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What is it about Open World Exploration Games that makes them so Popular?

Sailing forbidden seas and conquering unknown shores -- exploration gaming is all about immersion

People’s desire for exploration and drive for adventure are as old as humanity itself. Open world exploration games invoke that innate sense of curiosity and discovery by using variety, beauty, and innovation to light the spark. These are games that focus on giving the player choice to tread their own path through a large world with few barriers or limitations, allowing us to shape our own story.

No Man’s Sky is the most recent and high-profile open-world exploration game, while other examples include the masterpiece Shadow of the Colossus, Firewatch even the less-remembered Endless Ocean. The genre has continued to grow and become more diverse, creating more and more interesting experiences to draw in gamers.

Open world games have begun taking over the AAA industry, spurred by the successes of games such as Skyrim and GTA V. Nowadays you’d be harder pressed to find a Ubisoft game that isn’t open world; so clearly the popularity of exploration within games is paramount.

Exploration is one of the pillars of gaming and game design; because developers know as well as anybody that people love to explore, learn and engage with the world around them in both real life and games. By achieving this, open world exploration games make you feel like you’re really a part of the world you’re traversing, rather than a detached observer experiencing someone else’s story. And by truly putting you into the shoes of your character/avatar they can elicit deep emotional responses from the player.

Exploration games, when done well, create a level of immersion that is hard to rival elsewhere. When a large, organic and detailed world is built -- full of interesting characters, locations, and objects to uncover and interact with -- it’s hard not be drawn in. From the sprawling Texan deserts of Red Dead Redemption to the prehistoric wilderness of Far Cry Primal, appreciating the levels of detail and variety is paramount to enjoying one’s time exploring huge worlds.

This variety can come in many forms. From questing and collecting to platforming and traversal, a good range of activities helps to populate large worlds with interesting and rewarding things to spend your time with outside of the main story progression. This variety keeps players engaged for longer with something for everyone to enjoy.

Instead of simply following a single set path laid out before you through waypoints, linear level design and singular narrative (which is not a bad thing in the right situations of course), masterful exploration games open up all sorts of new avenues. They create unique levels of freedom, choice and player agency, letting us fully participate in the world and make it our own.

Don’t want to follow the main narrative and talk to that quest-giver right now? Feel free to wander off the beaten path into the dense forest instead, happening upon a hauntingly beautiful ruined monastery and a pack of ravenous wolves. Escaping by the skin of your teeth, perhaps you’ll find yourself scaling a mountain or reading long-lost documents that shed new light on the world and its history. Or you could be forging uncharted paths through space, discovering new planets and lifeforms, surviving run-ins with space pirates and trading your resources for new technologies.

Smaller games like Firewatch and ADR1FT are also refreshing for their abilities to innovate and throw out the standard rules and stereotypes that games often rely on. Quite a few, for example, do away with combat and shooting, which can be a very welcome change of pace in an industry that so often seems to rely on those mechanics to stay relevant. While some people dislike such games that become little more than “walking simulators”, they provide experiences that aren’t to be found anywhere else in gaming and that many people find novel.

While we can’t necessarily forge new frontiers all too often in the real world nowadays, we can still get those feelings of intrepid adventure while exploring fictional worlds (or even fictional representations of our own world). Open world exploration games can fulfill these spiritual itches as an innate part of the human condition. The joy of diving into another world, spending hours upon hours wandering its environments, means that open world exploration will likely maintain its popularity for some time to come.

Published Sep. 10th 2016

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