Posted by Rampant Coyote on February 5, 2014
I’m trying to come up with some kind of “unified field theory” about exploration in games (particularly, but not exclusively, for RPGs). Some games are really good at it – from the early days of Elite and Frontier, to the sandbox play of the Grand Theft Auto series, to Bethesda’s exploration-centric role-playing games.
particularly as it can be applied to randomized worlds. My basic premise is this:
1. Diablo had little exploration component. Or at least, what it had was so boring as to not be worth calling it that.
2. Minecraft does.
If you accept that, you can start looking at the differences between the worlds, which are both dynamically generated. What makes one far more interesting to “explore” than others? What makes other games, without dynamically generated terrain, interesting to explore?
I just think of some of my more fond moments exploring in other games.
1. Interactivity. If the world is largely “look but don’t touch,” I lose interest in a hurry. There needs to be more to exploration than just finding a path. Naturally, in Minecraft, almost everything can be interacted with – you gather it up, move it, reshape it, make stuff out of it. This is a reason I really didn’t warm up to Dear Esther like I thought I would. It felt more like looking at somebody else’s photographs. (That, and… there wasn’t much deviation allowed from the path. See point 4.)
2. Novelty / Discovery. Being able to discover stuff you’ve never quite seen before. This is tough in dynamic worlds, because eventually you’ve enough permutations that it fails to thrill. But finding new objects, or new configurations of old objects that could be interesting to interact with, keep things exciting. But this is a key bit – it’s all about discovery. It can’t be just more of the same, with doors on different wall.
This is a point where dynamic content either really needs to be supplemented with handcrafted awesomeness for special occasions, or (as in the case of Minecraft) the world generator really needs to be up to the task of creating some really nifty combinations of elements to make something cool.
One of my favorite moments of exploration in a game was flying up the Grand Canyon in Falcon 3.0 and discovering a giant water faucet was the source of the river.
3. Reward or Purpose. There should be some benefit to exploration, even if it’s largely self-directed. In Minecraft, it’s fairly intrinsic. The world is your reward – you are master of all you survey, and it’s all ripe for your exploitation – or simply exploration. In Diablo-likes, unexplored territory is more likely to contain something of value, or a key object / enemy that you are seeking. Is that too fine of a point? Maybe.
Many people think exploration should be it’s own reward – a fully intrinsic benefit to the player. For me, it’s like the motivation of a character in a story. It may not be key, or all that important, but without a strong motivation the whole thing falls flat. I’m a little bit goal-directed as a player most times, so I want to know that at least sometimes I’ll be able to tell myself that I’ve benefited from time spent off the rails. Note that knowledge can be power – the purpose or reward doesn’t have to be an actual in-game “item” or experience point bump or anything like that, but simply an improved understanding of the game or the world, or discovery (there’s that word again!) of secrets.
4. Optionality. Is that even a word? In a nutshell – if you are forced to travel along this path in order to succeed in the game, it’s not exploration. It’s simply plowing through the world. The fun for me lies with knowing I’m going off the beaten path and exploring places that not every player will see.
5. Safety. I don’t mean in-game safety – it’s always more fun if there’s the possibility of danger lurking behind every corner. I mean meta-game safety – that as a player, you don’t have to worry about “breaking the game” if you wander off and start doing your own thing. This isn’t a problem in most modern games, but especially with indies, it’s still something to occasionally be worried about. This is one reason I’m not a big proponent of eliminating manual saves from a game – they allow the player a safety net and some freedom to go nuts and explore.
As a final note, exploration doesn’t necessarily have to be of physical space and terrain. It could be any kind of experimentation. It could be about testing any kind of limits in the game rules or the game world. It could be about discovering what kind of amusing responses to weird commands might be built into an adventure game. It could be about trying to find the fastest possible path from point A to point B in a speed run. In my view, whenever a game encourages a player to ask a question that starts with the words, “What happens if I…?”, then the game is doing it right.
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