Carto: Maps and Reality

In Borges’ one-paragraph story ‘The Exactitude of Science’, a nation develops increasingly complex and detailed maps, eventually mapping their entire empire on a perfect one-to-one scale. This final map records every detail perfectly, but it’s also – you know, one-to-one scale – so it’s a map of the empire that’s the size of the empire. It’s a useless reproduction of the real thing, draped over the land and in some sense obscuring it. The story is a comment on science and knowledge, on the purpose of understanding and modeling, and it points out the function of mapping as a sort of shorthand. Maps are an exercise in interpretation, in making sense of the world around us. They select and display elements of the world in response to specific needs. If you want to go to work, you want a map of the roads, or a map of the train routes. If you want to go hiking, you want a map that shows you the trails. In each instance, the map is a deliberate selection of information culled from the world around us to achieve a specific need.

And that’s sort of what you expect with maps, right. That’s how they’re supposed to work. Enter Carto. Carto is a 2020 puzzle game, published under the Humble Bundle publishing imprint. It features a family of magic cartographers, who can rearrange the terrain around them by shifting tiles round on a map, a little like a sliding puzzle. We might say that the world in Carto is yoked to the map: if you move a tile on the map, it moves in the world as well. The map controls or governs the shape of the world. It is the method by which the player makes sense of the world, so much so that the world actually changes in response to how it’s laid out on the map. That is, the map in Carto is not (like most maps) an interpretation of an otherwise objective reality. Rather, the map comes first. The map is the source of truth, and the land only exists as something interpreted, as something subjective, according to how it’s laid out and organized on the map.

Let me back up and try and give an example. In Hollow Knight, whenever you discover a new area, you can move around and explore it, but you have to find the mapmaker to receive an actual map. You won’t get an organised representation of the space until you find him. The level still exists, and you can move around it fine – you just won’t have a map showing where you are or how everything’s laid out. In that example, the map is an interpretation of the world, but the world continues to exist whether it’s represented or not. That’s how maps normally work, and it’s how reality normally works too. In Carto, that’s not the case. If the world is not on your map, it doesn’t exist. The world only exists as it’s interpreted. We have no contact with the world outside of that representation. The representation comes first, and you can only engage with the world after it’s been filtered through that subjective point of view.

During one early level, for instance, you’re looking for a bunch of sheep. This kid tells you that one of the sheep, Penelope, tends to hide in a spot surrounded by snowy flowers on all sides. If you set up your map in such a way that tiles with snowy flowers surround one empty central spot, a new tile will burst into existence in that gap – and that’s where Penelope will be. Where other games would have you go and hunt down these landmarks in a stable external reality, Carto has you simply rearrange signs of flowers on your map so that the landmarks are arranged as described. And then, because the area exists on your map, it becomes accessible in the world as well. Reality is determined by how it’s represented. It’s pretty meta for what otherwise amounts to a puzzle game stylized in the manner of a kids’ picture book – I mean, at one point you find a book telling the story of your adventure, right up to the bit where your reading is interrupted by a new character entering the room. I mention Paul Auster’s City of Glass one time and-

Anyway, it’s not really a new idea to say that our access to reality is mediated by our subjective frames of view. Even just in video games, we’ve seen that idea explored in everything from Dark Souls to Spec Ops: The Line. Even Call of Duty: Black Ops has hallucination as a core plot device – at that point, it’s not new or remarkable. I guess what’s different here is that we’re not just dealing with simple aspects of subjectivity, like the very obvious hallucination or misinterpretation of your actions – in both of those, really what we have is a basically objective world with subjective elements almost superimposed over them. That is, the subjective elements (the hallucination and the misconception) can be identified and essentially quarantined off. Everything you see in Black Ops is real, except for your hallucination. Everything you see in Dark Souls really happens, except you’re not the hero you think you are. In Carto, however, your key interaction is with the map – with your interpretation of reality. You navigate around the world by configuring and reconfiguring your representative form, by moving symbols on a map. It’s what Guardini would call a step away from reality and towards its abstraction, towards ‘technology’, so-called, and away from ‘nature’. It feels like something of a paradigm for video games, or maybe rather for media in the modern day. Our world is constructed, represented – simulated. We engage with the world not directly but by manipulating symbols on our maps. And it’s not a bad thing, necessarily, it’s not horrific or terrifying. Carto is a game very much at home with itself. It’s cute and friendly, and happy to be here. It’s not in a rush, and it’s not concerned. That’s just where we are now, it says. We can make it into a home.

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