Playing the remake of Link's Awakening has heightened my awareness to a fundamental problem in exploration-based adventure games. In some form or another, sometimes very subtly but often times quite directly, the feedback loop for self-guided discovery shifts from the Metroidvania principle of “remember this obstacle for later” to “you are wasting your time”. The game develops a singular window of time where exploring is optimal.
This very detailed chart generally captures what I am describing. Below the “Rewarding Exploration Zone” (which I am going to reference enough going forward to call the REZ), it can be immediately frustrating to try and veer off the predetermined progression path. This is a glaring issue in games like Hollow Knight and Ori, where not only can you do very little exploring at the start of the game, but foundational abilities are completely withheld from you for hours. Too often you are met with a metaphorical locked door, and when you finally get the key to open it later, you find another locked door behind it. While the feeling of player improvement is important, it too often compromises other core principles like rewarding exploration and discovery.
With the new laws that require every AAA game infuse RPG elements, this problem has seeped into genres that otherwise should be exempt from this dilemma. God of War and Control, for example, both lock crucial movement and combat mechanics till very late in the progression trees. While the games largely handle the upgrades well, there are too many times it is unclear whether you can’t understand the exploration puzzle in front of you or you’re lacking the necessary pieces to complete it in the first place.
I think games that have taken successful steps in expanding the lower bound of the REZ are Breath of the Wild, A Link Between Worlds, and Spider-Man. For the Zelda examples, the developers are very upfront and direct about giving you all the tools you need to get around and explore close to the start of the game. Now instead of a fundamental mechanic serving as a metaphorical locked door and key, more direct and immediate roadblocks are presented like weather, NPC interactions, and world states. You need a set of clothes, not the hookshot, to climb a mountain. This is in stark contrast to older Zeldas (and Links Awakening specifically) where exploration feels like an impossible chore until essentially the end of the game when Link is fully loaded.
In Spider-Man, there are a number of unlockable abilities, but none of them are needed in order to actually explore areas of Manhattan you otherwise would be unable to. The developers do a great job of offering improvements and upgrades to the existing core mechanics like increased swing speeds, point launch, a second web pull, etc. Exploration is always rewarded from the start of the game, and your underlying ability to do so is made easier, not possible.
Finally, the last issue occurs when the game progresses above the REZ. At this point, the character is too overpowered for any of the rewards of exploration to carry any meaning. You no longer need additional money, or hearts, or fire power, because the base character is essentially unkillable. Exploring now is done for game completion, to get the 100% trophy. This is one of the reasons I think Outer Wilds was such a successful experience, the ability to explore is never made too easy due to you “leveling up” and is only enhanced by your skill level.
To summarize this a little more succinctly:
Adventure games frequently discourage exploration by gating too many rewards behind late game mechanics and create a "Rewarding Exploration Zone" of playtime
Developers can expand the REZ by unlocking core movement and combat early in a game's progression, or by using different methods of unlocking content other than player mechanics
Late game exploration based rewards should be focused on story, lore, and side content that still drives a sense of discovery, and not a feeling of chore like minutiae
- Is there a way to preserve the replay value of a discovery game? (Case study: Subnautica)
- I’m so done with the formula of open-world games.
- Hollow knight’s exploration is flawed to its core
More about Gaming NewsPost: "The Foundational Problem of Adventure Games" specifically for the game Gaming News. Other useful information about this game:
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