Any particular game could have so many great qualities. It can have excellent mechanics, good competitive play, or a nice art style, and so many other things. One quality that I value very highly is how a game handles exploration of its environment. To me, games have always had the potential to be the ultimate story telling medium. Having an intelligently built world for a player to explore is very beneficial to a game's story telling. To get a player immersed in your game you want to have an interesting world that offers experiences that are genuine to that world. There are many games that do this amazingly well, but I have picked out the 7 games that I think have well realized worlds and best embody exploration, adventure, and wonder. Read on!
Let's start with Journey. Journey is a really simple game on PS3. The actual player interaction is pretty minimal. You just move, jump, and fly through a really beautiful desert landscape. Your destination is a mountain that is always seen on the horizon, providing the player with a sort of natural compass. There is also almost no UI to speak of.
It's a very lonely experience where you occasionally encounter a fellow traveler (real players only). You meet up with other travelers in a very natural way, and you part just as naturally. This contrast between loneliness and companionship is really effective. Communication is limited in a cool way, the player has a few options of doing alien like emotes. This helps the game feel more real, nothing ruins immersion more than some kid with a headset. Despite having no dialogue, Journey has a strong story. It does this by having an environment that tells a story. As you go on, the journey gets progressively more treacherous, you encounter well devised hieroglyphics that make sense after reflecting on them. You can read more about my thoughts on less overt story telling here!
The Legend of Zelda has some really great things happening. The game's creator Shigeru Miyamoto once stated that he wanted to make a game that reminded him of his childhood, exploring some caves and going places he probably shouldn't have been. I think the original entry in the long running series captures this really well. I feel that some of this is just due to the low-fi nature of the game.
Let's talk about the map! The game has an in-game mini-map, which is advanced as a mini-map can get on the NES. But it also came with a printed map. The interplay between the very limited mini-map, and the better defined actual map, was great. The game was littered with secrets that I would mark down on my map after I found them. The game is also very open, it gives the player no direction at all, and presents a very open world to travel in. As a result this means you can do many of the dungeons out of order, and you can just explore the over-world looking for power-ups.
The idea of rewarding the player with new tools that allow them to progress into new areas (ones they may have already been through) was huge for its time. Most of us that played this game did so at a young age, and in this particular game it just seemed easier to imagine everything bigger and scarier than it actually was. Finally, who could forget that overworld theme?
This game will be sort of an anomaly on the list. Nearly all Squaresoft games of the 16 and 32 bit era had great worlds to explore. They nearly had a monopoly on epic exploration during this period. While my favorite in the series is clearly Final Fantasy VI. Final Fantasy VII does a lot of things right when it comes to giving us an epic world to explore.
The first thing is that we spend the first several hours of the game in the city of Midgar. Midgar is huge and offers a lot for the player to explore, but the game is presented pretty linearly for the first 7 or so hours. The player eventually makes it out of this metropolis and onto a huge worldmap, the contrast here is important. The player feels that all of the sudden they have a vast world to explore. The game always uses dialogue to provide hints on where to go next, but it doesn't force the player to go there.
The world is littered with secrets and side activities. However, the reason FFVII is on this list over the others is that when a player leaves the worldmap and enters one of the game's towns or well varied environments the game has some really well designed branching paths. The player will find that there are always at least two directions to go, one of which leads toward story advancement, and one towards treasure. The treasure in this game is actually worth the risk of obtaining. It's a game where you want to open 100% of the treasure chests. This means that while the overall experience is pretty linear, the moment to moment game-play is full of choices the player makes. This is really important to making an exciting JRPG and its something that most developers have apparently forgotten.
Minecraft is unique in that since its such an open sandbox, it's different things to different people. That is why it satisfies a lot of player types. To me Minecraft is a game about exploring and then conquering an untamed wilderness. While the building blocks the game uses to randomly generate its terrain is pretty limited, the variety certainly is high. It's always fun to explore a newly generated world in Minecraft, or to tunnel deep underground and run into flowing lakes, lava waterfalls, and pockets of monsters.
Like most of this list, Minecraft does no hand holding and it's totally open. If you are playing in survival mode, the game actually forces you to explore the world. Out of necessity the player needs to gather raw materials. When you are done exploring the game, you can begin exploring its mechanics! What you can build in Minecraft is pretty much limited to your imagination and ingenuity. Let's not forget about Minecrafts monsters. They tend to come out at night or lurk in the dark, and they can be a serious hindrance to traveling at night. The player even has to take precautions to fend off these nightly attacks. Minecraft is a game that really forces the player to think for themselves.
Before Skryim came around, The Elder Scrolls series never really clicked with me. I found the frozen northern continent of Skyrim was more to my tastes. Skyrim has a great open world, and aside from a pretty short opening sequence, it leaves the player alone. The world is pretty huge and really fun to explore.
My only real complaint is the lack of variety in the visuals, and that's only a complaint because Skyrim has so much content. You will spend hours fighting the same 3d models in environments with same textures. Of course if you are lucky enough to be playing on PC you can install all kinds of crazy mods to make Skyrim even better. The amount of effort put into the lore of Tamriel is staggering. Throughout Skyrim you can find countless sidequests that help flesh out the world. There are even hundreds of books to pick up that go on about various subjects that are relevant to the game's world.
After putting over 80 hours in Skyrim, it left me wanting more.
First I have to say that I just started Dark Souls II, so I am only going on first impressions that particular title right now. With that out of the way, I have already talked a good deal about the Souls series here! So far this series has three really well built worlds to its name. The world of Dark Souls in particular is incredibly well designed. Its pretty huge and each area feels unique and massive, but they all ebb and flow into each-other in a very smart way. Look into user made maps of Dark Souls, it's pretty impressive. I feel it's the best example of a metroidvania type level design that I have experienced.
Treasure is really important in these games. What stuff you are carrying is even more important than what level your character is. The interesting, detailed, and dynamic environments of the Souls series are littered with meaningful details and meaningful treasure. It has to be this way to be good because of the difficulty of the game. It's obtaining great treasure that gets you over the next hurdle. This means the player is always examining the environment and checking every path. If you are patient enough to finish one of these games, you will memorize these levels really well. What's even more interesting is how the environments go through change. Shortcuts open up, major monsters show up and completely change how you have to behave in a landscape.
These games also contain another type of exploration, exploration of mechanics. More than any other game on this list, you would expect these games to have good tutorials. They don't! Nearly everything needs to be found out by the player through experimentation. (or more likely Google.) In this way the Souls games are similar to Minecraft.
All in all, what makes these games great is how real the worlds feels. The environments have tons of effort put into them! There is story behind every minor monster, and every piece of medieval killing equipment. Bioware has a habit of filling their games with lots of optional back-story that is amazing and awesome to read, but the Souls games manage to fit an equally impressive back-story into the npcs, environment, and items the player encounters.
Shadow of the Colossus is probably the game I think of most when I think of good exploration and immersion. Its a short game and it takes place on an isolated land mass. This game makes smart decision after smart decision. There isn't much to the landmass itself. It has a few types of terrain, plains, forest, mountains, desert, a few ruins, a few lakes. There are sparse trees here and there, and a few birds and lizards. Other than that, the main character and his horse are the only living characters on the continent. It's a very lonely place. The solitude is further complimented by the sound design. There is plenty of ambient noise, and the sounds of your horse galloping through the windy plains. The music only kicks in when you are facing an opponent.
Speaking of opponents, this game has no standard enemies; it has 16 intense boss encounters that themselves are both environments and puzzles. The ebb and flow of the game-play goes like this: explore the environment until you find the next colossus, defeat the colossus, get a 30 seconds cut-scene with some hints about where to find next colossus. There is a nice contrast between exploring the environment for your next colossus, and these very epic battles. A defeated colossus becomes a permanent pillar of light that can be seen shooting up to the sky from anywhere on the world map. The camera does something smart. It's a third person view but it pushes the camera off to the side, always giving the player a great view of the horizon.
If that weren't enough, the game plants suspicions about the act of killing the colossus, due to the way character design, animation, colossus behavior, use of music, and the very gradual visual degradation of the main character. You begin to wonder if you are doing the wrong thing.
The player is free to explore the entire environment at any time, but they can only attempt to fight the next colossus in the sequence. This doesn't matter too much because the landscape is full of health and stamina power-ups to track down. Just like in other games in this list, these power ups provide a very important reward exploration, and a slight detour from the main content. The colossus are also pretty well paced in difficulty and variety.
The story is very minimal, and left very open to interpretation. The landscape itself clearly has a mysterious history that is never explained. This is something that distinguishes Shadow of the Colossus from games like GTA V. GTA V has an excellent world to explore, but there is no reason to even think about it. If you get a player to think about something, they are going to have a deeper connection to your game. What Shadow of the Colossus really excels at is getting the player to think.
So in summary, These games tend to have a solitary feeling about them, if not for the entire duration, then at some major point. There is an important contrast to be found between free exploration and confined levels. There is also important contrast between loneliness and a full party. Most of these games also offer a world that is very open to interpretation. They do not give the player much direction or hold their hand in anyway. They present an open landscape that a player can travel freely, even if they key to story progression is linear. The UI tends to be very minimal, and music is carefully used. Any maps are rough approximations and there are no objective markers.
Here is a short list of additional games with satisfying worlds to explore:
Bioshock, Fallout 3, Super Metroid, Metroid Prime, Castlevania SotN, Castlevania Lords of Shadow, Most Zelda titles, Most Final Fantasy titles, Chrono Trigger, Chrono Cross, The Witcher 2, ICO
Did I miss your favorite game world? Let me know in the comments and we can chat about it.