In Search of Exploration Games
(This article is spoiler-free.)
In the past few years, I’ve fallen in love with exploration in video games.
This mechanic is key in games like Outer Wilds or Subnautica. You’re dropped into the middle of a world and are given free reign to go anywhere, discovering many surprises along the way.
I want more! However, recommendations for exploration games often include entries I’ve played yet don’t consider to be in the same genre. Breath of the Wild, Elden Ring, Death Stranding… all games I love, and while they give you much freedom, they never gave me the same sense of exploration as with Outer Wilds or Subnautica.
I’ve been ruminating on why I don’t get the same sense of exploration from these games, and I think I’ve finally figured it out: it’s not just exploration that’s required, but also the sense of discovery that makes these games magical.
By “discovery”, I mean going out into the game to find things you didn't know were there.
These can be narrative or mechanical in nature. You might learn more about the world, forward the plot, or unravel a mystery. You might figure out the hidden rules of a puzzle, a trick to open locked doors, or the route to walk to avoid an enemy noticing you.
What makes a game have high vs low discoverability? It’s all about the player’s knowledge of what you can discover.
In a game with low discoverability, you generally know what you’re going to find everywhere you go. For example, in Breath of the Wild, you knew that each area you entered would have enemies, crafting items, and loot. Sure, you don’t know which enemies, items, or loot you’d find - but you rarely found something totally unexpected.
By contrast, a game with high discoverability has a large “???” on its map. It’s the unknown unknowns; what you might find isn’t even something you could preconceive. What will happen when you land on a new planet in Outer Wilds? Who knows!
(As an aside, high discoverability can be quite annoying if a game severely punishes you while you’re exploring. This aspect is played to comedic effect in I Wanna Be The Guy but in games like Don’t Starve it often feels unfair to die hours into a session because of something you couldn’t have anticipated.)
Now, discoverability alone is not enough to make an exploration game. A linear game (like What Remains of Edith Finch or INSIDE) has narrative surprises around every corner, but you’re not exploring so much as walking a linear path into a dark, unknown forest.
That brings us to the second key element to a good exploration game: branching.
Branching is the number of choices the game presents to a player.
Sid Meier once said that “games are a series of interesting decisions.” If you had no choices, it would cease to be a game - you would just be watching a video.
There is a gigantic range of what choices you give to players. Similar to discovery, these can be narrative or mechanical in nature. Maybe you can choose which order you talk to characters, which characters to save from a monster, or what ending you get. Or you can choose which direction a character moves, how they fight, or even the camera angle.
A good exploration game requires some narrative or mechanical branching. If not, then you wouldn’t be exploring anything!
For example, in Breath of the Wild, you just pick a direction and start walking. The game doesn’t hold you back! Contrast that with a level-based game, like Super Mario Bros, which (besides warp tunnels) gives you little choice on how to proceed besides walking right.
Hard, Scientific Data
As an exercise, here’s my personal (i.e. subjective) discovery/branching ratings on games which people have said are “exploration” games that I’ve played to completion. The closer the game is to the upper-right quadrant, the more discovery/branching it has.
The upper right quadrant is the sweet spot I dub “exploration games.”
Nothing about this chart is about the quality of the game - for example, Journey is one of my favorite games of all time, but it hardly ranks high at all as an exploration game. Rather, it’s just about whether the design of the game gives me the good feeling of exploration.
Obviously, which games give you that grand sense of adventure through exploration is subjective. You and I might rate a games’ discovery and branching differently. But at least now I have a framework from which to judge exploration games.
Now, to get back to the point of this article - can you help me find more exploration games? Leave suggestions in the comments below!