Video games are inevitably about numbers. Shooters, no matter how pretty they look, all come down to bullet trajectories and damage values. Point-and-click adventures are based on binary puzzles: the rubber-chicken-pulley puzzle can only be solved by the rubber-chicken-pulley. Even a game of narrative choice like The Walking Dead is played with the understanding that, although you feel like you are making emotional gut decisions, you are selecting one of several pre-determined options.
This past generation, though, has granted an increased abstraction from these numbers. DocSeuss and Generic-User-Name have pointed out the treasure maps of Red Dead Redemption as a particular high point. They tout it as being significantly less “hand-holdy” than most modern games, which is only somewhat accurate. It is still a map, still a tool made to direct the player to a certain spot where they will be rewarded.
The reason that this map feels so much more satisfying than a blip on a mini-map is because it requires qualitative, not quantitative, judgement. Where most game design is dependent on something programmed (reducing enemy health to zero, triggering a cutscene following the one path to the one exit), these maps are A) untimed, unrestricted, and often, unattached to even a quest log and B) dependent almost entirely on art.
If the creator of that map failed to represent the appropriate landmarks effectively, the treasure could not be found. If the environment artist failed to make these landmarks sufficiently unique, the treasure could not be found. If the player were restricted by a time limit or search radius, the quest could be failed or simply too guided to be meaningful.
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag revisits the treasure map, a necessary part of pirate lore. Here, however, the maps don’t have quite the sense of achievement that RDR’s have. Black Flag’s maps provide players with coordinates, inherently dulling the sense of exploration. It is certainly good to narrow the player’s focus when there is such a wide open sea to explore, but RDR solved that problem with town/rock/river names scrawled on the map. The coordinates in Black Flag are not even written on the map. They appear in the same corner of each map, printed in the standard menu font. Edward Kenway didn’t have coordinates to help him, so why should I?
The outcome of finding a treasure chest is, of course, numerical. A big drop of money awaits treasure hunters in New Austin and the Caribbean. Gone Home features rewards that are just as qualitative as the exploration guiding them. The actual maps in the Portland house serve about the same purpose as point-and-click adventure solutions, but the paper scraps of backstory that litter the house are often found through pure, unguided exploration. Any one of them can be missed, and even if you do find them, there is no guarantee that the handwriting on them will be legible. Once again, if the art fails, player comprehension fails.
On these scraps, the player does not find a new item or even a clue leading them closer to the attic. All they receive is a better understanding of the characters who fill the house with their past. These superfluous scribblings are what make an environment into a world, little things that hide the numbers underneath.