Journal - Exploring Games
The term "gameplay" gets bounded about a lot on the internet, and of course with any term invented by the high-tech generation, the definition of this word gets argued quite extensively. In my eyes, it's a meaningless word, but that's a discussion for another entry.
Few games spark debates about gameplay as much as games centring around the mechanics of exploration and discovery. Gone Home recently incited quite a number of arguments between those who found it to be masterful and artistic, and those who posed the question 'but is it a game? Or is it merely an interactive novel?'
These questions are also quite meaningless in my mind. Does it even matter what it is, if it's enjoyable or evokes a degree of thought or emotion? What is important to me is that Gone Home utilises a mechanic found in games that is quite often overlooked, but is one of the quintessential hallmarks of gaming; an element found in no other medium of art: exploration.
Although it could be argued that merely traversing an art gallery is a form of exploration, this is seldom the point of the art itself. Exploring a game environment might be seen by some to merely be the viewing of a three-dimensional sculpture with aspects to discover which aren't immediately apparent. But to me, it's oftentimes a journey which no two people experience in the same way. If done right, in this fashion it becomes interactive art and it becomes a narrative unique to the viewer's tastes, whims, even emotions.
To illustrate the power of exploration in a game, I have two games in mind which utilise the concept of exploration to their full potential.
The first game is Red Dead Redemption. Now, of course if you've played this game you are familiar with the wonderful atmosphere of the huge wild-west environment presented to the player, and you'll also have an idea about the valleys, forests and ghost towns you can unearth by picking a direction and riding off into the haze of the desert. But what you might not know about Red Dead Redemption is that it's so full of easter eggs, secrets and indeed, myths, that ten thousand players might explore the same area, but only a handful of those people might come unearth something rare and purposefully obfuscated by the developers. Initially, this might seem somewhat counter-productive; what developer in their right mind wastes time creating things hidden so deeply in the game that only a fraction of the players ever see them?
However, go on Youtube and search for Red Dead Redemption myths, and you'll start to see why they did it. While many of these videos will feature nothing more than scams and trolls, some of them have been validated as true. Other myths are thought to be fake, but players experiencing these things just keeping posting them year after year.
What this does is it builds upon the already eerie atmosphere of a game which feels somehow alive and mysterious. When you play the game knowing you might see something that few people playing have ever seen, there's an added allure to the idea of exploration. The mystique of the game - whether built upon lies or a clever development choices - turns exploration from just another gameplay element, into a feature which interacts with the player's intelligence, curiosity, even their emotions.
The second game I'd like to consider while on the subject of exploration is Shenmue; a game those familiar with me will know I rate as one of the greatest attempts at interactive art ever made.
Shenmue, like Red Dead Redemption, encourages exploration through atmosphere and scope of environment. But it doesn't do it in the same way as RDR, or even games like Skyrim (which more or less hand-holds your exploration until it becomes just another thing to do on your checklist). Shenmue (1 & 2) takes a semi-open world and absolutely crams it full of things. Everything. Every shop has a different musical score, every NPC has a backstory, every drawer in your house can be opened, nearly every location and person at a different point in time triggers a different cutscene or portion of dialogue.
And while these things, it could be argued, have been done in many games since the release of Shenmue in 1999, very few games have so many aspects you'll be uncovering for the first time on your 3rd, 5th, even 10th playthrough. The lead character has nearly 5 hours of dialogue in the first game alone, of which you'll perhaps experience 2/3rds during the first couple of times you play the game. There are mini-games developed for the sole purpose of a 30 second puzzle or gameplay diversification, and some of these games can be missed entirely, as many tasks can be completed in several ways. There's even a street duck racing mini-game (hardly mini at all, in fact) which is so complicated to unlock that 80% of players didn't even know it existed until they read about it on the internet.
At times, it can seem insane to bury some of Shenmue's gameplay elements and conversations so deeply inside and already massive game. Consider for a moment that you're spending a combined total budget of $80 million USD on 2 games which most players will rush through and miss the vast majority of the intricate scenes, textures, character personalities, even musical scores. What good is it, you might ask, to create a piece of music for an 'AAA' game, when most players will never hear it?
The thing about all of these little details being buried so deeply is that it breathes life into two of Shenmue's most important strengths: atmosphere, and exploration. Playing a game like Tomb Raider, you know every tomb you enter has been trod by a million other players on different consoles around the world. Playing Shenmue, on the other hand, you feel a need and a reason to knock on every door, explore every nook, even to follow NPCs around purely to study their daily routines.
With Shenmue, you feel like you're not just playing the game as it was intended to be played; you're discovering. Much in the same way as you're discovering when you play Red Dead Redemption. Whether the discovery is real, promised, or merely a fabricated myth, the "gameplay" and the art is in the not knowing what you'll find around the next corner.
So few games now bother to hide all of these little details and mysterious easter eggs, but I personally feel inspired by these examples on how to use the mechanism of exploration in game development. When I create a free-roaming single player game, I have every intention of burying secrets so deeply that players will be finding them years after the game is released. And that fact alone makes the game infinitely more appealing to me.
For fellow fans of Shenmue: please remember to use the hashtag #SaveShenmue as much as possible on the 3rd of each month. Thanks!
In journal on May 3, 2014, 6:35 pm