Diversity in Game Narrative
Five Flash Games (2)

To Boldly Go

Where does exploration fit into our understanding of play? Is play an element of exploration, or exploration an element of play? Are they interrelated concepts, which are hard to pry apart? To improve the degree of innovation in games, we need to explore the limits of play, and I have therefore been thinking recently about exploration. In particular, because it is a one-shot activity (you cannot explore the same place twice - amnesia not withstanding), it doesn't show up as a cultural activity in Caillois' model of play.

Following our current exchanges, Corvus comments on exploration in a current post, and indeed presents exploration, play and games as three related concepts. He says:

It’s no coincidence that we play games, or that we comment on the game play of a title. The addition of play to a game makes the stakes of self discovery less dangerous than learning your limits in a life and death situation. If I had to come up with a hierarchy, I’d say that Exploration includes Play and that Play includes Game, not the other way around.

Lucien also mentions exploration recently on his blog:

One definition I like is that games in their broadest strokes, are about the exploration of the game-space. Writing for games is about supporting that exploration

Clearly exploration of the game-space, as Lucien says, is a key issue in video games.

Exploration also corresponds to a number of elements in our DGD1 model. For instance, the Type 1 Conqueror play style is associated with a type of exploration which Richard has termed 'pathfinding' - that is, (rapidly) determining the path through an area; finding the way forward. Conversely, the Type 2 Wanderer play style is associated with exploration in the sense of discovery - seeking out new and unique experiences. There is also the notion of charting or mapping an area - this can be seen as an extension of the Rational temperament (the desire to acquire knowledge) which we relate to our H1 and H2 subclusters - but now I'm getting too technical for such a general talk.

Nicole Lazarro's Four Keys (which describe emotional payoffs players receive from games not including narrative) include a group she refers to as Easy Fun, characterised by grabbing attention with ambiguity, incompleteness and detail. The emotions of wonder, awe and mystery are associated with this key; it seems to connect with the notion of exploration in some ways, at least in a situation where the game has the potential to see something new just around the next corner. We connect this key of Easy Fun to our Type 3 Wanderer cluster, in broad strokes. (As an aside, Nicole needs to write a book. Somebody from publishing should track her down and push her in that direction).

So what are we going to consider as exploration? It seems that there are two basic elements to the general conception of the term:

  • Travel or search for the purpose of discovery.
  • To investigate or examine systematically.

Or, more informally, to find what's new, or to poke in corners. To explore strange new worlds, or to seek out whatever is hiding in the corners (which may not be new life and new civilisations).

I don't think it's helpful to put exploration at the top of a taxonomy with play and games under it, although clearly this is an option. We expect, for instance, that each new game will give us a new experience and we can therefore argue that this is exploration. But I think this approach will lead us to problems somewhere down the line.

It seems to me that we would do better to employ the word 'exploration' only when fundamentally new things are being discovered or investigated. One can play a varied game many thousands of times, but at some point one is just enjoying the nature of that game, no longer exploring the new experience. Similarly, when one tries something spontaneous for the first time, that's exploratory play. But I have built dams out of rocks and sand often enough that it is not a new experience - it's a familiar and enjoyable pattern of play. (Again, I'm not saying you can't see this as exploration from a certain perspective - I'm simply suggesting it might not be the best way to look at it).

If we include pathfinding as a type of exploration, I suggest we have at least the following forms of exploration to consider:

  • Discovery: exploration of the game world, searching for new things, places (or game mechanics) not experienced before and whatever else is new and engaging.
  • Investigation: close examination of a particular part of the game space, searching for things overlooked, or hidden possibilities. Examining thoroughly.
  • Pathfinding: finding the route forward, or determining a route from one place to another.

Does this cover most forms of exploration? Is there anything obvious missing?

One thing feels particularly relevant to me, which is that exploration seems primarily a one-shot deal. I love the Legend of Zelda games, and have, I believe, now played them all expect Four Swords. But they're hard to play twice. Part of the joy of these games seems to be the exploration - the discovery, investigation and the pathfinding. Once you have finished the games once, it's harder to enjoy again - unless you play with someone new, and therefore enjoy their exploration vicariously (as I have done with the N64 Zeldas). You can't truly explore the same game twice - even when there are random levels, you still reach a point whereby you have the feel for the kind of things that are being thrown at you (and this can happen sooner with random levels than with designed levels).

I'm not trying to work towards a conclusion. The goal here is more general - to explore the concept of exploration, and perhaps to provoke some intelligent discussion of how it would be most useful to think about exploration in the context of video games, and the play needs the people who play those games. It might help us make games that can go where no-one has gone before.


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