I love exploration in games, especially of the spatial variety. I think I have an over-developed love for finding out what’s around the next corner. There’s a powerful psychological reward for me in the act of exploring. As a kid, the first time I ever played Battlezone, I tried to drive to the mountains in the distance. For me, the game was, “Can I ellude these tanks long enough to reach the base of the mountain range?” I literally wondered if there might be a cave entrance there, hidden by the game designers.
I always get frustrated having to explain to certain team members why it’s cool to let the player get up onto the roofs, or slip into an underwater section of the map, or move through a dark, empty house. From an astounding range of people, I often get, “What’s so cool about side areas or nearly empty spaces?” I remember fights around this issue with a number of really smart, creative game designers.
Exploration must appeal to some of us more than others, due to some quirk in our growing up, most likely, but clearly all people respond in some ways to exploration.
There’s a primal compulsion to venture out, away from your mother’s skin. Only slowly do you figure out which dark corners are safe and which are unsafe; which contain the pleasures and which hold the monsters. I think that’s perpetually thrilling, a sort of Lady-or-the-Tiger that we always carry in our heads. And exploration-based games give us quick access to that, allowing us to stimulate that part of our minds on command. What’s around the next corner is fundamental to the way our consciousness evolved; it’ll always be with us.
I think this is even key to horror and suspense, especially in film: In the Blair Witch Project, the limited viewpoint allowed by the camera totally restricted the player’s view, frustrating the human desire to know what rewards and dangers exist in a given space.