By: Quinn Whalen
A few weeks ago I was on an educational trip to Italy and France. While driving from city to city, I spent a lot of time looking out the window listening to Taylor Swift. Now, musical taste and celebrity fantasies aside, gazing out at the Italian countryside, I reminisced a lot about a feature of video games that I am deeply fond of.
This feature is that fantastical sense of exploration that comes with some games. It’s a characteristic that is very much unique to the medium of video games. You can’t really explore a film or novel in the same way you can explore a video game. Obviously there’s not much scenery in Tetris or Galaga to poke around in, but when you look at games like, Skyrim, The Legend of Zelda, or even the different levels in Super Mario 64, exploration is a big part of the appeal in those games. There’s a special sense of wonder that comes with being plopped down into this magical world with no real direction. It offers you, as a player, a chance to play the game your way, at your own pace. There might be objectives or goals along the way, but in some cases you are free to ignore those altogether, and you could easily spend hours wandering the landscape.
It’s an interesting feature in how easy it is to ignore, while simultaneously potentially adding enormous layers of playtime to a game. One could easily breeze through a Legend of Zelda game without taking time to smell the flowers (or in this case, look at them very intensely) and still have a lovely time while objectively beat the game. There’s nothing wrong with this, and sometimes you want the written story, and you want to play the game to get to the end. It’s not an “in your face” kind of characteristic, but it’s an unspoken option at every moment in playing. At most any point in the story, you can drop whatever you’re doing and just wander around.
It adds a personal layer to your adventure to some degree. You are deciding to wander into that big cave to see what kind of treasure is in there, and afterwards you might spend upwards of three hours just poking around for collectibles, or looking at what kind of trees they decided to put on top of that grossly tempting mountain off in the distance. It becomes your adventure. You get to see this new world that, while it might be the same one your friend is exploring, the way you are seeing it is entirely different.
I most recently got a real rush of exploration in Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag which I’ve been playing on Playstation 4. The world looks very pretty, and is excitingly vast. The tropical setting, and being able to sail the open seas delightfully encourage exploration in the game. Even from very early on in the game I felt I could turn right around in the opposite direction of the objective and wander around aimlessly. Never was there such a care-free, idle pirate.
Obviously, there’s a lot to be said here when it comes to randomly generated games like, Minecraft or Terraria, which are essentially just outlets for endless exploration. Particularly in this case, does your adventure become very personal. No two worlds will be alike, and no two stories you tell about playing will be the same. Unlike the games I previously mentioned, you’re no longer exploring a pre-existing, pre-designed world. You’re exploring a new world, which no one has seen, having adventures no one has had, and completing tasks you’ve set for yourself.
Exploration is a big feature that separates video games from other media. And the personal aspect of exploration, is a big characteristic that separates exploration from other in-game features or game modes. From my early childhood days of exploring Bomb-omb Battlefield in Super Mario 64, to wandering the endless cubic world of Minecraft, to driving through the very real Italian countryside, exploration has always been an interest of mine. You choose where to go, if anywhere, how fast you’re going to get there, and what distractions you’ll chase down along the way.