Words: 1665 Approximate Reading Time: 10-15 minutes
There’s a lot of ways that we can look at exploration. We can talk about the various ways in which exploration brings a sense of wonder and joy to players. We can talk about the difficulties of making spaces that are interesting to explore. We can talk about the problems of balancing exploration with direction.
But one thing that can get a bit lost are the little details. Things like backtracking and collecting. In fully open games, backtracking is built in, but also something that is fully player directed. If you’ve missed something, the only thing preventing you from going back to get it is you. Is it worth it to you to backtrack? Whether the answer is “yes” or “no,” the problem effectively solves itself. If “yes,” then go back and get it. If “no,” then just move on.
However, not all games are fully open like this. Quite often games are closed or semi-closed, putting players in new levels or regions and locking them out of previous areas. Fairly linear games run into a particular problem of exploration, because exploration is mixed with this sense of doing everything I wanted to do.
Perhaps this problem seems meaningless. If there is more I want to do before moving on, then surely most games give me that opportunity to make the conscious decision to move on, and so it doesn’t matter. If I want to do more exploring of an area for secrets and power-ups and quests, then just don’t trigger the boss fight or the end of the chapter.
But this answer presupposes something important – information. What I want can really only be stated through what I know is available to me at a given point in time. If a piece of information is revealed later on, I can still want what is revealed, even if it is something I can’t attain. Put another way, there can be things that I want that I won’t be made aware of until later, when it is too late to go back and get them.
And the problem is compounded by how often games will convey the importance of exploring – both directly and indirectly – while hiding information about when the player has done “enough” exploring. Games may tell you “make sure to do X, because once you leave you won’t be able to do X anymore,” but such advice is then left for the player to puzzle out. When have I exhausted this activity to make sure I’m not missing anything? If I move on, will I have missed something? These questions are seldom answered by the game, leaving players in the dark.
And so I wanted to spend a bit of time talking about how we can look at this problem of exploration. Because it isn’t exactly a simple problem with a simple solution. Possible answers can end up removing the joy of exploration, make exploration tedious, or be thoroughly unhelpful. And so there is a tightrope that must be walked when trying to figure out how to convey to players the information that they need to properly satisfy their wants when playing.
Checklists Without Checklists
So how do we provide information to players in a way that communicates to them that they are or could be missing something, and thus provide them with the opportunity to choose whether or not to keep exploring?
The initial solution – what we see most commonly – is for the game to warn players when they are about to lock themselves out of content. Some kind of pop-up that says “You are about to go to a new area, and when you do you won’t be able to return. Are you sure you want to continue?” These prompts may feel a bit immersion-breaking, but they do at least provide clear indicators to players about the points of no return.
But such a warning doesn’t really tell us anything about exploration. Because these warnings come up regardless of whether the player has found everything or not, it in fact becomes somewhat self-defeating. A player that has found everything may be left with the impression that they’ve missed something, and thus may choose to keep exploring for nothing. While a warning is helpful in theory, in practice it doesn’t really do anything to solve our problems.
Now these warnings could be helpful if they only showed up when players have missed secrets. Though it would be important to properly flag what is “missable,” otherwise the information would be useless either by making the message pop up for things which aren’t important, or not popping up for things that are. And ultimately, this issue will raise its own set of problems in defining what is and isn’t important. Though at the very least, by clearly signaling to the playing that something missable exists, at least the player can decide whether they care or not.
Let’s go to the other extreme. Let’s say that you made all “secrets” so obvious that players didn’t really have to “explore” for them. Instead, you find everything as you go through the normal path. The benefit here would obviously be that players can’t miss anything. Can’t feel that pang of regret if you can’t forget anything in previous chapters.
But in doing this, we’d remove the value of exploration itself. The player would literally be walking from point to point with no sense of freedom. There are certainly plenty of games that already do this with no serious problem, but for some games such a system would effectively kill its appeal. Something like a role-playing game might find itself devoid of interest, because the player isn’t really “playing a role,” so much as guiding a character through a series of hallways.
So what might lie between these options?
Perhaps we could take a page from the playbook of more open-ended games. Many open world games are cut up into regions, and those regions have various events or quests designated as important, with a numerical value for how many remain. You have collected two of five skill point books. You have found three of six quests. And so on. These lists provide a way for players to know what they’ve done and how much is left for them to do.
By implementing a similar system into more linear games, players can access information more easily and decide what is valuable to them. I’m missing a chest in this chapter: do I want to run around trying to look for it, or just move on? I missed a quest in this chapter: would I like to chat with various NPCs to find it, or would I prefer to fight the boss?
Such a system would be ideal by providing players merely with information without compelling them to make a choice on the matter. In turn, it prevents players from learning that they’ve missed something when it is too late to go back.
Of course, to work, the system would need to be careful with how it presents this information. On the one hand, the information can be too vague. We could take all of the possible missable content and roll it into one single “special” item: all of the chests and special items and quests are a single piece of content, presented either as a check box (which would be even more annoying, since it would not communicate how much is left), or as a counter. In either case, since the player would not know what is missing, there would be no way to know how to search for it, aside from just doing everything. If backtracking in general can feel tedious, to ask players to backtrack through a whole host of possible options to identify how they should best backtrack is going to kill the player’s interest.
But we can also provide too much information. We can make the system so granular that players know exactly where missing content is and can go immediately to that content. There is some value to this idea, insofar as it cuts down on aimless backtracking. But it still runs into the problem of effectively placing the items in plain sight of the player’s pathway. The sense of exploration gets removed. Hypothetically, we could find a middle ground here by making more granular information available to the player who chooses to seek it out: a merchant will offer a map for a price to the player that will reveal secrets. But even that solution may come with its own problems, as it may simply force players to engage in grinding for money in order to get the map, thus replacing one set of tedious tasks with another.
Even just the simple fact of placing secrets in a world to encourage exploration is fraught with problems. Secrets are, in some sense, a double-edged sword. Players ultimately need information in order to make choices about how they play the game. Robbing players of information can severely impact the play experience in various ways. But secrets are effectively about hiding information.
Of course, the reason secrets and such can work in games at all is that while information is important, there are plenty of other things that go into playing at the same time. Players don’t need complete information, so much as they need information that facilitates what they want to do. If players want to explore, providing them with information that helps them explore is important. And such information requires both preventing them from exploring aimlessly (or at least from doing so for too long, particularly when they don’t want to be exploring aimlessly), and providing them the opportunity to explore thoroughly. Navigating these two dimensions is not easy, and there is no single solution that will work best. But in designing games it is important to think about how information is conveyed to the player, such that it is impossible that they can come to “miss” content that they would have otherwise wanted.