It was uncharted territory.
I’d just finished setting my mom up in her new assisted living facility on East 108th Street and Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Needing some air, I walked over to Central Park, a place where I’d spent thousands of hours in my younger years. A lot of those visits were decades ago when my dad lived on the Upper West Side, across the park. But now I was in Central Park’s northeastern end, a place for which I had no internal map. So I followed the path in at 107th Street. On my right was a beautiful lake where hundreds of folks sat on benches taking in the midday sun. To my left, I could see the neat lines of a grand, formal garden. Then the path took me over a rise and, almost before I could register the change, I found myself alone in the profound hush of deep woods, in the middle of the biggest city in the United States
Frederick Law Olmsted had done it to me again.
As had happened many times in my past, the great designer of Central Park had ushered me from one landscape to another, from one world to another, in just a few paces. But this time, even though I hadn’t been in the park for awhile — I now live in Rochester, way upstate — I felt a new kind of familiarity in the experience. Just a few days earlier, I’d felt the same effortless transition of landscapes when I’d been running with an outlaw gang at the closing of the American frontier in 1899. And a month before that, during a dangerous trek across a post-apocalyptic Earth, I’d been amazed at a similar smooth shift from desert to woodlands over just a handful of steps.
Standing there, in Central Park’s Ravine — a faux Adirondack forest — I realized Olmsted hadn’t just designed the world’s greatest park. He’d also created an archetype for one of the most popular and prolific expressions of culture in our own time: the open-world video game.
Open-world games give players a virtual landscape that’s fully explorable. The game’s map defines the borders of that world, and, within them, the player can wander anywhere, free to follow their own inclinations. Open-world games stand in stark contrast to games built “on rails” where the player is forced to navigate a restricted map that moves them along predetermined paths. The development of modern, rich, detailed open-world games required powerful advances in both digital and storytelling technologies, but the results have been highly popular and highly profitable. Recent titles like Red Dead Redemption 2 or Horizon Zero Dawn (the western and post-apocalyptic games I’d recently played) net their studios billions of dollars. By providing players with environments so densely populated with characters, places, and story, they were the kind of video games people really mean when they talk about “virtual worlds.”
But true open worlds need more than just a fully explorable map. Being stuck on a virtual desert island can quickly become as boring as being stuck on a real desert island. The genius of a great open-world map demands more than just the computing power to render every leaf, rock, and log across 100 square miles. If players come to games to experience stories in ways that weren’t possible with previous technologies, then the map must be fully in the service of those experiences. It must guide the player through an astonishing world, connecting story elements and experiences without the player ever recognizing that guidance.
Standing there, in Central Park’s Ravine, I realized Olmsted created an archetype for one of the most popular and prolific expressions of culture in our own time: the open-world video game.
That means great maps aren’t made — they’re carefully and artfully designed, just like the perfect park.
Maps, experiences, art, and design weighed heavily on Frederick Law Olmsted’s mind when he was given the chance to lay out Central Park in the 1850s. New York City was rapidly expanding northward up Manhattan Island. City leaders recognized that if something wasn’t done quickly, the dense parallel lines of streets and buildings would choke the island end to end. When a design competition was announced, Olmsted and his associate Calvert Vaux set to work. Their goal was not just to win the competition but to redefine the very meaning and purpose of public parks.
Remarkably, Olmsted had no training as an architect or formal garden planner. He’d spent the earlier part of his life as an inveterate traveler, taking work as a sailor and journalist across Europe and as far away as China. But everywhere he traveled, he paid close attention to the emotional response that landscapes evoked in him. In designing the map for Central Park, Olmsted drew on those experiences, establishing a set of design principles that became the foundation for public spaces like San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park and Boston’s Emerald Necklace.
Orchestration of movement and orchestration of use are two key Olmsted principles that make the experience of Central Park so surprising and delightful. The first principle means the park’s design should “subtly direct movement through the landscape. There should be separation of ways… to avoid collision or the apprehension of collision, between different kinds of traffic.” The second principle dictates that “the composition should artfully insert a variety of uses into logical precincts, ensuring the best possible site for each use and preventing competition between uses.”
Olmsted’s principles can be found in play when you wander the broad path near the Lake (above 72nd Street) and then unexpectedly find yourself in the deep woods of the Ramble. Following these winding trails, the view suddenly opens to give you a spectacular perspective on the city skyline across open grassy fields or low-lying wetlands. Most importantly, however, these distinct and very different landscape experiences are densely packed together, yet still feel separate and complete. And while they appear entirely natural, they are in fact as much a work of artifice and art as a skyscraper like the Empire State Building.
In creating Central Park, Olmsted moved more than 18,000 cubic yards of topsoil. Lakes were excavated and forest stands planted. All this effort came because Olmsted wasn’t just designing a park. Instead, he was designing experiences of wilderness that he believed were essential to calming the souls of city-dwellers and fostering their democratic inclinations. These aims were expressed in another key design principle — unified composition — where “elements of the landscape design should be made subordinate to an overarching… purpose.”
The seamless integration of such disparate landscapes and experiences are the hallmark of all the parks Olmsted (and the firm later helmed by his sons) designed. What I realized that afternoon in Central Park was that it’s also the hallmark of the greatest maps of the greatest open-world games.
In Red Dead Redemption 2, the northwestern edge of the map is bounded by high snowy mountains (near the abandoned mining town of Colter), while its southern edge is marked by humid bayous (and the dangerously corrupt city of St. Denis, a stand-in for New Orleans). In between there are rangelands and dense forests. It’s a continent-spanning range of ecosystems that I can cross in about 15 minutes of real-life time on horseback.
Just as in Central Park, the designers of Red Dead Redemption 2 created a series of tightly packed, entirely distinct micro-environments that flow smoothly into each other. Through the careful placement of paths and obstacles (the orchestration of movement), the player experiences the landscape transitions as entirely natural. I once spent a couple of hours in the game just traveling back and forth between what seemed like endless swamps and vast, dry scrublands. The trip between them took what seemed like just hundreds of steps but was so perfectly executed that I could never find anything like a crossover.
What I realized that afternoon in Central Park was that it’s also the hallmark of the greatest maps of the greatest open-world games.
Horizon Zero Dawn’s map flows just as adroitly. In the northeast, I can find the frigid ruins of a high-tech complex at Grave-Hoard (a frightening place), while empty badlands and certain death wait in Sunfall in the West. But just as in Red Dead Redemption 2, each of these ecosystems is more than just eye candy. Each must play a particular role in the story the game’s writers want to tell. Deserts may be a setting for a particular kind of trial the player must endure. The frozen ruins may be where the player discovers a shocking yet essential element in their character’s backstory. Taken together, it’s Olmsted’s “orchestration of use” in digital form as different map elements must effortlessly coexist while serving very different, experiential purposes.
More than a century separates Olmsted’s map of Central Park and the virtual territories of Red Dead Redemption, Horizon Zero Dawn, The Witcher, and The Legend of Zelda, to name just a few great open-world games. And while some game designers might actually incorporate Olmsted’s principles, such direct use is not necessary to see the most important aspect of their connection. Olmsted never wanted to be thought of as a “gardener,” even in the grandest sense. He was also never happy with term landscape architect. Instead, he saw himself as an artist, and his parks were art made of soil, trees, boulders, and streams.
And that is where he and the designers of great open worlds meet. Through the thoughtful consideration of landscape and experience, the maps of a great game bring artifice to bear to make something artful. They are places of wonder where stories can unfold on their own.
Just like a good day in Central Park.