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Backtracking and Non-Essential Areas

Is backtracking an acceptable way for the player to experience more of the world, or is it just a restraining system to make the game longer? What are the pros of having more content than the player can ever experience, and is it worth the price?

This article - which VERY minor spoilers (more of a warning) for Metroid Prime: Corruption - was posted on Go there now for many great articles on game design, for beginners and veterans alike. This article's location:

For a very long time, backtracking has been seen as a cheap way to lengthen games. If you are out of time, money, or story, you have a twitching desire to send the player back to places they have already visited to find something you couldn’t get to or do the first time around(Retro did this with missile expansions in the Metroid Prime series).

This type of backtracking really crushes the freedom the player is supposed to have – if he/she wants to explore, he/she will. Forcing the player to do things not essential to the main path down the middle of the game will make the experience less enjoyable. However forceful backtracking can be a good thing if used correctly.

The weak kind of backtracking ruins games. In Metroid Prime: Corruption, near the end, you come to a door that requires six or so missile expansions to open. You have to go to old areas you have already visited and devour them for missile expansions and doors that were locked the first time you walked by them. You even have to defeat some enemies and puzzles you beat the first time. This is terrible design. The weak explanation as to why you need to backtrack (you need six missiles to open this door, the five you have won’t cut it) ruins the player’s suspension of disbelief.

Not only is the suspension of disbelief hurt, but so is the eagerness of the player. When forcing a backtracking segment, no new challenges are thrown at the player! The learning curve and pacing that has carried the player throughout the game is suddenly cut and halted until you find these missile expansions. In addition to that, frustration consumes the player, who has no clear objective and path to the objective, an important rule in game design. This point in Metroid Prime: Corruption is where I stopped playing for months.

The truth is: if the player wanted to explore, he/she would have! If you allow the player to either charge through the level or check every nook and cranny, the players who just want to advance the story do so, and those who want to explore the world do so. And not everyone feels the same way throughout the game!

By leaving the option open for the player to choose, everyone has a lot more fun. When I played Fallout 3, there were times where I scoured areas for little things to do, and there were times I put the blinders up and went straight forward, depending on how I felt (self-adjusted pacing). The game allowed me to do what I wanted to do, what would be the most fun for me during that playing session.

Games like Fallout 3 and Mass Effect 2 take the opposite approach of Metroid Prime: Corruption (although, Corruption didn’t have THAT many extra places to explore). By exploring the worlds of Mass Effect 2 or meeting all the deranged survivors of Fallout 3, the player can nearly DOUBLE his/her playtime! That is a whole lot of extra content. But another important detail – Fallout 3 and Mass Effect 2 didn’t really need to force you to backtrack anyways to see all there was to see: the worlds were so interesting that I actually WANTED to see what there was to do.

And honestly, if these two games forced me to explore and find hidden collectables in far reach corners of levels, I wouldn’t have wanted to explore! At that point, it is not really exploration – the best kind of exploration in games doesn’t force you to do so (but I’ll save that for another article). It’s like the things I say in these parentheses: you don’t actually have to read them – they are just asides!

But you read them anyways (at least I hope you are, or my point will be severely weakened). If I, however, told you before the article started that I was going to test you afterwards on what was written in the parentheses, the reading would have become a task! The same goes for extra, non-essential areas in video games. By not forcing you to talk to the wounded alien leaning against the wall, the designers are actually forcing you to talk to him.

There are more benefits to adding extra content to a game, too. Even though it costs more money, you are making each gamer’s experience that much greater when they find or do something that none of their friends even heard of before. The player gets a grand sense of accomplishment upon discovering something new that he/she knows (or at least believes) very few people have discovered. All gamers have this strange belief that they are somehow better than any other gamer (we gamers are of an egotistical breed).

Extra content also personalizes the experience of the player. When the game is complete, the player has something he/she can look back on, something different than what any other player experienced. This story is his/her story, and I believe part of Fallout 3’s glory lies in the stories people told after playing the game. Before I got to play it, I heard accounts of people stealing carrots and facing a wave of enemies, running into a shop, only to have the monster come in after you, only things that players experienced by exploring and experimenting, using their imagination. And these individual experiences motivated the players to explore even more (and it motivated me to play the game, along with many others)!

It is true that cutting non-essential areas and events build up the cost of the game, but think about what it adds to the experience by KEEPING IT NON-ESSENTIAL! And when the player is done with the game, he/she will know that lots of content went undiscovered, leading to a HUGE replay value.

In some of the best video games, the player asks what if questions (What if I had shot the sheriff? What if I went down that other hallway?) – that is a sign of good replay value and a good game, if the player is already having the desire to replay the game after the first level. Plus you add all the role-playing elements to games like Fallout 3 and Mass Effect 2, and you have a GINORMOUS game, which you could play in many ways, with different goals, with different focuses on the characters and your stats.

So if you want to force exploration on the player to make him/her explore all of the world you created, DON’T! You will make it more special to the players who actually want to explore the world you created (and if it is as good as you believe, they will; forceful exploration is a band aid over faults of a dull story, world, characters, etc.).

You should only use backtracking if it is necessary in giving the player a strong set of emotions or a new, truly unique challenge. Lets say you go through a thriving village on the way to a mountain. On the mountain, you cause a landslide, blocking the river that used to run to the village you went through. If the designer forces you to go back through the village, seeing  the thirsty young children, the fishers out of work, the bakers whose bakeries ran on the power of a waterwheel will make you feel (in this case, guilt, or maybe even regret).

Forcing the player to retrace his steps can be a good thing if the challenge has changed in some way, too. Maybe the street of the woman you just robbed is now crawling with FBI, or you now have a tool that completely flips the whole dynamic of the level on its head. Simply, something needs to have changed since the last time you were there, something major. Otherwise, it is just a waste of time, and will be regarded as such. Backtracking used correctly can wow the gamer, making him/her see the level (in terms of gameplay or world) in a way he/she didn’t see the first time.

There is a huge difference between games that have too little content, and too much content. Games that force you to go back through levels, looking for things or separate areas you missed the first, are weak, and their designers are lazy. Games that allow you to go through non-essential areas at your discretion are strong in this aspect, and their designers (and producers) should be hailed for understanding the necessity for spending extra money to make extra content that they don’t really need.

If Metroid Prime: Corruption did not force you to go back through areas you already went through, it would have been a better game. By including a block in the game, it forced the players who were not intrigued enough with the world and story to spend some more time in the same areas, while giving the players who actually cared, the completionists and those who had been sucked into the world of Metroid, the green light to even more content. Logical?

This article was posted on Go there now for many great articles on game design, for beginners and veterans alike. This article's location:

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