When encountering a new world for the first time, few things fuel the imagination quite like a map. A map can also be one of the biggest sources of nostalgia when looking back at a world that was once very familiar. My most recent geeky project has been to take the map from the video game Skyrim and translate it into a more retro style, re-imagining it in the style of another video game, RuneScape:
|Skyrim map in the style of RuneScape (full-size version)
For those curious to know more, the rest of this post will describe the process of making the map in a little more detail. After a bit of background on the two games which motivated it, I'll say a little bit about three aspects which brought interesting challenges: the scale, the terrain, and the icons on top.
Two games, two worlds
RuneScape was originally released by British developer Jagex in 2001. The distinctive world map style I was seeking to emulate first appeared in 2004, and is still used in the game's Old School fork:
|Excerpt from official RuneScape world map|
Skyrim, the fifth title in The Elder Scrolls series, was released by American developer Bethesda Game Studios in 2011. Each game in the series is set in a different region of the fantasy continent of Tamriel; the fifth game is set in the cold northern province of Skyrim, heavily influenced by Norse mythology.
|Skyrim's official world map|
The two games have a lot in common. Both games are set in fantasy worlds with wizards, elves and dragons. The player takes the role of an adventurer who goes on quests, defeats monsters and hones their skills at combat and crafting. Both titles had an impact which lasted long after their original release: they are still played, they are still talked about and they continue to spawn memes.
Why choose Skyrim and RuneScape for a cartographical crossover? Skyrim is one of the best-selling role-playing games of all time, making the eponymous province one of the most famous video game worlds ever crafted. RuneScape's retro, pixellated map evokes a lot of nostalgia for those (like me) who spent a lot of their childhoods using it. The wealth of resources available for map-making fans means the style is not too tricky to replicate (despite my limited artistic skill).
Almost all video games distort scale. A city might have thousands of inhabitants according to the story, but creating all of them would be a significant waste of resources if only a dozen are relevant to the player.
The challenge with translating Skyrim to RuneScape's style is that the two games treat scale very differently. Skyrim, from a story perspective, is meant to be the size of a real-world country, but in-game the world is about 37 square kilometres in size. The world of RuneScape spans several kingdoms (also meant to be country-sized), but is compressed in-game to an area less than five square kilometres.
|Skyrim, where "major city" means twenty buildings|
The two games also differ in what they emphasise. In RuneScape, cities and towns are inflated relative to their surroundings. In the oldest areas, they take up about a third of the map. Skyrim, by contrast, has much larger areas of open wilderness. I think this is in part because RuneScape is a multiplayer game with an emphasis on player interaction, while Skyrim is single-player; another reason could be RuneScape's slightly greater emphasis on non-combat skills (which exist in Skyrim but play a smaller role).
All of this means that drawing Skyrim in RuneScape's style would not simply be a case of tracing over one map with the colour palette of the other. Although the map might look like Skyrim, it would not feel at all like RuneScape.
Instead, my plan was to enlarge cities and shrink the surrounding wilderness, just like RuneScape does. The first thing I did was try to figure out how I could do this while still representing Skyrim as closely as possible.
|My original plan for the map|
The resulting scale is a compromise: roughly 15% of the map is covered by towns and cities, less than RuneScape but much more than Skyrim. It did mean that occasionally a location from Skyrim had to be cut for space, but I always tried to prioritise keeping the most iconic places. Sorry, Narzulbur.
Aligning Skyrim to a grid helped to make the map seem more RuneScape-like in another, more subtle way. RuneScape's map is made out of "chunks" about 200 by 200 pixels in size; each chunk is loaded separately in-game and often has a unique background music track. Towns and terrain features are typically designed to line up with these chunks, which can make continents look quite "square". Planning Skyrim's map in terms of these chunks gives the world a similar rectangular feel, even if it's something people might only notice subconsciously.
|"Chunk" grid overlaid on Skyrim map|
Terrain in a RuneScape-style map has two ingredients. The base layer, representing grass, dirt, sand or snow, blends between different colours, while mountains and bodies of water are shown as solid colours with sharp boundaries.
Again, the process of making the map reveals a difference in emphasis between Skyrim and RuneScape. In particular, Skyrim loves mountains, using them not only as sites for adventure but also to create natural barriers between different regions. Unlike RuneScape's world surrounded by ocean, Skyrim is bordered on three sides by mountain ranges.
The southwest corner of the map posed a conundrum: in Skyrim, this area is blocked off to the player and a lot of it is left blank.
|Excerpt from the UESP Skyrim map, showing the featureless southwest corner|
I considered covering the area in shadow or sticking the map key there, but in the end I opted to fill in the terrain as minimally as possible, so that the area wouldn't be distractingly busy or distractingly empty.
If a map style is a language, the icons speak most clearly. Sure, the text labels might tell you what a place is called, but the icons tell you why they matter.
RuneScape uses map icons extensively, identifying resources (e.g. fish or ore), facilities (e.g. a furnace or an anvil), non-player characters offering services (e.g. a shop or transportation) or starting points for an adventure (e.g. a quest or a dungeon).
|Examples of map icons in RuneScape: general store, flour mill, quest, dungeon|
In many cases, such as those pictured above, the icons used in RuneScape fit very naturally in Skyrim. In other cases the games don't match as neatly. In particular, one of the most important services for players in RuneScape is the bank, where players can store their gold and items. These don't exist in Skyrim, so RuneScape's iconic dollar-sign bank icon is nowhere to be seen.
Conversely, many of Skyrim's features lack an exact analogue among RuneScape's icons but are still the kind of thing you would want to indicate on a map. Most importantly, dragons play a key role in Skyrim's story and their lairs are landmarks in their own right. A new icon marking the presence of a dragon, based on the icon used in Skyrim, seemed like an obvious inclusion.
|Skyrim's icon for dragon lairs, and my RuneScape-style interpretation|
"You're finally awake ..."
Whether it's words or worlds, no translation can ever be exact. I am conscious that some of the decisions which went into this map might be controversial, especially when figuring out how heavily to draw from RuneScape and how heavily to draw from Skyrim. Nevertheless, I hope that the map manages to capture the setting of one world, the character of another, and the nostalgia of both.