Purposeful Wandering: Exploration in Gaming

I game slowly, and I don’t mind admitting it.  I play games methodically, ponderously, and I like to fully explore an area before moving on.  Strangely enough, though, I’m no completionist, at least in the sense that I don’t strive for every last achievement or feather or flag.  No, I’m fueled by a combination of curiosity and cautious preparedness.  I don’t want to rush into that next boss fight under-equipped, and I certainly don’t want to hurry past a rare item. I’d love to say that my commitment to exploration is a product of child-like wonderment, but in truth it’s been nurtured by years of gaming.

Wandering off the beaten path has been advisable in gaming since the hidden warp pipes of Super Mario Brothers (1986).  Super Mario World (1990) introduced the Ghost Houses, which always featured a boring “normal” exit, as well as at least one hidden exit that would reward the player with goodies like access to the invaluable Top Secret AreaDonkey Kong Country (1994) furthered my curiosity by including hidden rewards in just about every level, highlighted by nothing but a sole banana above a seemingly bottomless pit.  More often than not, the digital road-less-traveled yields a rocket launcher, health upgrade or shiny new motorbike

Gotta Turn Those Blue Squares Pink : Super Metroid

It’s a chicken-and-egg relationship that I’ve grown to love, and when my patience and thorough searching leaves me empty-handed, it’s incredibly frustrating.  I feel betrayed when I knowingly walk an in-game mile in the wrong direction and find naught but an invisible wall.

Developers know that gamers love finding new items and upgrades.  Look to the success of Diablo (the granddaddy of loot-driven games) and more recent titles like World of Warcraft and Borderlands.  However, many games like these forgo other important elements like story and character development.  Instead, they merely give the player bigger morsels to mitigate their loot-hunger.  A recent article on startup blog “The Psychology of Video Games” examines a player’s thought process on the path to “phat loot.” It raises an interesting point about how positive surprises can generate great pleasure, in the form of a rush of dopamine.  In essence, a reward is nice, but an unexpected bonus is like a jackpot for the brain, and motivates the player to repeat this action again and again.  Thus it’s easy to see why loot drops can become a game’s focal point.

For me, these random loot drops are not nearly as satisfying as exploration-based rewards.  When I see a suspicious ledge and devise a way to reach it, I feel clever, like I’ve discovered a little developer’s esotericism. I didn’t just pull a slot machine handle for the hundred-and-third time – I solved a puzzle and got a nod from the designers.  The seminal Metroid Prime series did a fantastic job of both requiring and rewarding exploration with non-essential (but oh-so-tantalizing) upgrades.  Its modern day successor Shadow Complex allows players to explore as much or as little as they see fit, but fully revealing the map and grabbing every pick-up takes brains and dedication. This give-and-take experience is what made a potentially-forgettable XBLA title one of my favorite titles in recent memory.  Thoughtfully-hidden items make a good game great – so developers, take note. Don’t forget those of us who like to stumble off the beaten path.