It seems fitting that exploration games are also known as sandbox titles. In a sandbox, a person must amuse themselves. Tools and toys are limited. The setting is open, in some ways empty, and the player can do whatever they want—within a predetermined set of limitations. Creativity is a product forced through boredom. It is up to the player to decide to imbue their surroundings with meaning and purpose.
There are many ways to encourage exploration in an open world game setting. The best way is to create an environment so beautiful or interesting that the player wants to see more of it. From there, available options range from the thoughtful to the merely serviceable. Whether an open world game is meant to be enjoyed for its scenery depends on the type of game; for example, Dying Light features a large open space in which you can run from zombies and climb structures and buildings, but the pacing doesn’t support exploration, and neither does the landscape inspire it (outside of the navigational challenges of parkouring over the undead). Many zombie games are similar. Series like Grand Theft Auto, meanwhile, feature exploration as almost an accident: the player experiences much of the setting through the natural process of running from the cops and completing missions. In both the above examples, and in other games like Borderlands and Assassin’s Creed, exploration is prompted at least in part by collectibles, a running list of errands imposed upon the player to artificially give the impression of depth, more or less amounting to busy work. In Far Cry (and by extension, Horizon Zero Dawn), this takes on the additional form of craftable upgrades locked behind progression barriers tied to key parts of the map. The environment fades into the background as a set piece to keep the player’s eyes stimulated as they focus on the game’s mechanics.
In general, it’s helpful to see the player’s mindset, upon entering a game, as tentative. It’s a deeply programmed human response to first assess, then test, an unfamiliar environment before getting comfortable. More games, and particularly exploration games, need to designed around this key instinct. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey are good contemporary examples. While they are structurally dissimilar (Odyssey may not even be considered an open world game but, rather, a series of small sandboxes tied together in one overarching universe), they both know how to reward the player for indulging their innate curiosity. It works with, instead of against, our tendency towards caution. In Breath of the Wild, if you spot something odd in your surroundings and follow the lead, you’ll find a Korok seed (one of a staggering 900), or unearth a Shrine. In Super Mario Odyssey, almost everything is connected to a hidden puzzle, the solving of which nets Mario another Super Moon. The flow of the game has been adapted so that multiple puzzles can be quickly solved in one sitting, without the disruption of returning to a level menu (as in Mario games past), reinforcing the player’s commitment to testing their surroundings in one long, uncontested flow. Nintendo has a way of validating the player’s observations and encouraging them to take a proactive role in exploring their world.
Now, by pointing out how well Nintendo has used this technique in their most popular releases this year, I do not mean to say they’re the only ones out there that can design a game that rewards curiosity (nor do I mean to suggest they do not occasionally indulge in the collectible model themselves; see: Odyssey’s purple coins). For example, while the Bethesda-era Fallout games have their flaws, the series lore (particularly the horror sci-fi themes surrounding scientific experiments, military secrets and government conspiracies) gives a sense of the forbidden that has a Pandora’s Box-like effect on the player. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, six years after the fact, is to this day still celebrated for its massive map and awe-inspiring locations—who can forget the feeling of spotting a mountain or great building in the distance and traveling for hours just to get there?
But given how many open world exploration games I play, it’s refreshing to see Nintendo value my time, and value the virtual space as well. Exploration games are inherently about the environment itself, and that the relationship between that land and the player needs to be nurtured and respected. When I’m given a stash of collectibles to go hunt down, I don’t feel I’m being encouraged to appreciate the beauty of the world the artists have created; they’re essentially extending the game’s shelf life with artificial fillers so I’ll spend more time there whether I’m enjoy it or not. And perhaps sometimes the developers do not even mean to trivialize their own content by using collectibles, but it’s a byproduct of not considering that relationship.
Take L.A. Noire as an example, which was just released on the Switch, as well as Xbox One and PlayStation 4. The historic setting is fascinating, but the map itself is far too big to explore organically and find all the collectibles alone. The player’s curiosity about the setting goes unrewarded, because tracking down those items will suck up too much time to be interesting or worth it. While the collectibles, in their nature, prop up the game’s setting by giving homage to its sources of inspiration (including noir films and key historical Los Angeles locations), the player has so little chance to find and appreciate them. They might as well not even be there.
I’m not a fan of games that are considered open world or exploration simply because they create a large space for players to mess around in. As I’ve said, bigger isn’t always better. A virtual environment must consider how we respond to our surroundings and what inspires us to interact. Nintendo pulled that off twice this year. Now that games have shed their artificial walls and barriers and expanded outward, it’s time to turn inward. Hopefully, one day, curiosity will kill the collectible.
Holly Green is the assistant editor of Paste Games and a reporter and semiprofessional photographer. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gamasutra, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.