Exploration and video games go hand in hand in many ways. While a lot of really great games push the player along a linear path, many of our favorites, and ones that we all talk about well after the credits roll, are the games that allow us to venture out into a unique world and create own experiences through exploration. It’s a tried and true method, but one that really feels amazing when it’s perfected. So far in 2022 we have three very distinct examples of exactly that.
This isn’t meant to be a theme of the year type post, but instead a chance to look back on a few games that have really left an impact by giving players something they really want. A chance to explore and discover on their own. Each game has done so in its own unique way and all of them have come from a different developer so everyone out there should be able to play at least one of these games.
Elden Ring is not a particularly approachable game by any means because of its difficulty, but that hasn’t stopped it being a game where millions of players went into a notoriously difficult genre, bashed their head into a wall, and forced their way through its challenges. Why did they do that? Because they wanted to explore the world that From Soft had created. A world where over every hill there is something new for the player to discover.
The sense of wonder that Elden Ring creates is really unmatched. There is always something for the player to do, always a new place to explore, and always a new boss to take on. Despite the world being inexplicably huge, there is no part of it that felt empty. It’s extremely dense and what this created was a world where players all felt like they were discovering new things on their own and they would then rush to the internet to talk about it with others. Being on places like Twitter was really fun for Elden Ring when it first came out because everyone was discovering something new for the first time, and then there would be discussion around it.
Is this kind of exploration new? Not really. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild did something similar where it made the fun of the game be less about the plot and more about the exploration, but Elden Ring took that concept, threw some Dark Souls paint on it, and made one of the most beloved games of the year through exploration.
There are many different ways that games try to have players explore, but the most common one is to put something interesting somewhere and make the player interested to go look at it. Tunic meanwhile approached exploration from an entirely different standpoint. It threw the player on a beach, started playing some music, and then told them to go figure it out themself. There is very little guidance in Tunic, forcing the player to explore not out of curiosity but instead to learn about the world they’re in. What is their mission? What are they trying to accomplish? All of that is learned through exploration.
Of course, throwing the player in a world without at least a tiny bit of guidance would leave them frustrated so it does need to create the curiosity to learn. Tunic manages to create curiosity through its NES style guidebook. Very little of it is readable to the player because it’s written in a language none of us can understand, but as the player collects pieces of it they learn more about everything. They’re completing the puzzle. Eventually, with every piece of the guide in hand, the player can unlock the true ending to the game in one of the most extravagant puzzles we’ve personally ever seen.
Tunic’s inspirations are obvious. The Legend of Zelda and FEZ are the most obvious ones, but few games perfect the idea of exploration in this way. When you explore the world of Tunic you’re not doing so to clear some achievement, or fill out a map, but just because you want to. Like we said about Elden Ring, the fun of Tunic is in the discovery.
Xenoblade Chronicles 3
Xenoblade Chronicles 3 came out for the Switch back in July and it has not taken over the world of video games. It has a very dedicated niche audience and that audience really loves this game. You can include the person writing these words in that audience, but it’s kind of a shame that the game hasn’t caught on more because the world of Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is marvelous. On the surface, it doesn’t do anything different from the previous games of the franchise. It rewards the player for exploring, completing side quests, and finding new places. It removes irritants like grinding by showing the player that if they just play the game naturally they will find all they need, and if they walk off the beaten path then they’ll receive extra goodies because of it.
The way Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is different from its predecessors though is not only how its streamlined many aspects of the previous games, but how it drip drops in new things for the player as they explore this massive world. They can’t immediately climb because they haven’t learned how yet, or they don’t have the skills necessary to go to that new place because they haven’t completed a specific quest yet. This may sound annoying to people who want to just go out and explore everything they can from the start, but by forcing the player to wait to explore every facet of every area they’re also giving the player reason to explore them again later on. When you return to these new areas there is no longer just new quests to do, but new places to explore as well. It makes returning to areas feel less like backtracking and more like a new opportunity.
Xenoblade Chronicles 3 takes a proven and successful formula for exploration and makes it better than it ever was before. Not only does it continue to reward players for choosing to explore, but it’s now given them the opportunity to treat each return to a previous area like it’s a new experience. Discovery and exploration should be fun and it makes sure that the feeling of fun never leaves.