Gaming Magazine

The Age of Exploration

Posted on the 15 May 2013 by Findthebluekey @FindTheBlueKey

explorationIt’s a rare thing for a game to truly capture the essence of exploration. The sense of adventure that comes with a new and untapped frontier. Questioning what might be out there, and asking why no one has gone out to look. Dismissing those who say its impossible, those who say it’s too dangerous, those who say there’s no point. Knowing that somehow, outside of logic or reason, that discovery alone is a goal worth striving for. That is the essence of exploration.

Now tell me, when was the last time a game made you feel like that?

Sure, tons of games have exploration in them, there’s no denying that. Games like Skyrim and Farcry have built entire marketing campaigns on the notion that they give you a whole wide world that is yours to explore. But for all their sweeping, scenic vistas and secret caverns, games that are pushing for exploration elements are often missing the forest for the trees.

Most games seem far too afraid that the gamer will become quickly bored with exploration if they aren’t periodically rewarded for it. So games like Skyrim will make sure that there are plenty of reasons for you to trudge back and forth across the world, stumbling across dungeons and treasure, dragons and bandits and everything in between. They assume without a tangible reward for exploration, that the gamer will simply never bother.

Is that a bad assumption? Of course not! In any RPG where the clear goal is to progress as a character, I don’t see myself taking a break to hike up a mountain without the niggling thought that there may be something useful up there. But is this truly exploring? Not particularly. To me, it has far more in common with treasure hunting, something else entirely.

The moon landing didn’t capture people’s imaginations because they thought the moon might be covered in diamonds. But because the moon was a mystery, and there are few things more compelling than a mystery unsolved.

When you boil it down to its barest essentials,  exploration is not about what you gain when you get there, but the fact that you got there at all.

So is it possible for a game to capture that spirit of exploration? At first glance, it seems like it would be a tall order. Games revolve around a feedback loop of action and reward, cause and effect. Removing the second part, and relying on a gamers sense of self-satisfaction is risky, and could very easily leave your game feeling un-fulfilling. But as I discovered recently, it’s entirely possible.


To boldly go…

A little while back I picked up a title called Kerbal Space Program from Steam after it went up for Early Access. What I expected was a fun space sim that would let me fool around with rockets and rovers and rocket-rovers, and Kerbal Space Program is certainly that. What I didn’t expect was an open ended game that pulled me in like few others before it.

Kerbal Space Program is a game without a point, in the most traditional sense. There is no scoreboard, no missions, no objectives. Just you, a room full of rocket parts and a number of planets just taunting you to try and reach them. Much like true exploration, no? Magellan didn’t try and circumnavigate the globe to find a chest of gold, he did it because damn it all if anyone told him he couldn’t!

Incidentally, Magellan never lived through his famed voyage. So Magellan: 0, Rest of the Word: 1?


When will society learn, don’t mess with beards this awesome

But yet, there is certainly something that can be gleaned from this less-than-successful attempt. To get that true adventurers mentality, that frontier spirit, there has to be the threat of failure. Would the climbing of Everest be such an achievement if the first person who tried just knocked it off in an afternoon? Of course not! We consider it such an achievement because so many failed before someone eventually overcame the odds.


Flight 119 Failed, lets roll out Flight 120

And in Kerbal Space Program, fail you will. About the sixth time your rocket explodes into a fiery death-ball, landing on the moon may seem to be an impossible task. I can’t tell you how many botched missions I attempted before I finally made it. But it was this string of failures, and the perseverance through them, that made the final success all the sweeter. If I know I’m going to get to my destination, then its not really exploring, is it? It’s more like a holiday.

I’d never be willing to say that all open world games are getting it wrong. Truly capturing the spirit of exploration is a difficult task, and certainly not a feeling that would fit in to every game. The mechanics always need to match the tone and setting of your game. I just find it interesting to show that for all the games that give you a giant world to explore, very few let you feel like an explorer.

Kerbal Space Program let me feel like an adventurer, pushing the boundaries of ingenuity and overcoming all of the odds stacked against me in order to reach the next frontier. The road to any successful flight is difficult, and will contain much failure and hardship, but with perseverance and the explorers spirit, it can all be overcome.

And what is my reward for doggedly pursuing this next frontier? Nothing, but my personal satisfaction in having finally made it. And let me tell you, it’s a more rewarding feeling than any chest of gold or +5 Sword of Asswhooping will ever be.

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