In Search of Adventure: Exploration and Blackreach
There's a moment in open-world games where the shades is taken off. It's that moment when you emerge from a vault in “Fallout”, blinded by the sunlight. It's that moment when you find the ending of a cave and an entrance to "Skyrim", and endure the longest loading screen within the game. It’s surprising because it's not really something that happens all too often in video games.
Don't get me wrong, that "big reveal" moment happens all the time; your guide thrusts you forwards from a dinky little shack into a beautiful antechamber, and you're overcome by how stunning the room appears to be.
The thing is, I'm not referring to being pushed into another room; I'm talking about being pushed outdoors. In both antechambers and "dinky little shacks", you can walk with your hand along the walls and find yourself exactly where you were before. Until you open a door to another room, you can keep doing this for a very long time. Outdoors, however... there's so much more.
There's so much to see, and find, and conquer. There are so many people to talk to, so many cities to find, so many ruins to explore, so much stuff. So, so much stuff. And the lore!
There's often a silly amount of lore too, whether it be descriptions of monumental events in the world's history, the origins of a particular item, or discovering that flaming pigs can't, in fact, talk; they just want you to believe they can. And it's all wonderful, whether you find the lore incredible or dull, whether you find the items useful or useless; it's all there, and it's what helps makes the world a world, and not just a really huge room.
That's not to denounce the limited antechamber, however; the outdoors envies all that the antechamber can easily accomplish. The linear antechamber can focus all of its resources into the story it tells and the quality of the set-pieces within it. These are created from resources that the outdoors places into being so huge These are characteristics that the outdoors can compensate for with size and exploration and, on the occasion, lore, but struggles to equal in full. The antechamber excels at being toured, whilst the outdoors excels at being explored.
This is why we need more Blackreaches.
Blackreach, for those of you who are unaware, is a vast, underground, cavern in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. It’s filled with the ruins of the technologically-advanced Dwemer, an extinct race whose ruins you've likely discovered throughout the game. Not only do Dwemer ruins inspire wonder, but they contrast so deeply with the setting of Skyrim itself.
The entire game, you find yourself familiar with fields, forests, cities, and ruins, and dwemer ruins, each with their own charms. Then you’re introduced to this.
This gigantic, mysterious, beautiful cavern is presented to you from the very bottom of a Dwemer ruin, and it stuns. It really does. However, it's presented to you, and therein lies the lost opportunity.
You are assigned a mission, find the elder scroll, and led by an arrow floating in the sky, 1 You find yourself on a floating hunk of ice with a door unceremoniously shoved into the walls of the iceberg. Opening this hole, you unexpectedly discover the... interesting... man you seek, hiding at the icy fringes of the world. This old wizard gives you the blocky keys to Blackreach in the hopes you will return with a key for his own device(s), and off you go, to climb to the top of a mountain, only to fight your way to it's depths, where the door to Blackreach lies "hidden".
I found out that this was actually part of a mission some time after I had found the old man.
You see, you can discover him without the mission. You can run your hands along the massive, unfathomably huge walls of Skyrim and feel your hands slip over a crack in the most unexpected of places, and in that moment, a flash of surprise overwhelms, and curiosity consumes you. After some searching, you find the strangely-designed doorknob, one you've never seen before. You pull on it, and you open up a bizarrely beautiful room that you never knew existed. You find this room. You find Blackreach. This is the sort of Blackreach that should be, paradoxically, in all games.
This is exploration. This is what the outdoors can accomplish. This is what an antechamber can accomplish when it hides the door with something other than sheer size, and when the "Blackreach" itself isn't a mere closet home to a tiny, tasty easter egg on a pedestal.
Much of the wonder of discovery is taken away when an arrow points the way to the man with the keys.
It can be better when the doors are made obvious, but in doing so, they abolish the notion of discovery. Plus, these doors can become too hidden. There is no joy in spending hours upon hours hopelessly combing a wall with a microscope when the only reward will be a tasty easter egg. Tasty it may be, but it's hardly the feast earned for the week's worth.
Unfortunately, it's difficult to effectively hide away a place like Blackreach for the explicit purpose of being stumbled upon, let alone include more than one such place in a game. Once a player figures out that there are hidden doors in the walls, they cease to be hidden, and merely become out of sight. If every game began to include "hidden wonders" like Blackreach, they would cease to be either hidden or wonders.
Yet, despite this paradox, we need more Blackreaches. We need more of those "Aha!" moments in gaming, but some of them need to be discovered, whether they lie in an antechamber or "in" the outside.
Games need to be able to give as well as hide their "Aha!" moments. The latter is far more difficult to craft, and, perhaps, doomed to lose. Not only must gamers find the first crumb in the trail; they must actively follow it, which can prove difficult and unrewarding if poorly implemented, or if implemented to a crowd used to following the arrows to the "Aha!" moments.
As it stands, these moments of discovery are present within some games (Fez, Deus Ex; HR, Skyrim, Antichamber) and my frustration with finding these hidden doors to hidden doors is one massive irony, and might illustrate the very problem with crafting these wonderful sort of moments.