Clint Hocking, Creative Director at Ubisoft Montreal, is best known for his innovative work on the Splinter Cell series. At GDC ‘07, Hocking presented a talk on the three different types of exploration in games–systems, spatial, and personal–and how developers can use exploration to create more meaningful mechanics.
Following his presentation, we caught up with him to talk about game design, his own literary influences, and why The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion stands out as a particularly noteworthy example of “self-motivated exploration.”
Gamasutra: In your talk you mentioned that even competitive gameplay involves exploration, namely the exploration of different strategies. You also talked about exploring in games like Oblivion, where players can wander across rewards. But can exploration ever be goal in itself, not just a means to an end?
Clint Hocking: In terms of systems exploration, it’s always the goal of the game. The goal is to figure out how things work so you can get to the end and win. Picking up a game controller gives you that goal automatically, the same way picking up a book gives you the goal of reading that book. But in terms of exploring more literally as a motivation, I think that's what spatial exploration is about, wanting to move around space and being motivated to go places.
Spatial exploration isn't mandatory. It's not required in any game. It's a certain play style and a certain type of player who's interested in playing in that way. There are ways to design to support that well and ways to do it badly. I think it's pretty clear which games do it well. Grand Theft Auto, Oblivion, they make players who might not even be that kind of player become interested in the act of self-motivated exploration.
Bethesda's hugely popular RPG The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion
GS: Can you think of any bad examples?
CH: I don't know. I can only assume if your open-world game doesn't do well, you didn't support exploration as well as you should of. If you don't design systems that support the exploration, you have a giant empty game. Then it’s you walking around in space for a little while until you get bored and then you give up.
GS: You said it takes a certain type of player to be an explorer. Do you think there’s a gender issue there? It seems like an exploratory play style often gets lumped with female players.
CH: Really? It's funny, because one of the books I've read, it's just an anthology of, like, a hundred different real-life explorers. I was trying to figure out what made people want to explore, and one of the opening things in the book is the author talking about gender issues in exploration. Because in terms of famous female explorers, there are, like, four of them. Maybe it's something that has changed with interactive game technology. If there are sort of masculine vs. feminine things, I don't know. But it's ironic, because all of the famous explorers, for the most part, throughout history, are male.
There's a cultural bias there because a lot of the female work wasn't recorded or it was considered second-rate and disappeared in history. Also, because of traditional roles a man could get money from the queen to sail across the sea whereas a woman wouldn’t be able to do that. So there are definitely gender biases that created this cultural history of males being the explorers. I wonder if maybe that has changed with games and if maybe it is more of a feminine verve after all. I mean, I'm an explorer when I play games. I try to really actively explore the space and the systems of the game. Maybe I'm a girly player.
GS: Did you find out from your reading what made people want to explore?
CH: That was the disappointing thing about reading that giant book was that I didn't really detect any common theme. Explorers all seemed to explore for different reasons. They all have different drives. Some of them were motivated by money, some by patriotism or nationalism, some of them by more of a pure desire to go where people hadn’t been... in all these different kinds of exploration I didn't really find a common denominator, which disappointed me. That’s why I didn’t talk about it a lot in my lecture.
GS: You say you’re an explorer in games. So what about you? What makes you want to explore?
CH: Well, I talked a lot about exploration games needing to provide ubiquitous, low-value rewards. Oblivion, like I said, does that really well with alchemical ingredients. But what I didn't talk about, and I intentionally left it off to the side, was this idea that one of the things I did in Oblivion was I went to places just to get beautiful panoramas. I went to the highest mountain I could find just to see how far I could see. I went all the way to the sea at the bottom of the world just to see the sunset.
Literally, I left my controller there and drank a beer while the sun set. There is no reward for that. It was just wanting to see what the game did and how it worked. So there is this other kind of reward which is just the feeling of this openness and seeing how rich the simulation is, which is something you can’t usually do in games.
Ubisoft's stealth action series Splinter Cell
GS: For your research, you turned to real-life explorers. But real-life explorers are exploring places no one has ever gone. In a game, you can only go places someone has already programmed. Doesn’t that change things?
CH: One of the things though is that open-world games that have a lot of rich spatial exploration, while they’re built by someone, they're not hand-crafted in the same way a game like Splinter Cell is hand-crafted. Someone builds a room in Splinter Cell and you know exactly what that room looks like from every angle--not every single possible camera position, but what players see is very tightly controlled by artists and designers, even interesting compositions of flora and light and shadow and all these things.
But in an open-world game, you just don't have the time to make sure with every single tree you have nice God rays shining through the leaves at 6:00 pm and a ship is sailing by or whatever. In a sense, while it is all created by someone, it's created in a much more painterly way, putting the stuff there and shaping it but not really even taking the time to check if it's right.
It's the systems of the game and the game engine that have made this game beautiful. The player is kind of going into uncharted territory. No one ever took the time to stop and look in this direction from this rock in this forest at 6:00 in the afternoon and see the God rays.
GS: It might seem like a strange distinction, but what about the difference between using games to explore an exterior space, like the one you just described, and an interior space? For example, Miyamoto has been quoted as thinking of games as caves.
CH: I can definitely see that in the way his games sort of fold in on themselves and involve different kinds of scales. If you explored the same spaces as a tiny, tiny little thing and as a giant thing, you’d pay attention to the way that those spaces change as your size changes. His spaces are about scale and about things being big and little. They’re also about inverting those relationships and about poking fun at them...that whole feeling of tiny, tiny people walking around and everything's giant.
So there’s the exploration of looking at things in a different way which the mechanics force onto the player. Things look different when you're only four pixels high and then four-hundred pixels high.
GS: In your lecture, you also talked about Ultima IV as an example of exploring emotions through game mechanics. Have you by any chance played Dave Gilbert’s The Shivah, an indie game which tries to communicate Jewish values through adventure-style decision making?
Origin Systems' 1985 RPG classic Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar
CH: I wasn't really trying to say we should make games that impart values. I was trying to say we should make games that allow the player to explore himself. I think one of the challenges is the collaborative authorship of the experience, the designer and the player collaborating to make this thing work. There's a risk that, even more than with literature, games can become didactic if we do that.
To try and teach someone a specific set of values in games is trickier because what games ought to do, in my opinion, is present the entire space of the problem. Instead of saying, “You should be honest,” it should say, “This is what honesty means” through the mechanics. This is what happens when you tell the truth or you tell a lie--instead of trying to make a game that says “Lying is bad and honesty is good.”
That's what literature can do by creating characters who are very rich and detailed and tell a lie and regret it for the rest of the novel and watch how their who lives fall apart. A game I don't think should do that. A game I think should give the player all the mechanics that surround that and figure out for himself whether telling the truth or lying is right or wrong.
GS: You seem to refer to literature a lot. Has your background as a writer affected the way you look at the topic of exploration?
CH: It's like what Roland Barthes said about the death of the author. Like I said yesterday, I think in terms of literature he's wrong. But he was visionary and ahead of his time in predicting what our new relationship with media would be, especially in the sense that what he says is similar to what Marshall McLuhan says.
Independent developer Wadjet Eye Games' The Shivah
If he had been talking about the internet, then yeah, he would have been right. For me, learning what it means to not be an author, learning what it means to give up control, learning to say, “Okay, it's not my job to make decisions about meaning for the player, it's just to give the player the space around that decision,” it's a hard thing to let go of. It's so attractive and sexy. It's what all of our great authors throughout history have always done. But people in our medium, designers, it's not what we're supposed to do, I don't think.
We'll still do it. There will always be games that are designed and built that way. I'm not saying we don't say anything. We still makes decisions about how those rule systems interact around honesty. We just need to lead the reader to make his own decisions. Very few readers will read Macbeth will say Lady Macbeth was a good person. It's clear that you're supposed to think that she's a bad person.
GS: So what’s your overall message? Is there more room for exploration in mainstream, linear games?
That's what I'm trying to get at, that exploration has different flavors. A game can be totally linear and offer no opportunities for spatial exploration and still have rich opportunities for self exploration. I just want to look at the kinds of exploration we have and say there are some ways that we can use these things better.