thatgamecompany’s Designer on How not to Get Lost in Game Using Cognitive Maps

The studio behind Journey is sharing secrets of game design and cognitive maps.

Nicolas Oueijan, Game Designer at thatgamecompany, the developer behind Journey and Sky, talked about what it means to get lost in a game map and how spaces can be designed to prevent this from happening.

The designer starts by defining maps and saying that a map is a tool that represents spaces or concepts. He then moves to cognitive maps, which are mental representations of spaces we have experienced.

Drawing from this concept, we get lost, according to Oueijan, when our cognitive map doesn't align with what we see around us.

There are 5 elements people use to make sense of their surroundings: paths, landmarks, districts, edges, and nodes. To avoid getting lost, you should design your game taking them all into consideration.

  • Paths guide players and connect large areas as well as cognitive maps.
  • Landmarks are useful when the journey becomes less familiar, they can orient players from distance.
  • As for districts, Nicolas suggests making clusters of similar objects, not random, as they're easier to remember this way.
  • Edges are defined as linear non-paths that separate or control continuity, such as walls, cliffs, and borderlines. They should be deliberate and bold.
  • Nodes are point-referneces, a convergence of paths, like traffic intersections or transit hubs. They need to have adequate pathing and should be visited more than once.

To make use of these elements, you need to identify, assess, and then organize them before testing without a HUD or a mini-map. Oueijan mentions that the tools that help navigation actually decrease route memory and make players engage less with the environment and the spaces you created.

The advice the designer gives is to foster clearer cognitive maps and be deliberate, this should help your level design and player navigation.

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