“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.