Exploration In Games – Why Do We Do It?

on August 21, 2009 7:25 AM

“Develop an interest in life as you see it; the people, things, literature, music – the world is so rich, simply throbbing with rich treasures, beautiful souls and interesting people. Forget yourself.” ~ Henry Miller

The worlds we’re given to explore through the games we play are full of nooks and crannies, hiding rich treasure, knowledge about our characters via cut scenes or any number of other mechanics to improve, prolong and excite our game play experiences. Exploration is pushed to the forefront in some games and genres, while its left by the wayside in others. Still, in nearly every game out there where we’re put into a fictional universe there are benefits to exploration, whether the developers intended it that way or not.

I thought it would be interesting to take a look at exploration in video games and the motivation behind why we do it. This isn’t intended to be an exhaustive list of factors, but perhaps it will get your synapses firing and maybe get you to see the games you play in a new and delightful light. Why do we explore the worlds we play in? Is it for self-serving purposes, or do we explore just to be exploring? What areas of game design factor into making us want to explore?

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“There comes a time in every rightly constructed boy’s life that he has a raging desire to go somewhere and dig for hidden treasure.” ~ Mark Twain

I’m going to go out on a limb here and make the assumption that most of us are motivated to explore in the games we play because developers are rather keen on putting treasures in well-hidden places. I’m talking about the tangible kind – an item, weapon, potion or even special rewards that serve no purpose other than sitting in the shadows waiting to be found.

Even some of the most linear games will have small paths off to the side where your next upgrade or recovery pack can be found. This is motivation enough for most of us. We enjoy beefing up or resupplying our characters, whether we’re playing an FPS, sneaking around hoping to get a shot in at the enemy before we’re spotted, or an RPG where we want to be ready for that boss behind the save point we can see in the distance.

Believe me, developers know this and they use it in sneaky ways. Sometimes going off the beaten path is a way to prolong the game play experience of a certain part of the game. If you add a bunch of those extensions that are optional yet extremely tempting, it really adds up and prolongs the game and even the player’s enjoyment factor. Are these artificial time sinks put in there just for the sake of wasting a player’s time and keeping them playing longer? I don’t think so, because they’re optional. Riches – in the way of currency or more powerful equipment – enhance our experience, whether it increases the time we spend playing or not.  Some of us are explorers by nature. Wouldn’t you rather there be something tangible waiting at the other side of that enemy-laden path than just a dead end?

“If you have men who will only come if they know there is a good road, I don’t want them. I want men who will come if there is no road at all.” ~ David Livingstone

Beyond tangible motivation, there is the reward of knowledge to be found through exploration. This knowledge could either be required to progress through the game, required for another game mechanic or simply out of curiosity on the part of the player. Consider the Metroid games, where you typically start with a blank map and have to fill it in via your progress through the game, most of which is required to complete certain objectives. (The newly-released Shadow Complex map reminds me a lot of 2D Metroid titles – unsurprisingly the Metroid games provided inspiration for that new take on the 2D action/adventure genre.) This “fill in the blank” type of exploration is present in many games across various genres. Sometimes the reward is tangible, sometimes it’s given to you in the form of an achievement and sometimes its either for your own benefit or for something to do simply out of curiosity.

Myself, I’m a pretty curious person. That can turn out to be a disadvantage if I’m exploring some dark corner of a game world and happen across a monster that kicks the crap out of me, like a couple giganto monsters did in Tales of Vesperia recently. I’ve also been known to fall to my death in Oblivion on more than one occasion while exploring because I think I see something in the distance and feel the sudden, uncontrollable urge to mark it on my map.

If you’ll take a trip down memory lane with me – recall the Minus World in the original Super Mario Bros. release? I wonder who the first person was to figure that out. I’d like to ask them what their motivation was to explore world 1-2 thoroughly enough to figure it out. Of course, maybe it wasn’t exploration at all, maybe it was pure accident. The world may never know.

In many games, you also need knowledge to progress, and this knowledge is most likely linked to the story and discovered through exploration. This is required, of course, but those of us who are curious by nature take pleasure in not just the fact that finding where to trigger a cut scene or untangling a certain hidden clue will progress the story, but also in the simple fact that it exists to be found in the first place.

“No one has ever learned fully to know themselves.” ~ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Another sort of exploration that comes to the fore in certain genres is the exploration of our characters through dialog and cut scenes. Perhaps this is synonymous with RPGs, although not always – most games have a story to tell and characters that are developed to one extent or another within that story.

A typical convention with Japanese RPGs is often-optional dialog at random times. If you’re enough of an explorer to trigger these events, you’re rewarded with gaining a deeper understanding of your character’s motivations, feelings, desires and dreams. Franchises such as Grandia, Star Ocean and the Tales series rely on the fact that most of the gamers who want to play these titles will want the obscene amounts of character back story and development that occurs in these randomly available dialog sessions. Even the Final Fantasy games dipped into this in FFIX with their active time events.

The latest Prince of Persia title is another example of a game that allows the player to gain all sorts of information through optional dialog sequences so we can get to know the characters better and how they interact with each other.  In Prince of Persia, those dialog events were integral to my enjoyment of the game. Sure, the game play was fun too – running through canyons, sliding across walls and hopping over bottomless pits – but what I really enjoyed about the game was the character interaction between our hero and Elika. That was all accomplished through a desire to explore every aspect of the characters I was spending time with.

“Nobody climbs mountains for scientific reasons. Science is used to make money for the expeditions, but you really climb for the hell of it.” ~ Edmund Hillary

When all the other motivations to explore are exhausted, what is going to be left? Exploring just for the hell of it, that’s what. Whether its to see a digitally rendered view across a vast landscape or to fill in the entirety of a map just for completion’s sake, some gamers, myself included, will explore anytime and anywhere just for the fun of it. Perhaps that really should be the driving motivation behind anything we do in a game. Isn’t that why we play in the first place – for fun?

Arguably, too many times people are in it for the “phat lewt” or the fame and glory that comes with getting a rather difficult achievement. But, really, shouldn’t we be doing it for ourselves? I mean, we spend the cash and/or the time to play a game, we should get the most fun possible out of it for ourselves – not just to say we finished the story in record time or to gain experience so we can pelt that n00b in the face and call them names in a multi-player match.

“For everything you have missed, you have gained something else, and for everything you gain, you lose something else.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Perhaps this will motivate you to explore more in any game you play. Exploration breeds benefits in many different ways, and its different for every person and in every game. Maybe you’ll find that fancy piece of gear you can use to clobber your opponents, a vanity item to show off to friends in a multi-player match or some deep insight into your characters. Maybe, in the deepest, darkest hole the developers have hidden something that will even tell you about themselves and their thought processes while designing the game.

Ultimately, though, we should play games in a way that gives us the most enjoyment (as long as it doesn’t hinder the enjoyment of others). Perhaps we fall victim to certain motivations to explore more than others. Maybe we miss things or don’t care about certain things that are buried inside the games we play. There’s always something to find somewhere, whether we’re looking for it or not. Sometimes the treasures we aren’t looking for, once found, are the greatest treasures of all.

 /  Reviews Editor / PR
Chad joined the DualShockers staff in mid 2009 and since then has put much of his time into covering RPGs, with a focus on the Japanese side of the genre, from the obscure to the mainstream. He's a huge fan of iconic games like Secret of Mana, Final Fantasy VI and Persona 4 yet enjoys the smaller niche titles, as well. In his spare time he enjoys experiencing new beer, new foods and keeping up with just about every sci-fi show on television. He's married to an intelligent, beautiful Southern Belle who keeps his life interesting with witty banter and spicy Cajun cooking.