28 min read

Free form adventuring in games, or the lack thereof

Free form exploration played a big part in older games, but the limited fidelity of ancient hardware left a lot up to the imagination. Today a lot more can be achieved but few seem to be concerned with using that to recreate that adventuring sensation.

An issue of modern games that has dwelled on my mind lately is the existence of so few games featuring what I like to call, pure exploration, or better said, adventuring.

But how to define what I mean by adventuring, that is a complicated issue, because people could argue that all you do in games is explore or adventure, but I happen to disagree. You are moving forward in many games, and perhaps even do so in large unconstrained areas that leave ample room for you to deviate from the indented path and search out potential secret crannies. However in most such cases I do not associate the emotion of playing said game with the sensation of adventuring.

To me the difference between adventuring and all other forms of traveling at the core is a question of your motivations. A spacious area that you traverse towards a set destination required by the plot is most often just commute. You are going from one point of interest to the other to progress the game and you often aim to do this as fast as possible because commute is inherently boring.

Commutes are a boring affair no matter how you approach them because there it is not the trek itself that interests you so much as it is merely an obstacle standing between you and your intended end destination. In real life I wouldn’t ever chose to subject myself to any sort of commute, wither it is my daily trek to work or any other set destinations of interest around town if I could instead chose to warp myself there by some contrivance.

The best of games try to disguise the tedium of commute by having their core content take place on the road of traversal where you overcome obstacles using the provided game mechanics. Wither the game is fun or not is then a question of how well the obstacles are implemented. In shooters the obstacles are AI opponents that try to hinder your mostly linear commute from one set piece to the next. In classic JRPG’s you had random encounters forcing you to take an aside to a turn based battle for every few step of your commute.

But then there is adventuring at its purest, which is exploration motivated by nothing but curiosity. Many linear games feature levels structured to feature a bit of breadth so as to allow for a minimal amount exploration, if one is thus inclined, to search out hidden goodies. Veteran gamers who have conquered many titles have grown in them an intuitive understanding for how level designers think and can often sniff out a secret aside whenever they feel one approaching. In short this often works out to whenever the game obviously points you to go toward a destination, wither it be by a marker or subtle shift of camera perspective then always run the other way to see if there is anything hidden there out of view.

These are micro spats of adventuring found in many modern games, but they are shallow, short lived and unsatisfactory if what one desires is the sensation of true adventuring because that is a lengthy endeavour that beside the potential award at the end is also rewarding in and of itself.

To explore is a natural impulse of humans, but in adulthood it is a most rare indulgence, so it is strange to me how so few games exist today that feature this as a main focus. It is especially shocking to see how the simple mechanic of adventuring has vanished from a genre that excelled at it in the 8-16bit days, namely the JRPG genre.

Exploration in the days of yore:

Thinking back at the 2D JRPG iterations, especially the flagship Final Fantasy series it is hard to miss how much exploration was encouraged in those titles. Wither by clever design or not at one time early in these titles you were required to leave your town and take to the vast expansive fields of the surrounding world.


An adventure begins

There often were no set roads to follow either, just a very wide continental field sectioned off by the occasional mountain, ocean or river. You were often sent off to seek out a destination with a vague indicator of where it was located, such as “North”, and you were otherwise on your own. You could elect to go North, or you could go in any other direction to see what else was around.

There were some restrictions though, and one of them was your patience, for you were interrupted from adventuring every few steps by a random trek to a fight screen in order to dispatch an increasingly familiar set of enemies. But we were all a most patient bunch as youngsters, and had oceans of time to sacrifice at the alter of any game that managed to captured our undivided attention, and JRPG’s certainly were well known to do exactly that in those days.

Part of their appeal was the perceived breadth of scope in those types of games. That sort of free from explorative potential contained within, if we care to remember back, was an experience worlds apart from the mostly linear and scripted affairs of most side scrolling action games that were otherwise vying for our attention.

Of course setting a player loose on a horizon spanning barren field with freedom to go anywhere is a recipe for disaster. When thus spoiled for choice the player is most likely to become overwhelmed by the prospect of aimless wandering in the mostly featureless terrain and default to just going North as suggested.

This is why most older JRPG’s sectioned off parts of their world by way of a bevy of restrictions. Some of these were related to the landscape by way of unconquerable rivers, oceans or mountains, and others by way of just making the enemies of an area tougher than the player could hope to survive an early encounter with. These layers of restrictions which were then gradually lifted by the player gaining the means of overcoming them as they progressed through the story eased players into a more comfortable framework for adventuring.

The world, according to 16 bit hardware

Of course the games of the 8-16 bit era were very limited in terms of their visual fidelity so a lot was excused by the sentiments of the time. The world fields of JRPG’s from that era were mostly featureless grass plains with the occasional blotch of forest, not really the most exciting landscape to explore, but it would all be worth it if you happened upon a secret town or cave, these being clearly identifiable spots of interest amid the waste.

Then again when studied with modern spectacles I detect in those games, despite the prevalence of an atmosphere encouraging exploration, little incentive to do so. Most secret towns found had the same set of NPC delivering their filler lines of dialog. Thus the most one could hope for there was a shop with a better stock of weapons available for purchase. Side quests were not as prevalent a game mechanic then as they are now after all. As for the secret caves with goodies inside, well such rewards were a rare occurrence indeed, but that made them all the sweeter.

So in a sense most of the reward from exploring in those types of games came virtue of the fact that you could do it all which made for a most novel sensation amid the restrictive games of the time. But that just meant that there was a lot of room to evolve the concept as game hardware matured to allow for better representation and realization of pure explorative elements.

This was however not to be, for on fifth generation hardware JRPG’s featured mostly the same type of exploration in them and sixth generation of hardware saw the trend of RPG’s becoming more a product focused on storytelling and among the many things changed or neglected in the genre to better serve the epic scope of the plot was the adventuring.

The sixth generation was also where the open world concept of the early GTA games became a focus of many imitators and thus spun a whole genre of games. Suddenly there was another genre that as if reveled in exploration by pitting the player in a gigantic environment littered with points of interest, giving the player freedom to choose from them at their leisure.

Alas I would argue that the tradition of open world games as started by GTA3 does not in my opinion stand as a very good implementation of adventuring and much of this comes down to two things, setting, and scope.

Most sixth generation open world games were set in urban environments because they were such blatant imitations of GTA3 which featured a similar setting. This might be an issue of taste but I would argue that a bustling city is not a setting evocative of the sense of adventuring. Cities are cramped places that do not allow for navigation by visual cues and the instincts that they evoke because one’s view is always obstructed by rows of buildings.

Cramped urban surroundings instill a sensation of sterility, suffocation and oppressiveness into the player whereas the traditional sense of adventuring is often associated with open vistas beset by natural beauty. Buildings also represent insourmountable obstalces as if they are in ones way the usual course of action is to go around, whereas an adventure is more about tackling such obstacles head on. Thus the setting I find to be best evocative of the spirit of adventure is a wide area, but not flat, being littered with natural formations lending it an air of the picturesque. The most important aspects are a sense of immense scale, and a distinct sense of uniformity in the nature.

It is important that the uniformity be a fine balance as the natural landscape, or setting of choice, should not be so effortlessly thrown together that it will bore the senses, bland grass texture is often the downfall of most games taking place ourside. At the same time the enviroment at a distance should be uniform enough so as to better highlight the presence of a place of interest. They say that X marks the spot, but this it only does so on a map, and an adventurer should need no such thing, the place itself should be the mark to draw eyes of interest.

To draw a picture, imagine you are traveling in a foreign place on your lonesome, some place secluded and far away from civilization, just a lonely lovely pocket of weathered landscape, one that takes away one’s city worn breath by its sheer natural beauty, you are trekking here because to be immersed in the atmosphere of the place is a joy in and of itself.

Then suddenly as your ascent of a rolling dewy hill comes to a climax, out of the mist there appears a sight such as this.

The romantic ruins of a castle, what then is your first instinct upon seeing such a landmark? If it were me then all my adventuring pistons would be firing at full capacity, I would most definitely want to explore that spot of interest, I would want to conquer the secrets that it holds.

Such instances were among the most memorable to me in older Japanese RPG’s that current incarnations are almost entirely devoid of for various reasons. There might still be many RPG’s made today that people can point to as examples of titles allowing exploration, but I would argue that most if not all do not give rise to that same sensation of adventure as would the example above.


One of the many reasons for the difference is a simple question of scope. In the previous example I enjoyed exploring the environment because it was beautiful and atmospheric before I even stumbled upon the castle. This is a thing that most RPG’s of the sixth and seventh generation era have been lacking, atmosphere, and scope which often is a question of level design and artistic direction. An unfortunate consequence of the raised bar of visual fidelity in the seventh generation is that it then takes that much more to excite a player by aid of visuals alone.

Most JRPG’s today feature a very bland and uninspired level and environmental design, being content to feature mostly copy pasted environments funnelling players along as they battle through numerous encounters. Limited budgets and warped priorities of the genre creators, and consumers, have made it so that attention to the environments paying host to the endless battles are not much of a priority. In that sense Final Fantasy XIII’s graphics and artistic ambitions was a great leap forward, but the mostly linear design of the levels left no room for adventuring until players reached Grand Pulse at the tale end of the game where it opened up to a field rife with spots for adventuring.

Adventures were to be had here, too bad the visuals were below rest of the game 

Although it was a good start I get the feeling that the sense of adventure and freedom that Grand Pulse inspired in FFXIII was mostly due to the rest of the game leading up to it having been so suffocating narrow. Unfortunately Grand Pulse was mostly below par visually when compared to the rest of the game. The field occupying most of ones field of view was a very bland looking textured field whose fidelity was far below par the exquisitely detailed linear enviroments leading up to it.

Another thing working against the adventuring atmosphere was the stiff structure of FFXIII's mechanics not lending themselves very well to realising the dynamic adventuring potential of such enviroments. In that sense I feel that the JRPG’s have not yet been able to recreate for me a true modern representation of the adventuring elements present in their more ancient incarnations.

For the most accurate representation of that we will have to turn to the western RPG Fallout 3 which in my opinion is the game that came closest to nailing the feel of free form adventuring. When you leave the vault and take to the world in Fallout 3 you are immediately presented with a surprisingly inviting barren landscape that is open to all sides and with no waypoints to follow. At that moment you are that lone explorer being guided around by curiosity and as it turned out, in Fallout 3 there were plenty of moments where you happened upon a point of interest not unlike the castle example above.

An adventure begins, the 7th generation hardware interpertaion

Unlike other games of the open world persuasion borrowing their structure and setting from GTA3 all of the points of interest in Fallout 3 stand out wonderfully, as they often are large abandoned landmarks clearly visible from a great distance, therefore whenever such a beacon of interest pops into view as you aimlessly wander the waste you are instantly drawn to it, and there are never more than one or two in view at a time which adds to the scope of the ones that are visible.

The open world games of the GTA3 persuasion revel in an excess of points of interest and visual clutter by design. Every street looking like the same makes for a poor environment to host free form navigation by aid of landmarks or other visual cues making the radar screen you main explorative tool, which again is basically just a map telling you where everything is located.

What most open world games lack here is a sense of isolation as feeling like you are the first person to venture somewhere, or the first in a long time in case of ruins, is important for setting players in the right adventuring mood. In contrast games of the GTA mold are often littered with people and while they are also littered with points of interest these are often of a very limited scope. In GTA most places are mission hubs or optional time wastes. A good adventure begins when you reach a point of interest, because it unlocks a whole subsection in the world to explore, but in GTA type games that point is where adventuring ends and a scripted mission template starts.

Not exactly a sight inspiring adventure

Navigating around the labyrinthine network of roads in a virtual city is often as insipid as it is doing commute in a real city but then there are open world games taking place in more natural environments, such as the Just Cause series, but here once again I find certain trappings of genre impeding the sense of adventuring. Just Cause takes place amid tropical environments but the game world is simply too vast and too barren with the only points of interest often being towns or facilities of little explorative interest.

When trying to establish an adventuring atmosphere it is important to create a sense of freedom but try to limit it at the same time. Fallout 3 would let you go anywhere that you wished, but like in most older JRPG’s high level enemies would prevent you from stepping too far in a given direction too soon. The more intimate first person perspective of Fallout 3 also helps immensely to add scope to the environments and landmarks in question whereas the far off third person perspective of most GTA type games makes everything in their worlds seem small and less intimate.

There are many problems with the far off third person camera perspective employed by many games that feature open enviroments. One of these is the tendency for the camera to end up overlooking the player from a perspective placed some distance above them, looking down. This gives the player a good perspective for combat and of the immideate surroundings but also has the unfortunate consequence of mostly just overlooking the ground, with the sky and horizon being mostly placed out of view.

Personally I feel a behind the shoulder third person camera such as is found in Resident Evil 4 is the best perspective to aid the adventuring spirit while also lending itself to any form of combat. This perspective gives a much better sense of scale and perspective as it looks forward toward the sky and horizon, giving a good sense of distance and capturing romantic vistas. These aid in making the landmarks and environments seem more majestic and interesting as a result. While some might argue that first person gives the most immersive perspective I happen to disagree. I find the first person view to be very clumsy for traversing uneven terrain, and allows for the camera to get too close to the textures of the environments making for an uglier game in addition to a clumsy one.

Rewarding adventuring:

This brings me to my next important core requirement of a good adventure, which is that once a visual cue of required scope and interest is fixed upon and successfully reached to make sure that what waits within is sufficiently unique, memorable and rewarding. This is something that games like GTA lack entirely as the reward of most set destinations is the start of a mission.

Fallout 3 gets it almost right here with most locales being moody ruins that the player can traverse deep into while dispatching foes until they reach the reward at the end. However where Fallout 3 falls short of being a pure adventure game is the issue of the reward itself.

I remember clearly an instance in Fallout 3 where upon exploring the waste I happened upon an imposing looking ruins of a factory building that played the part of the figurative castle in my previous example. I took to it and found a place littered with robots endlessly roaming the halls, unaware that the world giving meaning to their function having long ceased to be. After battling my way all the way to the top I came to a last unexplored room, where all of my adventuring would finally get their big payoff, and then nothing.

I later discovered that, as with almost every other locale of interest in that game this was a place created to host a specific side quest. I had simply stumbled upon the place before finding and talking to the NPC that would activate the quest and give context to what I was going in there for, and in essence also triggering the event that would activate the reward in the last room.

That side quest, once I found it, in turn converted that imposing factory ruin into the setting for a simple fetch quest. This was a disappointment and left me continuing to long for a game that lets you explore free of any pre-existing context other than because some place looks inviting, and there is likely something good hidden there.

This was a recurring problem in Fallout 3 for me, as even when I explored a ruin or place of interest within the context of a mission I rarely felt that a very lavish reward awaited me at the tail end of my adventure. In my ideal adventure game there is usually a very useful item waiting to be yours at the end to make you feel that not only did you have fun exploring, but you were also rewarded handsomely for it.

The Zelda series of games traditionally have great bounties awaiting you somewhere inside their dungeons, but these dungeon are required to be explored as part of your normal progress and the items found inside are a necessary for completing the game and thus are not optional as they would need to be for a true adventure.

Here once again the earliest Zelda games played better host to pure adventuring as the original Legend of Zelda for the NES started off very much with a lone hero being put in a big world to be explored at leisure and whim, devaoid of any pretext or structure.

Of course there are still many optional dungeons in the Zelda series to this today. In Wind Waker for an example there was nothing quite like the sensation of sailing the ocean aimlessly and happening upon a small secluded island in the middle of nowhere, I would never fail to guide the boat toward these unexpected landmarks to do some prime exploring. Alas in Wind Waker, as in most modern Zelda games, the optional dungeons mostly reward you with chests of rupees and the occasional heart shards, both of which do not result in a paradigm shift in gameplay upon discovery.

Discovering a deserted island made exploration exciting

There is an example of well rewarded exploration in Fallout 3 though which I remember well, the case of the crashed UFO, which could be happened upon early on and rewarded you with a weapon so powerful and useful that finding it almost broke the game, but it had limited ammo. This is the sort of reward I feel belongs at the end of any rainbow of interest painted on the horizon of any good adventure game, an actually useful reward. Not just money, or story segments, but unique and useful items.

The dream adventure game:

Combining all of the above I see the form of a dream adventure title forming in my mind and it goes thus. Because my sense of adventuring spirit is heightened in the presence of isolation my ideal adventure game would be one devoid of any cluttering story elements or accompanying NPC, as practiced by titles such as ICO and Shadow of Colossus.

the player should be a solitary character, controlled in a RE4 type third person perspective set in beautiful and humbling locales, which play host to a quality collection of points of interest. No more than a handful of these should come into view as exploration begins, in fact ideally the game should start off with only one majour landmark visible at the onset to draw player interest.

The landmarks should not be too far away by foot so as to not make exploration boring, the aim should be quality over quantity. After all why have the player travel 10 minutes by foot across a flat featureless terrain when a shorter craggy precipice requiring Shadow of Colossus like acrobatic traversal can take as long to traverse with the additional benefit of also be more engaging.

The battle system should be deep so as to make combat with enemies more interesting and engaging. Instead of having hordes of enemies assault the player so they can mash their way through them it would do better to only have a limited number of enemy encounters spread thin across the game. These will approach the player one at a time so as to afford the player’s full attention, allowing for the encounter to be memorable and require dexterity as well metal effort, sort of like Vagrant Story, Demon’s Souls or even going all out to only feature memorable boss like characters like in Shadow of Colossus.

The environments should create the illusion of being expansive but be small enough in scope so as to facilitate being tweaked for best visual quality, density of interesting sights and obstacle design such was practuced in Demon’s Souls with its short but cleverly designed levels. To stave player fatigue the world should be portioned off into areas that vary vastly in terms of visual design, and perhaps also the gameplay mechanics required for their traversal such as the Zelda series often does with Hyrule’s grassy plains feeding seamlessly into oceans on one side and volcanic barrens one the other, with a desert and ice world tucked away at other corners.

Adventuring spots should advertise their presence by way of often gargantuan landmarks visible from afar and once reached should feed the player into a more compactly designed area where a lot of effort has been put into making traversal and exploration exciting, these areas will demand varied lengths of adventuring in order to reach the reward hidden within them. The reward should often be guarded by a memorable boss encounter or obstacle and the netted item should be unique and of significant value to the gameplay for the player.

No levelling system should be incorporated as this is a hinderance to the open exploratory nature of the game and will only lead to archaic contrivances such as grinding. Rather a more Vagrant Story and Metroid like approach is preferred where unique items and abilities found through exploration should help better facilitate exploration of certain areas so that in tandem with adventuring the world will become more open to the player, but care should be taken to make the world seem open enough at the onset.

The world should exist as a seamlessly interconnected whole and feature no divorced level structuring or loading screens of any kind such as was the case with Shadow of Colossus.


One of the most important parts to get right is a good atmosphere which also happens to be one of the hardest things to capture, but there are countless of examples of games that have an air of adventure to them, or at least there are some that appeal thus to my personal tastes. I was especially fond of the sensation of exploring the picturesque ocean cliffside castle in ICO. Many people do that game the great disservice of describing it as a puzzle game, or an escort mission, but to me ICO was foremost an adventure game. The artistic and audio design draped that game in a dreamlike adventuresome atmosphere that I enjoyed very much.

Who wouldn't want to explore such a magical place?

I had similar sentiments while traversing the many ruins found in Shadow of Colossus. In that game, which was much more open than ICO I constantly found myself wishing that there was more to do in that hauntingly beautiful world other than felling colossi. Games like Vagrant Story and Demon Soul’s also played host to a lot of atmosphere, but there it was of the foreboding variety instead of the serene kind, but that did not make the sensation of very carefully treading forward in their danger filled worlds any less impactful. There are many different kinds of atmosphere that lend themselves well to an adventure, and one game need not feature just one, the best of adventures are the ones that feature a dynamicly shifting mood.

I wish there were more to do here

There are many simple things that can be done to achieve atmosphere cheaply, such as a sudden spat of stormy rain clouds, followed by a torrent and violent clashes of lightning that could dramatically change the previously set serene mood. Cloud formations are often one of the most beautiful spectacles of nature and it is a shame how little most games make use of them to make their skyline more exciting to look at.

Something like this would be a welcome sight

Happening upon a landscape enveloped in moody mist, all around, or the sort that happens in forest in high places looking like a could has fallen upon the ground, and the eerie still that follows entering into its body. The sound of the wind howling as you explore a barren wasteland as the wind picks up dust devils. In essence all of the things that evoke a sense of nostalgic isolation whenever one is amid the naked nature in all its forms of beauty.

With the graphic fidelity demanded by gamers today it will likely be very difficult to recreate nature or any locale of choice with the sufficient level of splendour to successfully evoke the adventuring spirit. But this is only true for a title aiming for the photorealistic approach to art, for then to try and capture even the simple beauty of something as mundane as a forest becomes an exercise in tedium. I have seen many collection of trees recreated in games, alas few can measure up to the feeling of being in an actual forest with the sunlight projecting golden columns through the green canopy draping the forest in a vivid and surreal light. I cannot even recall any game even trying to recreate the serene sounds of the wind animating a thousands rustling leaves which is such a cheaply won effect.

I see such thing often where I live, yet no game has successfully captured that magic

Audio design often plays a subtle but very crucial role in any game that has instilled a sense of adventure in me. These games rarely feature any background music and instead rely on ambient sounds to set the mood, and a good amount of attention given to that department will get a game far indeed.

But still the fact remains that it is often difficult enough to capture the beauty of nature even in a simple photograph, as those things never portray a scene half as grand as it was when looked upon in person. In that sense one is perhaps better served in the visual department to try and go for a stylized look, and pay good attention to moody artistic direction because with that ICO and Shadow of Colossus accomplished so much with so very little, and on sixth generation hardware no less. Attention to detail in places that matter, an inspired artistic direction and cinematography can help blur the places where visual fidelity cannot measure up to reality.

Journy might be the sort of pure adventure game that I wish there were more of

I fear though that pure adventuring is becoming a thing of the past as game creators today are increasingly giving things such as cinematic set pieces or grand story aspirations greater weight during development. Even the RPG genre that once was the primmest host for free form exploration today is so caught up in telling a story that all of its content is chained to main or side quests. There are many games that could serve as better examples that I did not mention either because I am not familiar with them or because I do not feel that they qualify to satiate my desire for a good adventure, so I will continue to look and hope that one day I will find that castle.

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