

The game’s map is incorporated as an emergent part of exploration and gameplay. Before you can view the paper map in detail, you have to find various pieces of it in the game world to view the corresponding region they govern. The paper map of Elden Ring having unmarked "sites of interest" drawn upon it serves not only to reward the player for retrieving its pieces but also to enhance the atmosphere of the game: You are a stranger in a land that has fallen into ruin. Whoever drew up the paper map is long gone, and the civilization they belonged to will soon meet the same fate.

You are not just exploring, but re-discovering a ruined world by collecting pieces of its world map and labeling the sites once denoted by the scholars of the Lands Between. The fact that the pieces of this map are rendered as aged and colorful parchment only adds to this impression, unifying Elden Ring's aesthetic of withered beauty with the atmosphere created by its exploration gameplay. In my opinion, the game is far more immersive for it.

All of this isn’t to say that fantasy games that don’t use the old paper map cliché aren’t immersive in their own right of course. In fact, I can imagine fantasy games that don’t provide any maps leading to the most immersive experiences of all. Learning the lay of the land by exploring it yourself and referencing landmarks to navigate in your own way sounds really cool and seems like a great way to engage the game’s players with its world. However, if a game is going to use a map interface at all, paper ones just add that little touch of believability that makes them so damn cool and makes the fantasy games they’re a part of all the more immersive. 

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Tim in a silly hat
| Staff Writer

Tim is a Staff Writer for TechRaptor and video games are almost as much a part of his life as breathing, if not more. He has a Bachelor's degree in… More about Tim

More Info About This Game
Learn more about Elden Ring
Game Page Elden Ring
Bandai Namco
Release Date
February 25, 2022 (Calendar)
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