As I discussed last week, a number of factors in games can lead to endless splurges, often at the cost of personal health. Of course, I’ll always be one to recommend a policy of moderation with everything. But that doesn’t mean that I haven’t broken that code every now and then. And just like many self-control-challenged college students, I too have binges. And the single most alluring element games use to keep me tied down to them is exploration.
I’m going to discuss exploration, and its necessary byproduct, discovery, as it applies to a few examples. Of course, I’ll never be able to worm in all the games that perhaps deserved to be mentioned in this regard, but know that not including a game is by no means an insult hurled in the face of that game or your opinion of it.
Ok. Now that the disclaimer’s done with, I’m going to proclaim at the top of a mountainous… mountain that I love discovery in games. There’s something incredibly satisfying about the journey and what you find along the way. It’s a bit difficult to point out with any absolution what exploration is or has to be, as it manifests itself in different ways in different games. Generally, I would define it as nonlinearity. It’s the game giving you the trust and faith to wander off the broken path and find things out for yourself.
In a literal sense, Bethesda RPGs tend to be the best representations of this in a pure, saturated way. Fallout 3, which I’m beginning to think may be my favorite game this generation (thus far, of course), is a game dedicated to letting the player loose to discover, rummage, and live the wide expanse it offers. Yes, there is a set storyline with set locations and set progression. But if you’re the poor sap who escapes vault 101 and makes a mad dash through the story line, missing the seemingly infinite details and distractions all around you, then I give you my most honest sympathy. You, kind sir, are missing the point.
Minecraft is another, albeit simpler, example of this formula. With randomly generating maps, the player can pretty much always expect to find something new just by wandering. Sure, you know what to expect in the sense that most players know what limits exist in the Minecraft spectrum of creation. But every once in a while something would come into my field of vision and would steal a silent “whoa, that needs a lava castle.”
And yet, exploration need not exist exclusively in open world games. Often, it presents itself in subtler ways. Pokemon allows for discovery beyond just rustling through grass and discovering new types. For the more hardcore Pokemon enthusiasts, there exists a sub-world of exploring potential team and move possibilities, with flexibility only possible afterhours of training.
Strategy games also offer this more conceptual exploration, as diehard players invent and test new forms of attack. Alternatively, in the more drawn-out map-based games like the aforementioned Endless Space and Total War, not to mention the tried and true gem Sins of a Solar Empire, I love figuring out through the course of the match which locations become key and which become backwater. There’s always a few points on the map that become hotly contested, and this is especially true in Endless Space and Sins, in which the maps are randomly generated.
Ultimately, there’s a stark difference between a game that allows for exploration and discovery and one that doesn’t or does with harsh restriction. The latter tends to be straightforward, extremely linear, and lacking in flexibility. Perhaps chief among these are the Uncharted games. Now don’t get me wrong. I own all four Uncharted games, so I definitely don’t dislike the series. There’s good stuff going on there. There’s just no player driven exploration. Everything is scripted. Nothing is up for interpretation or strategy. Even the straightforward, fairly cinematic Deus Ex: Human Revolution offers some flexibility with its achievement/trophy encouraging its players to complete it without killing a single non-boss enemy. Furthermore, every single one of its linear corridors has multiple means of maneuvering through it.
It’s the games that offer no choice that subtly annoy me. Not enough to truly get mad at any single one of them, but annoyed at the whole. Honestly, I don’t think I’m going to end this console generation thinking too much about my memories with linear corridor heavy Uncharted, Final Fantasy XIII or Warhammer 40k: Space Marine. I’m going to be reminiscing about Red Dead Redemption, Fallout 3, Assassin’s Creed, Grand Theft Auto IV and all the other games that dared to give me a little wiggle room and the chance to just sit back and entertain myself with their expansive worlds.