Coffee Hour Brain Explosion: Exploration in Games

by Gregory Gay

As I put on my morning pot of coffee today, I couldn’t help but get lost in thought about the Etrian Odyssey series. This happens on a pretty regular basis. Well, not always Etrian Odyssey, but daydreaming about games that I’m playing.

Anyway, I’ve been playing a ton of Etrian Odyssey Untold: The Millenium Girl – the recent 3DS remake of the original Etrian Odyssey – and I was pondering what it is that has me so hooked. It’s a great game, so there are all sorts of factors that play into my addiction to the game. The class and upgrade systems are exquisitely deep, the battles are tough (but not unfairly so), the dungeons are complex and take hours to conquer. However, I think that the thing that really draws me in – that keeps me coming back night after night for more – is the exploration.

The Etrian Odyssey games are not traditionally heavy on story. Even Untold, with its dedicated story mode, only gives you a minimal outline to follow. The point of the Etrian Odyssey series – the meat to dig into – is the exploration of massive dungeons, and this is something the developers have absolutely nailed. Each floor, of each dungeon, is huge and filled with secrets around every corner. The games present worlds that just beg to be explored, ranging from lush forests to alien swamps.

However, I think that what really separates exploration in the Etrian Odyssey series from pretty much every other game out there is that Odyssey forces you to make your own maps. As you explore, nothing gets filled in automatically. You have to draw in every wall and annotate every trap, healing spring, passageway, or spot of interest.

This is actually something that I dreaded before diving into my first Etrian Odyssey game. As a kid, I didn’t really make maps while gaming. That was late enough in the NES era that you no longer had to do it yourself, at least in the games I played. In a modern game, it just sounded tedious. Obviously, it would just distract from the dungeon crawling.

Oh, how wrong I was.

Making my own map immersed me into Etrian Odyssey more than any other element of the gameplay. You actually feel like an explorer of a dangerous and unknown world. You can set your pace and dig deeper into these unexplored lands. It’s utterly compelling in a way that I never expected.

Which leads me to my point – it would be incredibly cool to bring cartography into more games.

Etrian Odyssey is entirely turn-based. Even on the world map, you can edit your map without fear of being attacked, as nothing will happen until you walk. This, obviously, makes it a bit easier to create a detailed map, but I don’t think that this feature needs to be restricted to turn-based games. Cartography will never – and probably should never – be a feature of fast action games like Call of Duty or Bayonetta, but there is no reason that mapping functionality couldn’t make it into games that fall somewhere in the middle on the pacing scale.

Survival horror, in particular, would benefit from this kind of feature. Imagine a Silent Hill game of a Zombi U sequel where you need to map out the town that you’re exploring. Imagine a sprawling, fog-filled town with indescribable horrors lurking behind every corner where you must keep track of where safe haven is and how to get back to it. Now, imagine that you can’t pause your game to fill in the map. You have to work on it when you find moments of temporary peace. Wouldn’t that be incredible?

What makes the Metroid series so compelling to me is the exploration. From Super Metroid to the Metroid Prime games, Nintendo has done an incredible job of crafting these atmospheric alien worlds to dive into. Thousands of gamers have stories of mapping out the world of Metroid as a kid, but nowadays, we have it a bit easier. Samus can just pull up a map from an alien computer.

Imagine, however, a new Metroid game that subverts that expectation. Have Samus pull down a space station map, only to end up with a nasty computer virus instead. Imagine Samus, trapped on a derelict station, with limited life support and barebones suit capabilities. As you explore the station and fight off whatever mysterious presence lurks in the shadows, you have to map out the rooms you’ve explored. What if you had to figure out where to recharge on energy, where to restock your ammunition, or where to refill your oxygen tanks?

That is how you take advantage of the Wii U gamepad.

Cartography is definitely a lost art. Gamers expect maps to be given to them. However, just as Dark Souls has proven that there is an audience for more difficult games, I think that the application of manual map creation would lead to some fascinating gameplay opportunities.

Oh, and should you be interested in checking out the Etrian Odyssey series, both Untold and Etrian Odyssey IV are on sale on the Nintendo eShop for $15 each until July 21st. I definitely recommend both.

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