So I'm about 80 hours into The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind after having played Arena and Daggerfall prior. I wanted to experience the series in the order it was released having never played it before, and found something interesting regarding level design. Quest markers, to be exact.
So Arena and Daggerfall are interesting beasts. For it's time, these two titles were revolutionary in the way they created worlds for players to role play. Daggerfall is approximately 161,600 square kilometers (about the size of Great Britain), and it makes you wonder; who has time to see all this?
Where is the balance between a game that is dense and linear and a game that is large and shallow? During my time on the northwest corner of Tamriel in Daggerfall I found that the game lacked any depth whatsoever. There were so many towns and cities, all of which you could travel to in real-time through forest, desert, and mountain. However, every town looked identical. It was the same for dungeons; every single one was proceduraly generated. It seems the developers traded depth to rely on the player's imagination to build the game. What does that mean? It means that you aren't expected to see everything, but rather acknowledge it's existence and craft your own adventure around the few places your journey takes you. Sure it's all the same, but those who play these types of games care about lore, names, stories etc. Town A is the same as Town B, but if you ran around slaying townspeople in Town A and narrowly escaped the guards, you would forever remember the name, layout, and location of that place. The player gives it significance, not the game. While Daggerfall wasn't really my cup of tea, I appreciate it for what it was and what it tried to accomplish. For many Elder Scrolls fans this is regarded as the best in the series, and I believe that is why. It allows them to make the game whatever they want.
So now I'm playing Morrowind, and the design has shifted to a hand-crafted world over a procedural one. The people and places are all original, memorable, and exciting to find. I think this was the right choice. Now I can Identify places on sight without ever looking at my map. I can craft a sense of direction and location by simply exploring the world. So this brings me to my main point: quest markers. Morrowind has none, but instead provides you with written directions in your journal that tell you where to go. I haven't seen a game do this in... well, ever- at least not to this extent. I find it rewarding, as the world is so finely crafted in it's design that if you can't find a location, it's probably your fault. Finding the location is a reward itself- not a chore. After all, The Elder Scrolls is about exploration and adventure. After you've found it, you will likely remember where it is too; you had to be aware of your surrounding to get there.
I think quest markers are a step down in gaming. It strips players of the luxury of being able think and explore for themselves. It also hurts environment artists, level designers and probably more who put so much time into crafting a world to have the player speed past all the intricate details. Of course context is important as well. If It's the year 2035 I'd probably have a GPS with me that will mark exactly where to go. I think the golden rule to a truly immersive open world environment is making one that a player can navigate without a map and without quest markers.