We explore, therefore we are

Image by Flickr user dadillydog
Image by Flickr user dadillydog

“My problem with these games is that I end up exploring rather than following the story. And then I just want to keep on exploring.” My husband said to me as he traversed the outskirts of Los Santos in GTA V.

I paused and then responded, “Is that a bad thing?”

That’s the point with open world games, after all. Players dictate what their characters do and where they go. But where’s the appeal in deviating completely from the main story and going off on one’s own? What’s in it for the player? Why do we so enjoy exploring in video games?

When I’m driving home from work, I don’t feel at all compelled to drive down any and every side street I pass. Even if I had all the time in the world, I doubt I be all that interested in finding out where they lead. Yet, when I come across a trail, road, or path in any number of open world games I’ve played over the years, my reaction has been the same: stop, wonder what’s down the path, then go exploring. Even if I’m in the middle of a “very important” main mission, the compulsion to venture elsewhere is still there.

We know what it’s like too. One minute you’re traveling to you next destination to accomplish this or that quest, the next you’re exploring some area you’ve never noticed before. And somehow, an hour later, your original quest is a distant memory. Yet you’re still having plenty of fun, if not more than plenty. By going off the beaten path, you make the game “yours,” playing it how you want to play it, putting into motion the freedoms the game developers offered. However, the “open world” in open world games only go so far, right? While we will all reach the same endings, the uniqueness in play is how we each get there.

Perhaps the joy of exploring is in simply knowing. Knowing a game’s nooks and crannies. Knowing just how far the developers went to create an enjoyable game. Knowing that we’ve mastered a game’s secrets.

But there’s also joy in not knowing. The last expansive open world game I completed was Skyrim. And I used “completed” very lightly. I finished the main story, but I have stacks upon stacks of hours worth of side quests awaiting my return. I have a plenty of reasons to go back to that game. The same is true of Red Dead Redemption, Mass Effect 2 and 3, heck, even GTA IV — these are all open world games in which I have lots left to explore, even though their primary stories are all finished.

We know that games have boundaries, even though there might be visuals behind those invisible walls. But we also know the time and effort some developers put into their games. They wouldn’t just leave us empty-handed for their own sakes. No, they want us to keep exploring, they want us to maintain a relationship with the game, they want us to play, play, and play some more. And that, we are more than happy to do.


  1. Silvachief says:

    While it hasn’t been a problem for me in the past, my flatmate hates sandbox games because he gets caught up in the sand box and gets bored before he actually finishes the main story. I tend to dabble in the sandbox aspects a little, though not nearly enough to get burnt out.

    While i’m not big on exploring for the sake of exploring normally, there are a few games where I make an exception. Minecraft is one of them; though since the game is about building and exploration i’m not sure it counts. The other was World of Warcraft back when I was still playing. Because I cared about the story and world that had first been introduced to me by Warcraft 3, the setting itself became interested and I really enjoyed seeing all there was to see of the 3D version of Azeroth.


    1. cary says:

      Becoming engrossed in a game’s story can make all the difference. A great story can make a sandbox game seem less like a chore and more like an adventure! I usually approach any such games with the intention of getting through the main story first and then exploring later, but it doesn’t always work like that. And there are certainly cases where the sandbox is way more enjoyable to be in generally.


  2. Vitosal says:

    If in real life, we knew there might be something exciting like a glowing feather, or treasure chest at the end of the untaken path then i think in real life we probably would explore those roots. There’s no incentive in the real world to do that.

    I agree with Silvachief as well. I can explore everything depending on what game it is. Batman: AC was one of them. I went looking for easter eggs for such a long time. I think it all depends on the player in the end though. If you like the world the developers have made you’ll want to know everything about it. It all depends on what you like.


    1. cary says:

      Haha, you’re right about that! If I thought there’d be treasure at the end of any given road, you can bet I’d be driving down it!

      I agree with you about Arkham City — I think I had more fun searching for secrets than playing through the game itself. (And it provided some really excellent sandbox-style play!)


  3. duckofindeed says:

    Yeah, why do we like to explore? I have games that are overwhelming because there is so much to explore, and yet I do it. I don’t just say, forget it, let’s get back to the story. I MUST check out every location. There is this urge I can’t resist to see what I can find. To see if some awesome secret is hidden down a certain path. Or in the case of an RPG, if there is some item or other such thing that will make my progress through the game much easier because I managed to find something awesome that will grind my enemies to dust. But, games need incentives to explore, or it’s wasted time. The best open-world games are those that reward you for exploring, not those with big, empty places you can go with nothing there. If the developer is chintzy on rewarding players, then exploring ends up feeling boring and wasted.


  4. cary says:

    You’re quite right about that. That chintzy feeling is well applied to something like Dragon Age II. I liked the story enough, but there was not much to explore outside of the primary world. And even if there was, it was a pretty boring place to begin with.

    Outside of that, I can’t think of a single open world game that I’ve played recently that didn’t have me exploring — it’s just an addicting part of those games! And yes, there’s nothing like finding that extra-special something that make battles easier, or gives you loads of XP or gold!


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