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Reasons to Look Around

Sinan Kubba | 12 Mar 2012 09:00
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The psychogeographer searches for new value in his city but has to battle against urban innovation with its GPS, street signs, and relentless squaring of the maze. Meanwhile I, as the gaming adventurer, want to explore large open worlds, but they are presented to me with compasses, golden breadcrumbs, and marked-out maps. Even Skyrim, a game designed to inspire straying from the main quest, still leads me by the waypointed hand to almost all of its secrets. Games want to make me feel strong and autonomous yet they strive to do the legwork. Worst of all, I let them because it's easier, and games take up enough time as it is. It was not so long ago when Zelda put me in an overwhelming world with no map and no waypoints, just a sword and a shield, and that was exactly what made it exciting.

There are too few modern games that truly challenge me to get lost in them.

There are too few modern games like Dark Souls that truly challenge me to get lost in them. It's not just that there's no orientation or that the punishment for dying is so great; it's how exploration is rewarded psychologically. Dark Souls is so challenging that it forces me to observe its topography if I want to progress, so within no time at all I've learned the world by heart. But I've yet to discover it all. There are huge new worlds that hide behind outwardly trivial side paths or even behind walls that fade mockingly when struck. While these hidden worlds offer some material return, it's the finding of them that's the most rewarding, the discovery of a whole new realm in a place I thought I knew like home. It's like finding a secret tray of chocolates in a box I was about to throw away.

Compare this to the majority of today's games which still reward exploration with treasure chests and dead ends - or just dead ends. The Path and Dark Souls should show game designers that there are more psychologically gratifying ways of rewarding exploration than with material minutiae, and that we players should be more encouraged, and more eager, to discover the rewards for ourselves.

Reimagining the Urban

How I explore and even interact with a world can be stimulating in ways that feel unique to gaming. It might be the method of exploration, like floating through Flower to bloom a garden, or rolling around Katamari Damacy and making everything stick to me. Even when exploration is more traditional, how I experience the setting can still be uniquely affecting. BioShock, for example, constantly contrasts Andrew Ryan's utopian vision against the dystopian Rapture reality. It makes the city feel symbolic of Ryan, a man who put his ideals ahead of even his own welfare. From Wander's violent intrusion into The Forbidden Land in Shadow of the Colossus to restoring Hyrule across epochs in Ocarina of Time, games can dream up psychologically rich worlds that feel unique to the medium. When it depicts real-life cities, however, gaming seems to fall flat and lose all individuality.

Games like GTA IV and L.A. Noire present technically faithful replicas of real-life cities, but when I explore them I'm not experiencing the settings' psychology like I do in Rapture. When I navigate Liberty City I feel impelled to do it in an everyday way, to wait at traffic lights, to walk rather than run, and when I don't, the realness breaks. This might be impactful were there something of value beyond the technical accuracy, something to challenge my everyday perception of the city, but there isn't.

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