The other day, Critical Path posted a short interview clip with Supergiant Games’ Amir Rao, the indie developer known for Bastion and the upcoming Transistor, on the subject of exploration in games. In the video, Rao brings up how strange it is that we enjoy exploring a game’s world, investigating every nook and cranny, when we seem to hate that sort of thing in reality. He points to how, if we get lost while going about our everyday lives, we’re suddenly reaching for our phones or a map to help us find our way again; but in a video game, many of us are just content to wander around Shadow of the Colossus-style.
It’s an interesting thought, one Rao says he doesn’t know the answer to just yet, and it’s gotten me wondering: why do I like exploring in games so much? As my profile will tell you, plain exploration is perhaps my favorite part of almost every one of my favorite games, from ICO to The Wind Waker, and I think I might have found at least part of the reason why: in a video game, we’re never really lost.
Rao’s right, in a way. If we somehow ended up in the middle of the woods with no idea how to get out and no way to contact another person, the vast majority of us would probably get pretty freaked out pretty quickly. But imagine for a moment that we could change just one variable about that scenario. Imagine that you always knew which way home was, no matter how far into the forest you went. Suddenly, the terrifying aspect of your unknown surroundings isn’t so terrifying, and exploring the world around you could be fun. That’s the experience exploration in a video game provides. No matter where you go in a game’s world, you can always just pause the game, stand up, and walk away.
But that doesn’t actually answer the question in its entirety. Think about it: walking to a grocery probably isn’t going to be fun for you, but that’s not because it’s dangerous. So then what’s the other important difference between exploring a level in something like The Legend of Zelda and taking a stroll down to your local supermarket? I think it’s that our motivation to explore in a video game is generally completely different than it is in real life.
When you go for the boring trudge down to that store, your motivation for traveling is to get to your destination. That motive is “extrinsic.” You’re working towards a goal, and traveling is just an obstacle in between you and that goal. This is also likely the reason so many people decide to fast-travel in games like Skyrim when they just want to complete a quest and have no other motive for their travels. Now contrast that with exploration in whatever your favorite adventure game is. In that game, exploring is the goal. The entire reason you go to explore is because you want to do it. Your end goal is the exploration in and of itself. The motivation can be “intrinsic.”
This idea can even be applied to real life. Think of all the people who love going on nature hikes, the people who just love the act of walking through a trail in the woods and taking in the scenery. Now imagine a different group of people who have to walk along those same trails, but rather than being motivated by the joy of hiking, this new group simply has to walk along this trail to get to whatever structure or place is at the end of it. The first group is almost certainly going to have a better experience on the trail, and the same can be said for the people who go into a video game with the mindset of exploring for exploration’s sake.
Couple both of those ideas together, and you’ve got the two main reasons I think people enjoy exploring in video games when they wouldn’t necessarily in real life: video games allow you to get lost in their world without the stress that being lost in real life brings, and exploring in games is often done for its own sake rather than for another goal.
This seems to be deteriorating into just me rambling, so I’ll stop now, but that doesn’t mean the discussion should. I’ve told you my thoughts as to why we enjoy exploring in video games, but that’s all they are: “my thoughts.” So now I want you to tell me your thoughts in the comments below, and let’s see where the discussion takes us!