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Open World Exploration in Games

Article posted on 12/2/2021

I love open exploration.

This fact is actually relatively newfound information for me. I have always enjoyed RPGs and the “exploration” they offer - by that, I always meant whatever new world tidbit or experience I had as I progressed through a linear storyline. 

But as open world exploration started to permeate several different game genres, I found myself finally at a place where open-world sandbox and RPG intersected: Skyrim.

As far as my immediate recollection goes, Skyrim was the first for me. My love for the thrill of a wide open world with endless possibilities that I could experience at my leisure was only further cemented when I played Zelda: Breath of the Wild. While at times I missed having a tight and linear story to follow, the allure of being able to go wherever and do whatever I wanted during a game was becoming stronger.

Open-world exploration is far from a new concept, but as I said above, I was far less aware of it until it strongly intersected with my preferred game genre. The primary downside for someone like me who is a very story-driven gamer is that the story often needs to take a bit of a backseat in an open world game. The emphasis is all on exploration and the freedom of choice. There are, of course, exceptions to this - Mass Effect, for example, balances plot and exploration fairly well - but in general the focus has to be put more on one or the other rather than both.

If we’re looking at open-world exploration in genres outside of RPGs, then 4X is absolutely one of the biggest proponents of this idea. Games like Stellaris or the Galactic Civilizations series put emphasis on exploration - heck, it’s literally one of the very foundations of what makes up 4X as a genre (which stands for eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate, in case you were unaware!). 

I have often said that I find the more administrative side of 4X games to be daunting for me personally. While that still is largely true, I’ve found that I’ve become more comfortable with it as I’ve spent more time playing.

I realized recently that what really excites and compels me about these games is finding out what’s out there. I frequently forgo the important stuff - like managing my governments, oops - because I am so wrapped up in sending my vessels out into the galaxy to find out what’s lurking beyond the fog of war.

In a game like GalCiv, there’s just so much out there to encounter, from new worlds to colonize, to drastic events that might alter the course of my entire civilization (I’m sure it’s completely fine to accept those genetic enhancements and implant them in my people!), to encounters with pirates or other enemy civilizations who are tired of my nonsense. It’s always a good feeling when I’m able to decimate a pirate fleet - we’ll call that revenge for the numerous times they used to beat me up before I finally figured out what the heck I was doing.

The thing about exploration in 4X games is that it is also unfettered. I can go out and do as much as I want and explore as far as I’d like - though, certainly, there are some consequences for not being careful! I find it really interesting how the exploration in GalCiv actually becomes a part of the story you tell, along with the kinds of interactions you have with other civilizations, the ideological choices you make, and so on.

Is exploration a favorite aspect of gameplay for you? Do you love open world games? Share your thoughts with me!