Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Exploration in Video Games

            This is a topic that has been on my mind a fair bit lately, and I had previously mentioned I might go into while discussing 3D platformers. Video games have a lot of potential as a completely unique medium to do things that books, television and movies never could. Of course I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with games doing the same things that other mediums do, like using text or cinematics. But as an interactive form of media games have access to some unique things that only they can do, and among those is the ability to explore.

Even if Deus Ex: Human Revolution was a movie, you still could see this cool shot of the city of Hengsha. But you couldn’t then explore the city at your own pace.

            Movies and books may be able to show all sorts of side details and interesting aspects to the world that help flesh it out or reveal new information, but they always have to be directed by the creator. There’s no way to go off the rails of a story if it’s a linear experience, but when interactivity comes in you can simply present the audience with a world and let them go nuts. Games are in a unique position to more accurately exhibit the feeling of free will and exploration more than any other, and it’s one of the reasons I love them. It’s also one of the reasons some of gaming’s more recent AAA titles haven’t enthralled me as much.

Exploring the Decline of Exploration

            This is mostly overview from my 3D platformer article, but I feel it’s worth going over again. In recent years I believe gaming has seen a fair bit of increase in the number of linear games released. A lot of games are shorter in general, but even when they’re fairly long they tend to be completely linear. Games may have collection elements, or reasons to replay stages again, but those stages themselves are still fairly unyielding affairs. Depending on the game the rails may be masked to a varying degree, but most tend to be a straight path to funnel the player from point A to point B.

When your game is more linear than a rail shooter, it’s a potential problem

            Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t have anything against a game being linear. Some of my best friends, er, that is some of my favorite games are linear. I have a great love of platformers both 2D and 3D, and have happily been playing through some of the stellar examples of the former we’ve had lately. Final Fantasy X might be my favorite game in the series, and it’s a fairly linear entry in a usually more non-linear franchise (don’t worry, I’ll definitely write more about Final Fantasy in the future). The thing is that though I love plenty of linear games I think we’ve had a bit of a drought of the other kind lately.

            There are some easily defined reasons why, but most of them all come down to the cost of making a high-profile game these days. Namely, that this cost is a lot. At the dawn of gaming a single programmer could handle absolutely every aspect of a game, and in a relatively short time span as well. In later years the size of the teams increased, and probably for the better people started specializing in things other than writing code. These days it can take over 100 people working full time jobs for years just to make a linear experience of 6 to 8 hours. When dozens of people are working for months on a section of content, you don’t want to make that segment optional (especially when people are complaining about how short games are getting). The amount of work and money went into it no doubt compels developers to put everything they make on display. This is unfortunate, because the freedom inherent in games is one of its greatest strengths.


            So let me go over in a bit more detail why I think exploration in games is an amazing thing that we need more of. To do this, I’m going to compare two games in the Legend of Zelda series. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is the most recent game in the series. It was a good game but not my favorites when compared to some of its predecessors, which take places as some of my favorite games of all time, and I think I know why. Prior to the game coming out I read multiple previews for it in which it was noted that the team was trying a shift in gameplay out. Zelda games typically have large open “overworld” segments that are separated by dungeons. The games fall into a pattern of dungeons offering most of the fighting and puzzle solving, then the overworld being a break in between where you can explore until you find the next dungeon. In those aforementioned previews it was noted that the development team of Skyward Sword wanted to make the overworld segments more like the dungeons. You can probably see where this is going.

If you answered “a super non-linear game that this writer was very happy with” you may have some trouble identifying subtext.

            When the development team said they wanted to make the overworld more like the dungeons, they meant they wanted them to be filled with action and puzzles and interesting things. But the double-edged sword to this approach is that this made them inherently more linear and less intriguing to explore. (It also made the games excessive recycling of environments less palatable, but that’s a story for another time). The open areas in the previous games weren’t some fat to be trimmed leaving only tender meat, they were a different type of equally engaging but differently paced gameplay that meshed well alternating with the more linear dungeons.

The lack of this in Skyward Sword may, oddly enough, make it debatably more linear than the Zelda game where you were on actual rails

            Take this compared to a previous game I’ve been playing through recently, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. I’ll probably do a larger review on the game before too long, because it’s quirky and though this leaves it with some problems it also has some really unique aspects to it that I’ve seen few games replicate. One of these aspects is the sheer amount of the game that’s focused on side quests. The game only features 4 main dungeons, whereas most games in the Zelda series has somewhere between 6 and 9. However, the game has what is quite possibly the most optional content of any Zelda game.

            Between the 52 heart pieces, the 24 magical masks (17 of which are completely optional to obtain), the 6 empty bottles, the 20 people with problems listed in the Bombers’ Notebook, the Skulltula Houses, upgrading your arrows, bombs, sword and other equipment, and a plethora of smaller things, this game has an absolutely ridiculous wealth of things to do that you could play through the game and never see. On one hand, this makes the main game fairly short. But on the other hand, it feels more like a complete and interesting world than most other games I know of, and exploring it is fun. The world and characters that inhabit it are given a depth by the amount of things they’re involved in, and this can immerse you in the setting more than anything else.

            It isn’t just pre-determined side quests that do this either. Creating a world with tons of side quests certainly helps make the world a fun place to explore, but the little things make a difference as well; the things that aren’t really quests so much as curiosities in the game world that you can discuss with your friends. Did you know that if you manage to stand on top of the drawbridge of Hyrule Market as it raises in Zelda: Ocarina of Time it will reward you with a red rupee? Were you aware in the same game that if you bomb a Gossip Stone it will blink off a countdown before rocketing into the sky, exploding if it hits a ceiling? Did you know that the clock stage in Super Mario 64 changes based on the time you enter it? Have you seen the secret cow level?

What, you thought I was kidding about the Gossip Stones?

I could go on forever about the various side quests, hidden areas, easter eggs and so forth from various games, but the point is that these little things all come together to make the world feel complete. Sometimes these secrets are some of the most memorable things about the game, something you’ll remember for years to come. But even if there is no crazy secret to be rewarded to players if they walk off the beaten path, even if the only reward is a part of the world you’ve never seen before, exploration in and of itself can still be rewarding. It satiates human curiosity and desire for adventure, and allows players to feel true control over their character, immersing them in the world. Of course, don’t take that statement the wrong way, just because exploration in and of itself can be rewarding and interesting doesn’t mean it always is.

Evoking Effective vs Egregious Exploration

            Exploration, like almost all things, has good and bad methods of delivery. Plenty of games have a world that’s intended to be fun to explore but has the sensation lessened for some reason. Exploration for its own sake is mildly interesting, but unless the world it takes place in is astoundingly pretty you’re probably going to want some type of reward or payoff to it. Perhaps you can simply find a really nice looking hidden area, perhaps you can find people to talk to or writings that flesh out the backstory of the world, and perhaps you could go with the easiest and often most effective staple of actual items and upgrades relevant to the rest of the gameplay. But the problem with most of these is they take a fair amount of effort to do. Modeling new areas, creating new NPCs and adding new items or optional gameplay upgrades all takes a fair amount of work, time and budget these days. So the challenge a lot of games have is making the most of a limited sized world, and some screw this up by taking the easy way out. Exploration does not equal fetch quest or collectible.

When I listed some interesting examples of exploration a while back, none of them involved grind. “Grind” is a gaming term often used to describe online games such as World Of Warcraft, and here describes a scenario where the player performs a repetitive, possibly un-engaging task in order to progress or gain optional upgrades. It’s easy to make filler gameplay, and although sometimes it might be necessary in small amounts to keep games budgets in line it’s rarely a positive and should be avoided as much as possible.

Though its gameplay is often filled with grind, I actually think WoW is a decent world to explore. The areas are diverse and colorful and they fill the game with easter eggs.

However I should mention now, collectibles in games aren’t always a bad thing, even if they have no effect on gameplay whatsoever. If those collectibles are completely optional then even if they aren’t really adding much to the game I can’t imagine them hurting it. If collectibles add something to the game other than getting a bar to 100% then they’ll almost certainly be a positive point in its favor. (Although you might disappoint some people if there’s a disproportionate amount of work needed to obtain what is revealed to be a crummy reward. Like concept art. Looks guys, I know it’s easy to add, but please, if it takes several hours or more to acquire all the unlockables in your game, please give us something more than concept art.)

Oh boy, a two dimensional drawing of something I’ve already seen in the game! One I could’ve just looked up on the internet! This certainly validates my hours of toil! (To be fair to the game in question, Sonic Generations gave you plenty of other, better unlockables as well)

So if collectibles are either inoffensive or a good thing, why am I against them? Well I’m not against optional collectibles existing really, what I’m against is them existing instead of the more interesting forms of exploration. I shall again use the example of Zelda: Skyward Sword. In Skyward Sword they experimented with a new mechanic wherein you could upgrade a large portion of your equipment by giving some materials and some cash to a blacksmith. You could find the rarer materials in chests but mostly found them dropped from slain monsters. Taken on its own, this is a fine feature that adds some depth to the game without much effort, and I’d rather have it than nothing. But the key thing to note here is that this replaced the mechanic the old Zelda games had where all your equipment could be upgraded in different ways by doing distinct things. Getting a high score at the shooting gallery earned you a larger quiver for arrows, saving the old lady who runs the bomb shop from a thief would allow you to buy a bigger bomb bag, etc. Whereas before unique, interesting and separate events in the world got you upgrades, now it all comes down to a pre-determined grind. This point transitions nicely into another about exploration: the size of the world doesn’t equal the depth of the world.

When I was kid first playing Zelda: Ocarina of Time, the location of Hyrule Field seemed huge. Given that I hadn’t played many games before it I wasn’t absolutely amazed or anything, but it seemed pretty big. In actuality, once you get the horse you can ride across it in a minute or two (walking would probably still only take three or four). The Legend of Zelda games are certainly reasonably sized, but they really aren’t enormous. Yet they feel like large, complete worlds to explore because they make what real estate they do have count, packing it with secrets and things to do. I don’t doubt that if you took the entire overworld of Ocarina of Time or Majora’s Mask and measured the amount of space it takes up, it would be something like one or two stages of Call of Duty or a similar linear shooter. The entire campaign of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 supposedly took 5 to 8 hours or so to complete, and yet these games that could contain anywhere from 20 to 50 hours of content (depending on optional things) are arguably quite smaller.

The difference is in how the world is used. In your standard Call of Duty styled shooter (as well as many other kinds of games today), you’re often tearing through the stages at high speeds. You speed by on a snowmobile, run through a building, street or boat, and generally move very quickly through areas where a lot is happening. These games make less efficient use of scenery than freakin’ 3D Sonic the Hedgehog stages, blowing past tons of events that would be the climax of a more reserved game in minutes. Despite the fact that I could run a lap around Majora’s Mask’s Termina Field in several minutes, it contained something like a dozen secret grottos and even more miscellaneous secrets, easter eggs and points of interest.

This is a map showing the optional points of interests for just 1/4th of Termina Field. You can barely walk 10 feet without passing by something notable.

Closing Statements

I understand that this type of thing probably has less of a place in a modern shooter like Call of Duty, and I’m perfectly fine with some of these cinematic style games existing. But the amount of games you can explore in a satisfying way seems to have decreased a bit lately, and it wasn’t very large to begin with. If you’re wondering why I bring up Zelda so much, apart from it being one of my favorite game series ever, it’s because it’s one of the very few game series I know of that consistently has really strong explorative elements. Such games are far and few between.

Beyond Good and Evil, Okami and Darksiders are the only games I can currently think of that I’ve heard described as Zelda-esque.

But that doesn’t mean that I need every game to focus on exploration. I’m not asking every game to cram a million optional side areas everywhere or make a huge open world to explore. I just think that, particularly recently in their rush to mimic cinema, video games, even linear ones, could benefit from some of the advantages that a little exploration brings. Just making levels a bit more open and non-linear, even if they’re still ultimately from point A to B, makes your actions feel more your own and the world feel more complete. I don’t care if the games are a bit uglier, or glitchier, or don’t always flow exactly right. If it means I get some personal freedom and chance for exploration, I think it’s worth it.

There is no other medium where one can personally explore an entire fictional world built just for them. The feeling of wonder in discovering something that was always there but you never noticed, the feeling of venturing out into the great unknown just to see what’s there, and the feeling of being immersed in a faraway place with tons of interesting things to do and see, these are feelings that games have the potential to accomplish better than anyone else. In light of this, I think it’s just a bit odd how many games place you on a tightly restricted path from one end to the other.


  1. damm i agree completly, i remember playing super mairo 64 and even when i wasent playing a level trying to get a star, i could just explore the whole place and wander around and it was really fun. but now in other games, like i just got super mario 3d land, there really is nothin much to do after you collect all star coins and beat all the levels which are pretty much completly linear

  2. I'm probably mostly throughish skyward sword at this point, and yeah, it is strikingly linear. I want to explore the lands myself, yet all the exploring is facilitated through plot. It's not as fun when you're supposed to explore all the nooks. And you can go to the different islands, but the chest mechanic makes the reward of exploring difficult.