For the last 15 years or so, we have witnessed the rise of a great evil: the video game mini-map. Recent events have given me hope that the dark era of the mini-map may finally be coming to an end.
For years, it has been assumed that open-world games require a mini-map in the corner of the screen. From Grand Theft Auto III to Assassin’s Creed to Red Dead Redemption, the mini-map has sat there, full of icons, coaxing your eyes away from the center of the screen. Come look at me, it says. I’m full of crucial information you can’t get anywhere else. You need me.
And then, this year, some possible signs of a turning tide. Assassin’s Creed Origins, the 10th (or so) game in that long-running series, has no mini-map. Every single Assassin’s Creed game has had a mini-map until now. It’s always been there, sitting in the corner of the screen. In Origins, it’s gone.
Instead of a mini-map, Origins gives players a compass in the centre-top of the screen.
That’s just one example, though. Could mean anything. What about Ubisoft’s other major open-world series, Far Cry? The best game in that series, Far Cry 2, had no mini-map and instead made players look down at a handheld map. It was a bold choice, and made the game much more interesting. Starting with Far Cry 3, though, that stupid little info-circle has lurked in the corner of the screen, daring us to turn it off and play the game in the best way. Far Cry 4 and Far Cry Primal both had a mini-map as well.
So, what of next year’s Far Cry 5? Check out this screenshot from IGN’s extended hands-on during E3 2017:
Bethesda Game Studios’ open-world RPGs like 2011's Skyrim and 2008's Fallout 3 also used compasses instead of mini-maps.
NO MINI-MAP, BABY. Just like with Origins, it would appear they’ve replaced the mini-map with a compass at the top of the screen. One Ubisoft game dropping its mini-map could be an experiment or an outlier. Two suggests a pattern.
I could be wrong about all of this, of course. Other recent open-world games have been less consistent. Ubisoft’s other big 2017 open-world game Ghost Recon Wildlands did have a mini-map, though it’s easy to turn it off and play without it. October’s Shadow of War had a god-awful mini-map that commits the worst mini-map offence: you can’t toggle it off without also toggling off your health gauge, focus gauge, and other crucial information.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild made the un-Nintendo-like move of following the trend and including a mini-map, though the game absolutely didn’t need one and it was easy to turn it off. However, the tremendous PS4 open-worlder Horizon Zero Dawn also had a compass in place of a mini-map. That game had some impressively well-done HUD options in general, particularly considering that it was developer Guerrilla Games’ first open-world game.
Long have I waged my own personal war against mini-maps. One of the first big articles I wrote after being hired at Kotaku in 2011 was about how much better Grand Theft Auto IV is with no mini-map. Since then I’ve written similar articles about so many major open-world games that I’ve lost count. It’s to the point that people make fun of me for it. That’s okay. That’s just the status quo, trying to assert itself.
Mini-maps are bad. They distract from the game you’re playing and frequently offer information that you don’t even need. They draw your eyes away from the world you’re exploring and, in the words of fellow anti-mini-map-crusader Mark Brown, encourage players to “follow the little dotted line.” They are a relic of a bygone era, when video game worlds may not have been easy enough to navigate without them.
Let this be a sign, and let other game developers follow Ubisoft and Guerrilla’s lead. May video game mini-maps slowly fade from the mainstream, eventually remembered as a crutch we used to use back when open game-worlds were still relatively new and no one was sure how best to explore them. Let us enter a new age of mini-map-free video games with our eyes fixed on the horizon and not on the corner of the screen.