In Search of Exploration Video games

(This text is spoiler-free.)

Previously few years, I’ve fallen in love with exploration in video video games.

This mechanic is essential in video games like Outer Wilds or Subnautica. You’re dropped into the center of a world and are given free reign to go anyplace, discovering many surprises alongside the best way.

I need extra! Nonetheless, suggestions for exploration video games usually embody entries I’ve performed but don’t contemplate to be in the identical style. Breath of the Wild, Elden Ring, Demise Stranding… all video games I really like, and whereas they offer you a lot freedom, they by no means gave me the identical sense of exploration as with Outer Wilds or Subnautica.

I’ve been ruminating on why I don’t get the identical sense of exploration from these video games, and I believe I’ve lastly figured it out: it’s not simply exploration that’s required, but additionally the sense of discovery that makes these video games magical.


By “discovery”, I imply going out into the sport to seek out belongings you did not know had been there.

These could be narrative or mechanical in nature. You may study extra in regards to the world, ahead the plot, or unravel a thriller. You may determine the hidden guidelines of a puzzle, a trick to open locked doorways, or the path to stroll to keep away from an enemy noticing you.

What makes a recreation have excessive vs low discoverability? It’s all in regards to the participant’s information of what you may uncover.

In a recreation with low discoverability, you usually know what you’re going to seek out all over the place you go. For instance, in Breath of the Wild, you knew that every space you entered would have enemies, crafting objects, and loot. Positive, you don’t know which enemies, objects, or loot you’d discover – however you hardly ever discovered one thing completely surprising.

In contrast, a recreation with excessive discoverability has a big “???” on its map. It’s the unknown unknowns; what you may discover isn’t even one thing you possibly can preconceive. What is going to occur if you land on a brand new planet in Outer Wilds? Who is aware of!

(As an apart, excessive discoverability could be fairly annoying if a recreation severely punishes you whilst you’re exploring. This side is performed to comedic impact in I Wanna Be The Man however in video games like Don’t Starve it usually feels unfair to die hours right into a session due to one thing you couldn’t have anticipated.)

Now, discoverability alone is just not sufficient to make an exploration recreation. A linear recreation (like What Stays of Edith Finch or INSIDE) has narrative surprises round each nook, however you’re not exploring a lot as strolling a linear path right into a darkish, unknown forest.

That brings us to the second key aspect to exploration recreation: branching.


Branching is the variety of decisions the sport presents to a participant.

Sid Meier as soon as mentioned that “video games are a collection of attention-grabbing choices.” For those who had no decisions, it will stop to be a recreation – you’ll simply be watching a video.

There’s a gigantic vary of what decisions you give to gamers. Much like discovery, these could be narrative or mechanical in nature. Perhaps you may select which order you speak to characters, which characters to avoid wasting from a monster, or what ending you get. Or you may select which path a personality strikes, how they battle, and even the digicam angle.

An excellent exploration recreation requires some narrative or mechanical branching. If not, then you definitely wouldn’t be exploring something!

For instance, in Breath of the Wild, you simply choose a path and begin strolling. The sport doesn’t maintain you again! Distinction that with a level-based recreation, like Tremendous Mario Bros, which (apart from warp tunnels) offers you little selection on the best way to proceed apart from strolling proper.

Arduous, Scientific Information

As an train, right here’s my private (i.e. subjective) discovery/branching rankings on video games which individuals have mentioned are “exploration” video games that I’ve performed to completion. The nearer the sport is to the upper-right quadrant, the extra discovery/branching it has.

Scatter plot of games, where the X-axis is "branching" and the Y-axis is "discovery." The upper-right quadrant are qualified as exploration games.

The higher proper quadrant is the candy spot I dub “exploration video games.”

Nothing about this chart is in regards to the high quality of the sport – for instance, Journey is one among my favourite video games of all time, nevertheless it hardly ranks excessive in any respect as an exploration recreation. Quite, it’s nearly whether or not the design of the sport offers me the great feeling of exploration.


Clearly, which video games offer you that grand sense of journey by way of exploration is subjective. You and I’d price a video games’ discovery and branching in a different way. However not less than now I’ve a framework from which to evaluate exploration video games.

Now, to get again to the purpose of this text – are you able to assist me discover extra exploration video games? Go away solutions within the feedback beneath!

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