Exploration in games can be a fun and rewarding experience…as long as the developers make it out to be. I explore for more than just something to benefit me through finding treasures or other secrets – I enjoy checking out the scenery at times and just generally prancing around the map to take everything in. But, you know, as much as I enjoy exploring just to explore, there is definitely a part of me that is a selfish bastard. This part of my brain forces my body to explore with the sole purpose of finding something to benefit me in-game – some treasure, some upgrade, some item. Or, perhaps there’s an NPC hiding just around the bend, off the beaten path, that might offer a side quest, or unique merchandise. There could even be a hidden area, a secret tunnel or an optional boss.
All too often, though, I find there are numerous areas in games that are there just to be there, it seems. There’s no treasure to be found, no bit of lore to learn, no hidden room, no NPC, no optional boss – nothing. While some games are worse than others, I noticed several times throughout my Mass Effect 2 play-through that there were rooms that were just there – empty and unwelcoming. There weren’t even enemies in them. See, that game’s missions are fairly linear, however there are numerous optional things to find along the way – including bits of lore, mission logs, reports, safes, data terminals to hack for credits and upgrades, you name it. Yet, sometimes you’ll go into a sizable room right off your main path, hoping to find one of these juicy bits of content, yet are left disappointed.
The problem is even more widespread in JRPGs. These games usually offer expansive interior and exterior locations to explore, yet sometimes expansive doesn’t cut it. Why make an area so big if you’re not going to fill it with things to find? Star Ocean: The Last Hope is a game guilty of this to a large degree. While I enjoyed the game overall, one of the things that continually nagged at the back of my mind was the fact that we had all these beautiful outdoor landscapes to explore, yet many of them held nothing but pretty visuals. Sure, there would be one little nook out of several in this large area that held a chest, but when you think to yourself, “Hey, if I go aalllll the way over to the other side of this area, even though it is horribly out of my way, there has to be something cool over there!”, then you get there and there’s nothing, it is rather disappointing.
While games in general should be more creative and liberal with content placement, I think RPGs especially should be held to a higher standard here. One of the aspects of those games over most others is to explore the environment. Sometimes just checking things out is enough, but sometimes it is not – it depends what kind of gamer you are and, frankly, what kind of mood you’re in at the time. I think there should always be something to found – not every two feet, but fairly liberally. If you have a huge area, and only put one treasure chest in it, what is the benefit to the player to explore that area? There is none. It doesn’t have to be just treasure, either. Mass Effect 2, although not being an RPG in the strictest sense of the term, was good about scattering bits and pieces of lore around, which I found interesting to read, because that game has such a vibrant and inviting universe to explore. I enjoy doing the same in World of Warcraft sometimes, especially in my heavier role-playing days. There are an almost unlimited number of books that enhance the richness of the lore scattered around the game world.
I would like to see developers take more of an interest in giving us reasons to explore, because not everyone wants to do it just for the sake of being there. This would be like driving to another state only to get out of the car, take a picture by the “welcome to” sign, then driving right back home. You can say you were there, but you never explore what the state has to offer. To entice you, various states or cities have commercials, web sites and brochures to get you interested in exploring their corner of the world. Game worlds should be much the same way, so to speak. There need to be things to entice the player, get us interested in the game world, give us something to find and a reason to explore. One thing I would think developers wouldn’t want is for the player to say, “Yeah, I was there, but there was nothing to see”.