An Ode to Exploration


#1

There’s a common theme emerging in many of the discussions here surrounding the kinds of experiences we seek when we play games. It’s had me considering not just the types of games I gravitate towards, but the way in which I play them. While gameplay is important, and a good story can hook me, I’ve forever been drawn to games that create beautiful, massive worlds, and simply allow me to explore.

The first time I played World of Warcraft, my first-ever MMO, I was blown away by the scale of the world. The more I traversed its vast and diverse landscapes, the less interested I became in collecting boar skins and running instances, and the more I simply wanted to venture out into the wilderness, uncovering all the wonderful secrets that lay off the beaten path. Hardly past level 10, I was determined to set out on foot from Ironforge and journey to the far-off Night Elf capital of Darnassus. In my mind, I wasn’t the hero who would singlehandedly save Azeroth from the threat of Onyxia and the Burning Legion. I was merely a traveller making his way in the world, meeting people from other cultures and encountering exotic new lands. The journey was perilous and not without injury, but after braving the boggy Wetlands and the celestial creatures of Aubderdine, arriving in the foreign capital was an awe-inspiring experience. From there, I only pushed further, navigating rocky ridges and plunging into the ocean deep just to see how far out from shore I could swim.

I’ve spent countless hours leaping between rooftops and navigating primitive sewers in the great cities of the Assassin’s Creed games. I’ll crawl through every air duct and investigate every abandoned home in the Deus Ex franchise. No peak remained unclimbed, no ruin left untouched in Horizon Zero Dawn. In a sense, I do this because it appeals to my inner completionist, wanting to experience everything a game has to offer, especially when creators have put so much effort into making a living, breathing world of beauty (or decay). But more so, it appeals to my desire to truly become a part of the worlds of these games through my characters. It’s such an enriching experience to feel as though your character really occupies their environment and has a real stake in its continued existence. And it’s all the more rewarding to uncover something truly surprising or beautiful hidden away in a game world’s far reaches when you’ve developed a sense of investment in it.

What appeals to you about the art of exploration in video games? In what games have you chosen to put the plot on pause to delve deep into their wider worlds? What have you found — and how did it make you feel?


#2

Exploration is THE thing I love about games. I’m not really a completionist so for me it’s just about the anticipation of what could be out there. That moment before starting a massive sprawling game is so full of possibility. Zelda BotW nails this soooo fucking hard. The decision not to have map icons is so smart as it means you actually have to look and read the environment instead of blindly following an on-screen marker.

The flipside would be something like Just Cause where exploration is meaningless because there’s really nothing to discover despite its enormous size. It’s just a lot of empty space between things to blow up.

On a smaller scale games like Fez and Hyper Light Drifter hit this same feeling of discovery with these gorgeous handcrafted worlds, riven with secrets and subtle environmental story telling - so it’s not about scale, but perhaps intricacy and the sense that care and thought has gone in to every little space.


#3

i think i found it playing driver. would have been about 10 or 11.
you could just drive around the place if you wanted - and there was, to be clear, absolutely nothing whatsoever to actually do. just driving about. and i was completely enraptured by it, looking at stuff and going everywhere and just existing in those places.

if i could recommend something new(er) to anyone who loves exploring, please play eidolon. it made me feel like that again. and if anything i wish there was even less game to it.


#4

I have always enjoyed exploring in games a great deal. It always bums me out when there’s not something to find after poking around a place for a bit of time. I haven’t played BotW yet, but that’s part of what excites and also scares me about that game. It sounds like exploration is so well rewarded and I know that game is going to eat me alive.

I suppose part of the reward for exploration for me goes hand-in-hand with my desire to build a story in my mind in a lot of games. In something like Mass Effect or Elder Scrolls or Fallout, I tend to have a narrative that I’m building for my character outside the confines of the game’s story. What curiosities does my character have? Well, that’s what I’m looking to find in this space. In this way, I often feel like just finding a bunch of books or a neat weapon or a weird cult that otherwise might not feel like much is actually rather awesome.

I don’t do this in every game. As @DHIATENSOR said in his post, Hyper Light Drifter is a game that does a lot with exploration, but is very much driven by its own story. But taking the time to poke around in this world has its own sorts of rewards, from weird items to strange images. NitW was another game that I found driven to explore as much as possible. Simply for the weird little stories taking place all over in that small town.


#5

Me and my friend used the spend hours getting blazed and driving round Chicago and (I think) Havana in Driver 2 on ps1. It was only ever in free drive mode as the game itself he was crushingly hard and dull, but just moseying around, smashing in to cops then having to escape was so much fun.


#6

I completely share the OP’s experience with WoW. The only reason I bothered levelling and raiding in that game was so that I could see every part of the world.

The first MMO that I played was Everquest around 2000. I didn’t get very far, only levelling to around 20, as I just didn’t have the time or patience for it. It wasn’t until WoW made MMOs more accessible that I could really get into one.

By far the most enjoyment that I had while playing Everquest was the result of exploration. I had created a High Elf, but my friend was playing a Halfling. My friend had been playing the game for a long time when I started, and I wanted to meet up with him so that he could help me progress. Only problem was that the High Elves started on the far side of the eastern continent and the Halflings started in the middle of the centre continent. So when I reached level 5 I decided I would walk across a continent, an ocean, and another half continent to meet up with him.

All that I had was the cloth map that came with the game to show me the general direction to go in, as well as the help of other players. I remember getting lost multiple times, seeing monsters that were way too high level for me, waiting on the dock for the ship that would take me across the ocean, almost getting off at the islands in the middle of the ocean, and finally finding my way to the Halfling city. It took me a few hours and was a bewildering and exciting experience.

In the end, my friend was too high level to bother playing with me and after a couple of months of grinding experience in the desert south of Freeport I got bored and uninstalled. But the exploration elements stuck with me.


#7

I’m not sure I’d even consciously considered it, but you’ve just nailed just what it is that didn’t grab me about Just Cause. It’s fun enough to drive around and blow things up for a while, but for such a sprawling, gorgeous island, there’s just not much there. Discovering virtual natural beauty in games is a part of what drives me to explore, but after a while, Just Cause just started to feel very samey.

Like I’d mentioned in my OP, this is key to what pulled me in with HZD. There are so many nooks and crannies that urge me to explore them (even if the physical mechanics of scaling the landscape is occasionally clumsy) — often times, there’s something tangible to discover at the end of traversing a mountain range, and even when there’s not, you’re still rewarded with a breathtaking view.


#8

Breath of the Wild has been scratching my exploration itch beautifully lately. I can’t remember getting this lost in a fictional world since FEZ.


#9

Weirdly enough, a buddy and I explored pretty much every nook and cranny of Dying Light’s Harran before we even did any story missions. We slowly crept up the huge suspension bridge hours before it was even a notion that we’d have to do that to progress in the game (so many deaths and falls), looked through every house we could get into and looted like fiends. And when we actually decided to give the story missions a try, we often found we had an advantage because we already knew what the areas looked like.


#10

In the realm of broad game concepts that are important to me, exploration is right up there with mobility. Breath of the Wild may have recently dethroned it, but I’ve always used FEZ as my go to example of a game centered around exploration. It borrows many of the same ideas used by foundational games about exploring (Zelda, Metroid), and puts them pretty center stage as the driving force behind the game. FEZ could be described as a puzzle-platformer, but the platforming is simply a way for the player to move through the world, and the puzzles are simply a way of punctuating and rewarding exploration.


#11

This is another important element, and one I’m encountering a lot of right now as I play Mankind Divided. Many times, my exploration will take me to a place that seems to be removed from the main plot, an empty space with some environmental storytelling aspects, both otherwise bereft of life. Then later, I’ll realize it’s a location for a key main story mission. Sometimes, that can diminish the excitement of discovery, having seen an area “before it’s ready” but I don’t know that’s necessarily my fault as a player, or always necessarily a bad thing. At its worst, it can undermine the verisimilitude of a world when absolutely every location exists in the world to serve as a setting for some mission or quest, leaving no space to exist on its own as just a lonely place. But at the same time, I can still appreciate the efforts of designers to ensure that every explorable area will eventually yield some reward to player curiosity. It’s a precarious balance.


#12

I think Avalanche focus so much on scale in the Just Cause games that inevitably the terrain is all computer generated and that means that it can look quite naturalistic at times but lacks any personality when you focus on any one place. The hand of an actual designer is spread incredibly thinly. It kinda works for them as generally you’re zooming over the ground at high speed and scale is their strength, but it’s a trade off.

I was a bit torn with HZD’s world. I think it might be the most consistently graphically impressive console game I’ve ever played. It manages near Uncharted 4’s level but in an open word and performance is silky smooth. It’s a remarkable achievement. But the world itself I found oddly constrained at times. Like they were still designing spaces on the scale of a linear game, which I guess was intentional. I’m not even saying I disapprove, just that I couldn’t quite nail down what their open world philosophy was. I think it suffered a bit unfairly for me having played it right after Zelda, with its radical scale and openness.


#13

Finding the potential for exploration in Super Metroid is probably the reason that I still care about games so much today.

Every room felt like somewhere I wasn’t supposed to be; sounds my human ears weren’t supposed to hear, creatures I should not be interacting with. I was cautious towards them; I didn’t even kill a lot of the ones that just crawl around the first time I played, I worked around them as much as I could. Once I had the whole map open, I would go back and visit previous areas, considering them not as “levels”, but as places.

Super Metroid has nowhere near the world scale and exploration possibilities of the other games mentioned here, but consider its impact on a kid who had previously only known that you run to the right; that’s what you do.


#14

Does anyone have an opinion on how No Man’s Sky is on the exploration front? I’m currently on the lookout for a game that lets you be alone (or mostly alone) in space, just wandering about.


#15

It’s funny you mention No Man’s Sky because I had just come back to talk about it. I don’t know that the game really deserves or needs more criticism at this point, but prefacing aside, I found that NMS is sadly antithetical to the sense of exploration and discovery we’re talking about here.

Sure, it was fun to cruise around an infinite galaxy, finding planet after planet, each uniquely formed, containing different landscapes and scenery. But each subsequent jump brought with it diminishing returns as I eventually became acutely aware of the pitfalls of procedural generation. Sure, there were a ton of planets to explore and space battles to warp into, but after a while, they’re all just the same. They never actually feel “lived in” and they’re completely lacking in environmental storytelling.

I often contrast NMS with my experiences playing Subnautica, which, in a sense, is a smaller but more fleshed out take on NMS under the sea. The game is still in Early Access, but every incarnation keeps expanding an already massive world, offering more that you can literally dive into, and revealing little hints and relics of the world’s previous inhabitants, creating a sense of mystery and wonder as you try to figure out what came before you. Even if it’s through emergent gameplay, that’s critical to connecting with a game’s world. Worlds that are wholly procedurally generated without any sense of previous inhabitants or invitation to interaction can often feel hollow.

I think a key part of what makes for a powerful exploration experience is being able to connect with an environment when you can connect to it not just as a space, but as a place. Sometimes that’s achieved through environmental storytelling, finding traces of the place’s previous inhabitants and piecing together what happened here, or simply, who they were. Another way is through what @2Mello describes: the tension created through a sense of trespass, entering a place you’re not invited into, witnessing things that are intended to be private, but still full of beauty in their own secret ways.


#16

Thanks! Sounds like I need to look into Subnautica then.


#17

I think they’re getting pretty close to a 1.0 release too, so now’s a good time to get onboard.


#18

Subnautica is fantastic.


#19

I generally love exploring in video games, but the reason why tends to depend on the game. Either I’m exploring everywhere because I just want to find as much as I can, or I’m doing it because the simple act of exploring itself is very fun in the game.

Because I replayed it recently and was able to jog my memory of it a bit, Undertale is a good example of the former category. There isn’t anything inherently fun to me about the walking around and pressing a button to interact with objects or open the menu to use the phone, but I wanted to see as much as I possibly could because the writing in that game is so delightful. For the other type of game making me want to explore, Metroid games and Hyper Light Drifter were games I spent lots of time exploring in because the moving around in those spaces just felt really good and fun and rewarding.


#20

They really did exploration well in that game. I think I spent like 5 hours just screwing around in Prague before even going to the subway station.