I recently reviewed Kholat, a horror/adventure game that wasn’t particularly successful at telling its story or scaring the player. And yet, despite leaving my time with it unenthused, it’s a hard game to completely dismiss for a single reason: it offers a really great setting to explore.
The goal in Kholat is to discover a series of coordinates in an icy, mountainous landscape. Rather than offer the player the GPS-style tracking that most modern videogames feature, though, only a map and compass are provided. Because the use of these tools is complicated by the fact that the environment is filled with natural obstacles like cliffs and impassable boulders, progressing through the game inevitably requires an awful lot of wandering around, soaking in the atmosphere while trying to determine where to go next. Without retreading the review, suffice it to say that this can be frustrating when the player just wants to get on with completing their current objective. But, if the need to progress is put aside for a while, there can also be something worthwhile in simply wandering Kholat’s haunting recreation of the snowy Ural Mountains.
Most games place their emphasis on completing objectives and taking part in immediately engaging moment-to-moment activities like combat, puzzle-solving, or platform jumping. From the arcade era onward, videogames have largely been defined by these kinds of goals. The medium’s long history of titles that stress running, jumping, shooting, and brawling continues to influence most every release. Players expect to be doing something nearly every minute they spend with a game. Many audiences have come to see titles that subvert this expectation as either failures or, in the case of pejoratively labelled “walking simulators” (like Gone Home or The Stanley Parable), experiences that should be classified as something other than videogames.
Aside from the unnecessarily strict definitions that these kind of dismissals hope to employ, they miss the fact that there’s always been more to games than just interactions like shooting or running. Many players, even during the early years of primitive sound and graphics, come to the medium to feel as if they’ve entered another world. There’s something to be said for the joy of simply inhabiting—and exploring—a virtual environment.
Even action-packed series like Call of Duty, Uncharted, and Halo are built for this reason. It may not be what immediately comes to mind, but the the science fiction setting of a game like Gears of War is just as important to the overall experience as its thrilling gunfights. When we play even the most mechanically dense titles, a large part of what keeps us invested is the world in which these games are set. Is it surprising, then, that more and more developers are experimenting by stripping away traditional gameplay systems in order to concentrate entirely on world-building?
Ed Key and David Kanaga’s Proteus is just one example of a title built entirely around the concept of exploration. In it, the player is asked to do nothing more than wander around an island, looking at animals and watching the weather change. The satisfaction of playing the game comes from poking around the world, soaking in its audiovisual design. Though they’re driven more by story than an exploration game like Proteus, titles like The Astronauts’ The Vanishing of Ethan Carter or The Chinese Room’s Dear Esther work in a similar way. In these games, too, the player spends much of their time walking from place to place, slowly navigating the depths of gloomy forests and the rocky coasts of rain-swept islands. In each example, enjoyment comes not from the challenge of traversal, but an experience of exploration and aesthetic appreciation not unlike going for a walk or hike in the real world.
There’s no reason to discount the potential of games that are more interested in providing spaces to wander than enemies to fight or difficult terrain to traverse. They’re simply tapping into one element of videogame design that has been underserved in the medium’s (short) history. As audiovisual fidelity increases over time—and new technology like virtual reality headsets begins to enter the mainstream—the exploration-focused game seems like a genre worth examining. These titles look to capitalize on the sense of entering another world, and that’s something that’s always provided a draw to players. As gameplay continues to become more diverse, there’s a fantastic opportunity for this type of design to flourish more fully.