Why are Most Exploration Games Set in Deserted Locales?

Towns may not be as exciting to explore as deserted islands, but you never know what kind of secrets they might hold.

Towns may not be as exciting to explore as deserted islands, but you never know what kind of secrets they might hold.
Recommended Videos

Exploration games, otherwise known as open world games, are full of content. They allow gamers to explore the entire game world, complete quests, embark on journeys for fame and fortune, and discover the mysteries hidden in the unknown. 

But, it’s all somewhat unusual when you think about it: Most exploration games aren’t set in places that really encourage exploration. Lots of them are deserted islands, empty mansions, strange locales and solitary worlds. But what about other locations that are bustling and busy, that just as good for exploration games? Why aren’t they getting used?

The Bigger the Better! 

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

The main reason why exploration games are set in big, yet empty locations is because of discovery. If a place is deserted, it’s obviously uninhabited, but it may also hide secrets just waiting to be discovered.

Think about Witcher 3 (or any open world game for that matter). That game is packed with quests, side quests, slaying quests and much more. Most of the quests take place in isolation because the game wants you to go ahead and start exploring. Who knows? You might get rewarded for your curiosity either with a new item, weapon or consumable…

If everything is right there for you, then what’s the point of exploring? Why bother investigating and quenching your thirst for curiosity when something has already been discovered by another person or entity? Would you rather go to a town and explore it for whatever, or venture inside abandoned ruins to find rumored treasure inside? The answer might be a bit too obvious here, and for a good reason! But let’s take a closer look just to be sure. 

Towns Versus Deserts (or Any Open Location for That Matter…)

Fallout 4 

We are definitely not saying that towns are boring and adventure-less. Though they provide the weary adventurer aid in the form of healing facilities, merchants, traders and many more establishments that could assist in a pinch, what exactly can cities offer in regards to exploration?

The truth is that you are (often) limited in terms of exploration and freedom when you’re in a city. Most (if not all) towns and cities have guards or some kind of enforcers keeping the peace and protecting valuable locations and items.

When you’re exploring, you tend to break the rules and go where you’re not supposed to be, fight whoever you want — or need — to fight, loot precious items, and basically, well, let’s face it, commit a lot of crime. It’s just the nature of the exploration beast. 

Just look at a game like Skyrim: Special Edition. You can’t really explore a city as much as you would explore a cave next to that city. The town is filled with guards who will try and arrest you whenever they get (or you give them) the opportunity. With the cave next to town, you don’t have to worry about anything — save some draugr and cave trolls. 

However, Towns…

Markarth, Skyrim

Cities do, however, have a redeeming quality to them when it comes to exploration in modern RPGs.

There are usually quests that take place in cities that will get you involved in that city’s life. For example, going back to Skyrim, the city of Markarth has Dwemer Ruins that can be found deep beneath the city. And the best part is there are quests that allow you to explore those ruins! So, if ruins (or any other explore-able location) are somehow connected to a city, then you technically are exploring the city itself.

But even then, there’s one more thing you can do in cities…

Even if you take all factors, like guards and locked halls, into consideration, you could explore the city — at night! Because as we all know, at night, activity is severely limited in cities across the RPG world. Most guards and citizens are asleep, which gives you an excellent opportunity to make that city your ruins/island/mansion/deserted location for exploration. Lock pick. Loot. Explore that tavern master’s bedroom while he sleeps. The town is your oyster — at night. 

But Really, If You’re a True Explorer, the Desert is Your Home…

Far Cry 4

When comparing a city to a deserted island, it’s pretty obvious what you’ll want to explore if you’re a Nathan Drake at heart. The deserted island is deserted for a reason — it’s (theoretically) never been explored, and you might be the first one to set foot on it. Cities and towns, on the other hand, are inhabited locations that are full of life and interaction. Everyone seems to have been somewhere. 

But that does not mean that towns and cities are boring. Who knows? A city might have a sewer system  worthy of exploration, or an abandoned mansion in the middle of a town that has some secret to it. Or, the absolute best case scenario, there’s a whole new, yet empty city underneath the bustling one.

All you have to do is open that door or talk to that one person…

What locations do you like best for exploring when it comes to modern RPGs? Are deserted islands and ruins your favorite or would you rather explore the underbelly of a city? Let us know in the comments below!

About the author


Long time gamer (15 years+). Most favorite title is either Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time or Majora's Mask. Prefer single player games to multiplayer games, but occasionally play them as well. Proud owner of N64 and Nintendo SNES.