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Ramble On Rambling: Exploration Games

Certain game experiences seem to suggest other, older games, and leave me longing for them. Age Of Conan, which I've been playing a great deal for the PC Gamer review, somehow left me longing for Oblivion. There was something about the way that Age Of Conan tantalises you with elements of single player gaming that left me quite hungry for a proper RPG romp, and so I reinstalled the last Elder Scrolls game and plunged in.

To tell the truth, I'd been meaning to go back and play Oblivion a some point this year after being reminded of it in PC Gamer UK's Top 100 meeting. Tom Francis had talked about the moment he'd be most fond of in replaying the game: coming out of the underground tutorial into the bright, beautiful gameworld. “You get this incredible feeling of freedom,” he said. “It's wide open and it feels like anything is possible.” It's a feeling that, in some ways, is only possible in a game of Oblivion's calibre. That kind of feeling could be an antidote to the pressures of real life, and definitely an antidote to too many hours in a traditional MMO. I wanted to recapture that, although I had wondered whether Francis' was simply being hyperbolic. Was Oblivion better than I remembered?

A few weeks ago I wrote about Stalker which, in retrospect, would have been a far greater game if it could have been the “Oblivion With Guns” that some people we anticipating. I do hope Clear Sky can manage something closer to that. The other thing that Francis said at the Top 100 meeting, which left me a little dismayed, was that Stalker wouldn't make it into his 100 games at all. That seemed odd to me, because I feel as if the Ukrainian shooter shares much with the open-ended games of exploration and personal achievement that Francis (and most of the rest of the PC Gamer team) are so fond of.

Anyway, my return to Oblivion, mixed both nostalgia for the excellent couple of weeks in which I'd originally played it (including an 3am, rather intoxicated, first plunge into the Oblivion realm which was remarkably intense), with a sense that I might not like the game all that much this time. I wasn't expecting much – my recollections of Oblivion were faded and dulled. I expected it to have aged and recalled my eventual boredom with it the first time around. In some ways, it seems, my memory had been playing tricks on me. Discussion since Oblivion seemed to have dwelt on its failings: dodgy character development mechanisms, the lack of Morrowind's weird-ass world design, and so on. It was as if this had overwritten what I actually felt about the game.

The truth, of course, was that I love Oblivion far more than I remembered. Even while just running across its wondrous open vistas, stopping to marvel at the sheer scale of its visual accomplishment (vegetation-drenched wooded valleys, walled cities visible from the horizon), it only took moments to spot something that I've lauded some other games for: something irrelevant going on in the world. A priestess of some kind was hunting and using magic to kill deer. I could ignore it, or go up to her and talk. The choice was mine. It didn't matter, but it was still there. It was then that I got the same kind flash of freedom that Tom had done on coming out of the sewers. It's a game that charms you with its breadth from those earliest minutes in its open world.

In some ways the same is true of having spent time with GTA4, but for some reason it lacked the same sense of exploration. Something about the attitude and environment of GTA4 meant that I didn't get much joy from wandering off the mission-path. There are wonderful environmental elements, to be sure, and the train and cab rides really did convey the scale and bustle of the city beautifully, but I wonder whether my reduced exploration fun in GTA4 came from the fact that I mostly needed to drive around to get anywhere. Moreover, I wonder whether I simply didn't want to explore another American city and whether my real-world inhibitions about being a thug in a city somehow dampened my enjoyment. I didn't get such as kick out of the transgression this time around, even though GTA4's city is the most impressive videogame world so far.

Even Oblivion's expectant-looking NPC's seem to facilitate my need for exploration. They might be awkwardly, bulbously naturalistic, but they're also superb motors for your adventures with their quest-web of connections and suggestions for action.

At this point you'll have to excuse me as I rework something I wrote on my personal blog around this time last year. It still stands

Far Cry 2 director Clint Hocking was interviewed by Gamasutra, and he talked about exploration as an activity-in-itself within games:

Spatial exploration isn't mandatory. It's not required in any game. It's a certain play style and a certain type of player who's interested in playing in that way. There are ways to design to support that well and ways to do it badly. I think it's pretty clear which games do it well. Grand Theft Auto, Oblivion, they make players who might not even be that kind of player become interested in the act of self-motivated exploration.

I sometimes wish it was mandatory. Exploring has has long been one of the most important things for me in gaming. Elite, Midwinter, Armourgeddon, Outcast - there's been a history of games I've wanted to play just to wander around in their landscapes. I often play games just to see the architecture. I was a tourist in Everquest 2, and couldn't play Dark Age Of Camelot because the buildings were too dull. The main reason I log into Second Life is to fly around looking at peculiar structures and half-finished castles in the sky. I would quite happily have played World Of Warcraft if it had been an empty landscape with nothing to do but wander around exploring. In fact, I would probably have enjoyed that even more. (It would be interesting to take WoW's landscape and create a 'living world' mod, where it is simply a place populated with AI and basic ecosystems, rather than being the backdrop for sets of linear quests. It could be an alternative MMO world based on the same space. Blizzard themselves could do that - WoW as a pure trade sim, complete with cartography, trade routes, travel plans, etc.)

I think the reason I like Oblivion was that I could just poke about in the woods and discover little shacks in the middle of nowhere. So few games offer that - Stalker does, to some extent, yet still I wish Stalker had been larger, emptier, and spookier. The number of baddies was still too high, and the 'battle' post-brain scorcher just didn't interest me at all. I wanted to explore that enormous terrain at my leisure, not be hustled through under constant barrage.

One of the major disappointments of Eve Online, recently, was that "exploration" as an activity didn't really love up to its name. There was much more genuine exploration when the early galaxy was littered with random asteroids and dust clouds – stuff that was removed in later iterations of the game. I'd like more detail like that to have been burned into the world, whereas exploration actually creates a semi-instanced dungeon that appears, lingers for a few days and then disappears again. If you do manage to find anything in Eve's exploration sites, then it was never really there, and therefore never really explored. One of the original joys of Eve was finding interesting systems, or obscure things left over by the dev team - an unusual space station built into an asteroid, or two space stations around the same moon, for example. (Eve players will know what I'm blabbing about here, sorry...) That's been largely lost.

Anyway, I think Hocking is right, that exploration of many different kinds is an important concept for understanding games. But purely spatial exploration, the idea of just exploring for the hell of it, doesn't seem to be well catered for. Perhaps we explorers are in a minority. But I know we're out there (so to speak), and I recall vividly flying out to a pointless remote island during the early beta of Planetside, only to find another person stood there on the rock. He'd gone out there because he could, because it was there. There was no gaming, “hi-score” reason to be out there, we had both just happened to want to see it, perhaps because we might have been the only people to do so.

Would anyone pay for a game that was created in the name of aimless wandering tourism? Could anything in a game world be interesting enough just to go and look at? I wonder what the minimum threshold of activity, the minimum amount of danger and challenge a virtual landscape has to offer to be considered a game?

Reports that Fallout 3 will be less about the exploration, less about the wide-open space that Oblivion provided me with does make me feel sad and annoyed. Where is my next installment of wide open virtual world going to come from? I'm kind of hoping that Hocking is going to be backing up his worlds with action. Far Cry 2, will you save the explorers?

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