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Going Boldly: Exploring in Video Games Makes Discovery Fun

Posted on Sep 19, 2016 | Articles & Reviews
World of Warcraft landscape

The first time I played World of Warcraft, all I did was wander. It was a silly choice—a level one night elf doesn’t stand much of a chance outside of the starting area—but I couldn’t help it. The world was so exciting and new, with giant trees arching overhead and a slew of magical creatures waiting to sink their teeth into me. That sense of wonder never really went away until I’d crisscrossed Azeroth at max level, diving into long-forgotten instances just because I could.

Sure, World of Warcraft has a lot to offer in terms of dungeons, raids, and quests. But it also offers an enormous world to explore at your leisure, constantly tempting you with new discoveries to make. Discovery engages players all through a journey, keeping them hooked as they look forward to the next surprise they’ll stumble upon, whether it’s a new bit of story or a new area to explore.

Dark Souls’ Depressing, Harsh World Feeds on Discovery

While most discussions of Dark Souls and Bloodborne focus on their difficulty, it’s more than simply the challenge that appeals to players. Each encounter in the franchise is a learning experience, not just in terms of discovering the mechanics of each fight but also in how it develops its complex lore.

Dark Souls offers plenty of area to explore

Dark Souls’ world is full of unique areas to explore, all of them with untold secrets and horrors to unearth. Image Source: Natty Dread via Flickr.

Unlike many open-world RPGs of its kind, Dark Souls and related games don’t use popular mechanics like minimaps to guide you. Instead, each corner you turn is a new adventure—unless you’re using a walkthrough, there’s no way of knowing what awaits you there. That makes each encounter a surprise, and often a deadly one; you have to learn quickly in this series, as it pulls no punches with its tricky combat.

Nor does it guide you through its story. Dark Souls and Bloodborne feature complex, dark worlds, but the lore guiding the story is often opaque and hard to parse. Rather than giving you detailed cutscenes that lay out the story in concrete terms, you glean much of it from item descriptions and piecing together the vague hints dropped by characters that assume, as part of their world, that you’re in the know. In this way, discovery and theorizing become part of the fun—fans of the franchise have compiled enormous documents of theories on what’s happening in Bloodborne’s Hunt, for example. Piecing together these elements becomes part of the journey for many players, letting the sense of discovery guide the game’s progress rather than directly feeding the story to the players.

Story Unfolds at Your Pace in Loading Human

In narrative-driven games, discovery is often a huge part of the experience. If you’re handed all of the story up front, you’re robbed of much of the gameplay. Story-driven games rely on allowing the player to make their journey at their own pace, piecing the story together as they go.

Loading Human uses the environment to engage players

Loading Human relies on narrative mysteries alongside engaging puzzles and environments to draw players further into the story.

The upcoming Loading Human, a VR-exclusive title, puts you in the role of Prometheus, who must undertake a great journey and sacrifice to save his father. But that’s only part of the story—as you play, you discover inconsistencies and strange events that don’t quite match up, creating an air of uneasiness. The farther you progress into the nonlinear narrative, the more you begin to question what you’re experiencing. It’s that uncertainty that makes the game so appealing, because you never know what revelation you’ll experience next.

In games like this, you’re pulled forward through the story not by sections of intense action, but by discovering more of the story. Like the old-school adventure games that inspired it, Loading Human puts its focus on letting the player explore the narrative themselves by interacting with objects and solving puzzles. The fact that it’s narrative-based doesn’t make it any less involved than other genres—you progress by different means, but the progress is still all yours.

Procedural Generation Gives Players a New Experience Each Game

But not all games need a story structure to make discovery fun. Procedural generation is a great tool for creating unique situations every time, especially when combined with roguelike mechanics. Together, they make sure you have a fresh experience every time; there’s no possible way to predict what will happen because the game isn’t created until you’ve started.

Eldritch keeps players guessing

Eldritch’s procedural generation makes the set-up different every time you play, so you never know what to anticipate.

Eldritch, a first-person horror game based on H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, is inspired by roguelikes, which means that each journey you take into its dark and dreary world is different. Because the story is combined with horror elements, there’s an extra air of dread—you don’t know what will be lurking around the next corner, and there’s a good chance that whatever is there will be stronger and more frightening than you.

Other games, like FTL, do their own version of this. Again, each game you start will be unique; it’s impossible to anticipate every challenge you’ll encounter. Each journey into space feels new because it is new. You’ll have to respond differently to each new game’s challenges and obstacles, rather than optimizing based on what you know will be coming. That keeps each game feeling fresh and exciting, no matter how many times you play.

Discovery Through Exploring Games Encourages Player Engagement

A sense of discovery isn’t necessary for every game, but giving players the ability to explore on their own time can make a game even more exciting. Whether you’re discovering new story elements or an entirely new experience with each corner you turn, exploring games at your leisure is a compelling and rewarding experience.

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Lead Image Source: Mr. Hos via Flickr