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Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Garden: Exploration

There is an environment which the player may walk through and observe. When this exploring is the dominant element of an experience, you've got an exploration game.

The primary content of an exploration game is world design, which is to say the aesthetic or intellectual value of a virtual environment. There are many genres of worlds: forests, urban, abstract, fantasy, horror, etc.

The pure (computer) exploration game does not, to the best of my knowledge, exist. I know it can exist because I've had some satisfying exploring in the real world, where the exploring was the whole point. But in gamism so far, exploration is used only as a subordinate element, or at most one of several dominant elements in a complex Form. Some games have such vivid worlds that you could probably remove everything but the world and the interface and have a good (short) exploration game, but it should be emphasized that this would not be the same experience as playing the original games. I guess it'd be like listening to the soundtrack of a movie.


Since it's so uncharted, the best way to understand exploration games is to compare them to other Forms which we are familiar with. Most importantly, exploration games are closely related to architecture, landscape design, and other such visual arts. (I think the theoretically ideal exploration gamist would be an architect, a sculptor and an animator.) The difference is, a game has no limits. Real-world creations are restricted not only by the laws of physics but also by the limitations of real materials, the costs, and overall functionality. An exploration game does not have these limitations unless they are self-imposed. There is nothing preventing a gamist from placing a magnificent palace with melting and regenerating walls on the back of a moving horse.

With that sort of artistic freedom, what is it that it inherits from architecture? Well, there are infinitely many (or if the interface is restricted, at least many) ways to view an environment, and all must be taken into account. It can be viewed from different angles, it can be viewed at different times of day, it can have many random elements wandering around which a good designer can account for to some extent. So a good world or piece of architecture, as opposed to a more easily grasped medium like paintings, is a work which continually reveals new facets of itself, and can keep surprising the viewer for a very long time. For that reason, an exploration game is not meant to be played once and then discarded. It is meant to be returned to over and over.

Enough about architecture. It is also close, in structure if not purpose, to the movement game. They both revolve around the simple act of moving. The difference is, in a movement game the moving itself is the point. In an exploration game where you're moving through is more important. If that world is compelling, how you move through has less importance. But these two Forms are intertwined, because you can't really have one without the other. If you are moving, you're moving through someplace. And if you're moving through someplace, you've gotta be moving somehow. The question (for classification) is which is dominant and which is subordinate, and that question isn't always so easy to answer.

It can be useful for the world designer to consider what avatar(s) he is building the world for. An endless series of beautiful mountains might not be so suitable for a human, but what if the player is playing a bird? And the concept of scale changes very much if the player is playing a baby or a giant. In such cases, it's nice to have good controls but hardly critical- the avatar is there to give context, not content. In fact, the avatar (as it is typically thought of) is not a necessary ingredient at all! The gamist might wish to give the player an "objective avatar", who either moves like a person (as though the player were actually walking through for himself), or more abstractly.

Much like a painting, an exploration game can indirectly tell a story. This makes it similar to adventure games (by my "future" definition), which are similarly predetermined experiences. But the presentation is different. In order to present a story as part of world design, it needs to be complete from the start. The player chooses in what order to experience it, but otherwise is not connected to its progression. If he were given more choices which effected the outcome of the story, the game would be an adventure and not exploration.

Taking a self-absorbed plot (even a good one) and putting it into a carefully-crafted world is not good storytelling for an exploration game. If an exploration game is telling a story, that's secondary content. The primary content is still world design, and an appropriate story will call attention back to that. It can add an intellectual layer to the aesthetic one, where you can sit and think about what the arrangement of objects around you is meant to symbolize in relation to the story.

Now that we've got a good idea of where exploration stands, let's take it on its own terms. What can world design be made out of? There's the obvious walls and structures and abstract shapes. There can also be plant life. (Climbable trees are always welcome!) There can be animals and people, either static for the effect of a photo or in motion. A marketplace wouldn't be complete without buyers and sellers! For that matter, a marketplace isn't complete without buying. And in that spirit, there's no reason not to have mini-games where they are called for by the world. Certain surfaces call for movement mini-games, certain environments call for interaction mini-games.

The progression between room doesn't have to be literal. The room next door could actually be the same room, but in a different time period. Or it could be an entirely unrelated place. If a doorway acts as a "portal" between areas, that's a world-building technique rather than a literal plot point. And it doesn't have to be a doorway per se- hallways are more gradual ways of shifting setting, for instance. Or the player might as well be given a button which switches between areas. Old-fashioned ideas of how things connect to each other don't have to be used at all, or can be actively subverted.

Reaching an area the player is already familiar with is comforting. When he walks off in a new direction and stumbles onto somewhere he is already familiar with, suddenly a more complete model of the world is created in his mind. If he goes too far without any point of reference, he may get disoriented and want to backtrack to somewhere he knows. Placing large areas which intersect with many paths makes a world seem less foreign, because it ensures that the player will loop back on those areas many times and construct a better model in his head.

A world could theoretically be a straight line, in which case the little details need to hold up the game on their own. The maze is the opposite extreme: a world whose entertainment value comes entirely from trying to find your way forward. In the middle ground the player can both entertain himself finding a path, and be given art wherever he goes. That way he can be engaged in both the short-term and the long-term: The staying power of exploration games comes from nostalgia and wanting to see things from new angles, but searching for shortcuts and routes to specific places is fun right from the start. The attempt to navigate is entertaining in itself, an experience which contains elements of perception and memory.

When gamism expands to interface directly with our brains, the exploration game will give us worlds which are fantastically vivid but fundamentally indistinguishable from the real world. It will give us not just sights and sounds but also smells and atmospheres. We'll be able to touch the things around us, see how they feel. We'll be able to take other people there with us and show them around, we'll be able to bring in other activities like books, to enjoy in the environment. Some people will essentially live in virtual worlds, to replace the costs and space limitations of real housing. But regardless of how they are used, that level of immersion is what exploration games strive for.

Droplets: Exploration

The player shifts back and forth through two possible futures. Or the houses of two different people, who started from the same spot. Or a society which keeps rebuilding itself almost instantaneously, as new people come in. Or the player shifts between reality and an abstract symbolism. One spot does not have to be one spot- it can be many spots, all covering the same space.

A real-time exploration game in a fictional real-world area. There is no avatar, and you can follow people around as they go about their daily routine.

Exploring a single, frozen moment of time.

An abstract representation of a person's personality. (Possibly a real person the gamist knows. I am not thinking of anyone in particular, though.) Exploring the world lets you get to know the person, in the sense that your feelings toward the world mirror the gamist's feelings toward the person.

Exploration by association. Clicking on an object (or person, or idea) brings you to an environment which represents that thing, and clicking on any object there will bring you to yet another environment. This is exploration serving the purpose of character development, where each new environment shows you more of the character's worldview. (Actually, this idea disproves what I said about exploration necessitating movement.)

An exploration-construction hybrid. The player explores a vast but somewhat empty area, and adds to it however he likes. He experiences the world he is given by using it.

A world which keeps growing. Worlds within worlds. The smaller you get relative to the world, the more you perceive explore-able detail in tiny elements. Eventually you find a tiny object which grows to be the original environment, so the loop is complete.

M.C. Escher-inspired worlds. Gravity is not a constant, perspective is not a constant, objects become environments and environments become objects. You know what would be especially cool? An M.C. Escher-inspired adaptation of Alice in Wonderland!

Simulations of real places. This might actually exist already, since it's an obvious idea. If it does, I haven't seen it.

A 4-dimensional world. Don't ask me how it'd work- I've never been able to wrap my head around 4-dimensionality.

Static political commentary, for comedic effect. You wander around a vast, nonsensical representation of how the gamist thinks his political opponents see the world. This world could be accessible via the internet, with new sections being added continually as the news happens.

Movements, like in music. Each movement has a very specific ending. It's clear where it is, but there are many ways to get there. Each path is fairly nonlinear, but two separate paths from the beginning will very rarely cross over with each other. When you get to the ending, you find yourself in the next movement. Each movement represents a different set of emotions, and each path through them is a different variation on those emotions. So every time you go through the game you get roughly the same sequence of emotions, but each time through can be a new experience. (Unless you want to do the same path you've seen already, of course.)



These are the sorts of games I'd design if I'd devoted more time and formal education to visual art than to programming and writing. As it stands now, however, they are also the kinds of games I'd love to play. I can already think of many games already in existence that I loved solely because of their architecture. (The Neverhood is one in particular that comes to mind.)

It's also worth mentioning that I myself have had a similar idea to what you termed "exploration by association", only with words rather than objects. Think of a Wikipedia into a character's mind. I'm thinking of actually doing one of these sometime... might be a fun exercise.


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