Favorite exploration games (and why)

One of the things I get the most enjoyment from in a game is exploration. It doesn’t matter what the genre is, though RPGs seem to lend themselves most readily to exploring a game world.

Here are a few examples of exploration in games I’ve played and what I liked about each.

Conquest of the New World This 4X strategy game started you out with a few units, one being the Explorer. This little guy set off into the inky darkness of the new world to uncover its terrain. The graphics of the title were excellent for the time (1996), making the exploring even more satisfying. Better yet, the game let you name significant geographical features like mountains and rivers, lending an extra level of customization to the exploration.

Betrayal at Krondor My favorite RPGs usually reward exploring off the beaten trail and in BaK you could find moredhel chests filled with goodies, caves filled with baddies and of course the occasional side quest. I also appreciated that while each chapter of the story had an ultimate goal, the game left you free to pursue it however you saw fit, letting you cover large swaths of land if you so chose simply for the sake of exploration.

was an RPG/adventure hybrid in which you had to stop a despot from taking over the titular chain of islands. A eurogamer retrospective on the game sums up the exploration nicely:

Climbing to the top of a mountain and taking off in a glider and praying you didn’t break both your legs coming down (which could literally happen in the game) was a great experience. Having a persistent 3D landscape really made it feel like you were moving around in an actual place.

And speaking of 3D environments…

Minecraft This one is pretty obvious (and it’s not as prehistoric as the other games on my list!) The 3D worlds the game generates are vast, varied and built for exploration. Whether it’s coming across a deserted village, an abandoned mine, a ravine that seems to go down forever or just endless forested hills, the worlds of Minecraft scratch that itch to ‘just have a quick look over there’ that plunges you deep into the unknown and maybe I should have made a compass or brought some torches and it seems to be getting dark and okay I’ll just dig a little hole in the ground to hide in and oh crap here comes a creeper…

There’s a number of MMOs I’ve played that have lent themselves well to exploration. In their first few years World of Warcraft and Everquest 2 both offered lots of interesting sights in areas tucked away from the main quest lines. Both games have gone more toward an ‘on the rails’ quest experience but you can still find out of the way places. Unlike BaK there’s usually no material reward for doing so, just the simple pleasure of finding an area few others will likely traverse, sometimes with an Easter egg or two.

What are some of your favorite games for exploration? And what about them makes the exploration worthwhile? Do tell!

Weirdly, its very old games that I always think off like this.

Daggerfall - Simply awesome. I guess I wasn’t hardcore enough back then to realize how few building blocks the game was made of - I simply loved it. Coming to the arabian lands after travelling through western lands for a while, was an eyeopener for me - I was stunned.

Lords of Midnight by Mike Singleton
Probably the game I ever spent the most time on - I think I’ve set it before around here, but Mike Singleton is my hero, and I’m very sad he doesnt appear to do anything game related anymore. This was one insanely big game back then, featuring thousands of locations, armies, heroes, monsters, ruins, castles, villages, swords - all nicely woven together in an intriciate story that grabbed me every damn time.

My personal plan was to race towards the Lord of Morning, gathering allies on the way, and strike back from there - the lands and exploration in it were simply awesome!

Some C64 game
also had some sort of Exploration things - you landed on a jungle planet and could explore for miles everywhere - It was just a bunch of pictures woven together with a dungen master kinda engine to give the illusion of a huge area to explore, but it was damn fun back then.

Okami on PS2.

It was beautiful, and every time I thought the game was going to end, it just kept on going.

In addition, there was always a reward for checking into each corner of the game world. Whether it was another clover, or some side quest or a mini game, there was always something extra to do that was thematically relevant and interesting.

I really got a kick out of the combat mechanics, as well, so I may be one of the rare players who enjoyed collecting the all of the drops needed to gain certain items, throughout the game.

Just Cause 2: Beautiful world and many means of getting around this world. Whether that be by military jet, fancy car or a Monster Truck as a few examples. There are of course a few easter eggs tucked away though being able to spot them is something else entirely. I think my favourite part of Just Cause 2 was simply getting on a trail bike and go skidding along part of the dune/desert area of Panau, which is also part of a game mission.

Civ IV: The only requirement being it must be a fractal map. There is a lot out there in the world of Civ IV. Dangerous rivals, goody huts, animals that like to eat scouts, and the potential to grow and shape a nation. Fractal maps assist that because the world is completely random. I have no idea if that patch of land I’m sitting on is part of an archipelago, a large landmass, or a snaky island. Or where the other civilisations might be. I could be alone, or I could have Montezuma sitting next to me, eyeing my juicy capital.

I always loved exploring in the Civ games, but for some reason Colonization is the one that really got its hooks into me. I think the fact that exploration was relatively slow, plus the way resources were distributed, and the fact that a lost city was always somewhere out there in the fog of war, all combined to good effect.

Also, it’s an obvious choice, but Oblivion was a pleasure to explore because you could stumble across some ruins or a dungeon in the course of some other pursuit, and lose hours delving the deeps.

Roguelikes in general can be great fun from an exploration perspective, since what you find can have such a dramatic impact on your odds of survival. Diablo II always disappointed me, though, since I felt like the randomization of the environments had little to no effect on the gameplay or the narrative. I think RPGs with randomized environments could really push the envelope of emergent gameplay/narrative if they played around more with larger map modules and thematic or mechanical map interactions. I’m dead tired of games that tout map randomization as a feature but don’t really do anything interesting with it.

EDIT: Oh, the other 4x I loved exploring was Master of Magic, because of the variety of ruins/caves/temples you could find, and especially the way little cultural enclaves were generated during map creation (two Klackon villages joined by a road, for instance).

The Faery Tale adventure for the Amiga.

Back in 1987 it was my first exploration/RPG like game. Me and my brothers even drew a map of the complete world which covered the floor of my parants attic (20m2).

Knytt because it manages to be almost purely about pure exploration, and still remain interesting. There’s some minimal platforming, but mostly you’re just wandering around, exploring the wonderfully imaginative world.

The ones that stick out from early on were Seven Cities of Gold, and more so Heart of Africa.

Daggerfall merely for the randomized dungeons. I spent many hours delving their buggy awesomeness.

Add to that all the modern Bethesda game incarnations, Morrowind, Oblivion and the Fallouts. Goodies and interesting stories in every nook and cranny.

Just Cause 2 - Awesome game for just picking a direction and seeing what you come across and then make explode.

Minecraft - I spend more time exploring under the ground than above, but either way Minecraft satisfies every exploration itch.

Starflight - Finding the Lost Planet of Earth (and the ruins of its ancient capitol) was a treat. Still my favorite space exploration game

The Non-Automapping RPGs of Yore (Bards Tale, Gold Box, etc) - using pen and paper to map things out was tedious, but the tedium helped create the illusion you were really exploring.

Minecraft - a game about exploring to build so you can explore more.

Heart of Africa, and to a lesser extent, Seven Cities of Gold - A shame Dani Bunten died so young with her talent in game design and the focus on lack of combat, she could have come out with so much more.

Wanted to throw in that one bit that stands out that I loved was visiting tribes, you could perform a trick for them to get them to stop crowding you and to win favor with the chief, eventually enabling trade. Sometimes though your trick my fail badly (look, gunpowder, oh crap!) and kill all of the tribesmen on the screen rendering the rest hostile to you and wanting you dead.

Seven Cities of Gold was primarily about exploration of the New World, but also modeled interactions with native peoples. This seldom went well.

Edit: drat, LT beat me to it.

Daggerfall - It may be nostalgia, but dungeons were twisty labyrinths full of danger; they were opportunities for loot. And that massive map means more towns, quests, and dungeons left unexplored, tantalizing my youthful, need to see everything mindset. Most Bethesda games do this somehow, but I’ll Daggerfall as the first to really grab me into their game style. The best iteration of which is Fallout: New Vegas and Morrowind. Can’t wait for Skyrim.

Bioshock Series - It’s the haunted house archaeology that sells it. Picking through the remains of a catastrophe, piecing together the human stories and final struggles of survivors and victims. Rummaging through the trash to stay alive a midst the danger and cresting the power curve to take on whatever brought the society’s downfall instead.

Civ IV - Particularly Fall From Heaven II. The early game of exploration and exploitation really gets me. I just need to build that settler there, or send my scout over the hill to see where more resources are. What’s in that dungeon; what will that village give me; what random event will excite my next turn. Which civ will I meet and destroy, or ally with. I actually kinda get bored with the game once the mid-games comes around because that just becomes a tech and arms race.

Stalker and its series. It’s really Oblivion with guns. Tons of unique locations, plenty of to do, great atmosphere and the all important “scrounge to survive” element that motivates a lot of exploration.

LOTRO - for being a really great representation of Middle Earth.

I’ll give a shout-out to Dead Island because despite its flaws, it does its environments incredibly well. The city of Moresby is one of the true slums in a game that you can practically smell it and or swat the flies on your screens, and the jungles feel positively humid and distressing.

Star Control 2 Actually feeling like I’m trekking across the galaxy, randomly meeting new and interesting races and have interactions that mean something. Even if the solar system graphics weren’t that memorable, somehow I had a different mood and wariness depending on just how far out there I was.

Fallout 1 and 2
it was a setting I was wholly unfamiliar with at the time, and the feeling of freedom to interact as you liked with anything around you made the game more real to me than anything else I had played before it.
The map was a real expanse, and the towns populated enough to feel like the ratio of random hostiles encountered to armed npc’s was, for once, realistic enough to suppose the natural order of things could actually work without depending on the player to slaughter everything for them.

GTA San Andreas was great for exploring, it seemed such a huge world when you first got out of Los Santos. Discovering new places to base jump from and finding things like the triathlon mission on a beach or the downhill races from the top of Mount Chiliad added to the experience.
Have to agree with others regarding Minecraft too.

Dragon Empires, which I worked on back in 2002 and was cancelled in 2004. It was going to be an MMO and had a great terrain engine, you could stand at the coast, see a mountain, and walk to the top. And mountains were hugs, you could pierce three layers of clouds just getting up one. Oh, the weather effects were lovely and the whole thing was wonderfully wild in a way I have yet to see another game match.

But it was completely fucked apart from that :)

Jagged Alliance 2. Because you started with a tiny squad and had to spread out and secure more territory. It was a balancing act between fortification and advancing into the fog.

Master of Orion 1 & 2 both really pushed you to explore new stars, hoping that the next one would be a habitable world with good bonuses. All 4x games do this, but I put way more hours into those two than any other 4x game.

Master of Magic because YES, HALFLING CITY NEAR MITHRIL!

Ultima VII was also pretty fun to explore. There were all kinds of hidden areas and stuff lying around in that game.


Asheron’s Call: As an MMO, it was unique at the time for having one continuous landscape, and it was freaking huge. You could hit the auto-run key and point yourself in a direction, and if you didn’t hit anything, you could run like that for an hour.

I was just going to mention that one. Its based on some Russian story I think. There is also a sequel to it, but I do not remember its name. I think it was supposed to be a trilogy. You could spend hours wandering around that world.

I also liked Fallout as an exploration game and finally Minecraft. This world needs a lot more exploration in games these days.