Boldly Going Where No (Digital) Explorer Has Gone Before

The Paleogamer

So I’m still making my way through the various bits of the Half-Life 2 saga and, somewhere in the middle of Episode 1, it suddenly struck that despite having what seemed at first glance to be a huge, complex world, the game really consisted of a single long corridor with lots of bends in it for things to hide behind and shoot at you.

Think about it. All through the game you really only have one way to go at any given moment. Sure, you can sometimes go into a side room that has a second door that opens a bit further down the corridor but that really doesn’t make that much of a difference. It’s well hidden because your path is constantly turning left, right, back, forth, up, down, over, under and around itself but the fact remains that the game could consist of a single long corridor and not really be that different.

This bothers me because the environments in the game look interesting and I want to go out, explore and see what I can find but you really can’t get to most of it. Sure, you may be able to eventually get to the other side of that fence but to do so you will have to climb an elevator shaft, jump across the roof, shoot your way through five levels of offices and finally crawl out of a ventilator shaft to get there. There’s no other way to do it.

Which leads me to the concept of exploration as a game style. All through history people have been interested in exploration, not just for conquest or trade but just as often out of a desire to see what is on the other side of the mountain. The sense of discovery is the reward, not any tangible item that can be found there.

Exploration as a theme is probably most commonly seen in adventure gaming and goes all the way back toThe Colossal Cave, the very first adventure game. While exploring the cave in the game one location you can visit is simply called the “Great View”. On arrival you get a huge description; a volcano is erupting in the distance, lava is flowing through chasms in the floor, light reflects from crystals in the ceiling and the sound echoes around you. The description is quite detailed and is probably the longest description of any room in the game.

There is nothing else in the room. There are no items to take or puzzles to solve. In fact, the room is at the end of a series of several rooms and there is actually no reason to go there if you don’t want to. You can finish the game and never see the view. The room is there as a reward for exploring, the description is the reward.

Unfortunately, games which reward exploration are few and far between. A good pre-computer/video gaming example would be Source of the Nile, a board game published first by Discovery Games and later by Avalon Hill. Source of the Nile took place in the European age of exploration. You started out with a blank map of Africa and the players literally filled in the map by exploring it. There were various types of explorers with different victory conditions but in all cases the goal of the game was not conquest, it was exploration and discovery. You got points for finding waterfalls or discovering new animals, not for killing the locals.

An early computer game with a similar theme was Seven Cities of Gold. This took place during the European voyages of exploration of the Americas. In this game you could trade with or conquer the locals but you also could simply explore the new lands you discovered.

Since then however the number of games which emphasize exploration have declined. Many early RPGs had vast worlds that you could wander around in and some of them had hidden locations scattered around the map but RPGs today are much more directed. I recently took a break from Half-Life to play through Jade Empire and noted there how little exploration you really had to do. Yes, you do have to go through all of the locations you can visit in order to find all the items you need to proceed but all of the locations are clearly identified and bounded; there is no opportunity to simply head off into the unknown and see what you can find.

Part of this of course has to do with the increasing cost of game development. Seven Cities of Gold could give us an entire continent to explore because we were content with having a brown square for a mountain, a green square for a forest and a blue square for a lake. In a modern game we would expect a detailed, lush forest surrounding a calm lake with a mountain range in the distance and few developers are willing to commit that much effort to creating something that the majority of players would never see. No one would put something like the “Great View” from Colossal Cave into a modern game, it would take a lot of resources to create something that players who simply wanted to get on with the plot would never see. So it doesn’t happen.

A few games do however still favor explorers. One standout in my mind is, surprisingly, Star Wars: Galaxies. The planets in Star Wars: Galaxies are quite large; it takes a long time to run from one city to another and running across an entire planet could take a half-hour or more. So, most players take the shuttles between cities or simply fly their landspeeders along the most direct routes.

Which is too bad, because there are a lot of interesting things to see out there. I remember one time running around on Talus and coming across the overgrown wreckage of an AT-AT. Nothing important, nothing to do with any storyline or mission, just a old piece of wreckage sitting alone and rusting in a jungle. I though it was an amazing thing to find; something some developer had put there just for players out exploring their world to find.

Star Wars: Galaxies did later add what they called “Exploration Badges” which encouraged players to visit some of the more out-of-the-way places in the game, but even then they did not encourage simple random exploration. Still, there were hidden sights out there for enterprising players to find.

But the ultimate in current games for explorers are, to me, the Elder Scrolls games Morrowind and, to a lesser extend, Oblivion. Both of these games have huge game worlds that the developers have gone out of their way to detail to an incredible degree. Everywhere in these worlds there are things to find, from an abandoned campsite here to a hidden pirates den there. The various missions the player is given only lead to a fraction of these and some of them are only hinted at at most. More than any other game I can think of these two games encourage and reward pure exploration.

Unfortunately, things like this are the exception instead of the rule. It seems that players don’t want to waste time visiting places unless there is something there to shoot at. There is also the problem of reward. It’s easy to reward a player for killing rats. And, if they need more experience, just spawn more rats for them to kill.

Creating things to explore is more difficult and takes more time to develop than simply spawning another monster. Plus, once the player has discovered the new location they are done; you can’t discover the same thing twice after all. At some point the player will have discovered everything there is for them to find. There are always more rat spawns to kill. Still, I keep hoping that the next game will be one that encourages and rewards pure exploration, and allows me to again stand and take in that Great View.

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