A spoiler-free traveler’s guide to exploration in video games
There are a few subtle twists of fate that could have occurred to make it so this post was never written. One is that Xenoblade Chronicles wasn’t originally slated to be released in North America, thanks to Nintendo’s dislike for localizing games that people actually want to play. Project Rainfall (a group of very dedicated fans) fought nail and teeth to convince Nintendo to bring Xenoblade to the west and Nintendo finally caved in for one reason or another. Another reason is that I already wrote an editorial for this month, so I figured I’d either wait or just not write it at all. Lastly, I wanted to review Xenoblade Chronicles, but didn’t feel like I could finish the game quickly enough for a review to still be salient to readers. I almost gave up, until I realized that I never actually wanted to review the game in the first place. I had no desire to pick apart the fighting mechanics, summarize the plot, and delve into the technical aspects of the game. I was possessed by a simple desire to write about my experience in the game, and I found no reason not to share a chronicle of my own. There are no spoilers ahead and no review scores: just a girl fondly remembering her time spent roaming the world of Bionis and Mechonis.
The world as you know it consists of two opposite halves. There’s a more organic half full of lush fields and sparkling pools of water that is contrasted by a largely artificial half made up of machines. This split is because the ground you are walking on…are actually the corpses of Gods. Mechonis and Bionis are two Gods who fought each other to the death; and now you walk around on their lifeless bodies, build cities on the small of their backs, and cross from one half to another along a bridge made from their huge swords. As a result, even a homely prairie becomes something otherworldly, as you can always see one God’s enormous figure looming over the horizon. It’s an odd feeling, but it’s not so alienating that you can’t relate to the scenery and take some time to appreciate where you’re wandering off to.
This is an RPG, and the main point is to grind and kill anything that comes your way. Exploration is optional, although it does have benefits. You can’t expect to find everything without doing a little searching, after all. Most games reward exploration with items. As a result of operant conditioning, most gamers have developed the habit to immediately scour the area in search of hidden goodies and collectables. It’s not so much that we’re entranced by a new area and feel a pure curiosity to find out what’s out there, but we want to see what it will give us in the form of tangible rewards. Most of the time, I find myself exploring for this reason because there really is no other benefit. Many games have bleak environments, enclosed spaces and repeated areas that look just like the last. If there is nothing at the end of an extra path, why would I ever want to go there? Why waste time meandering when I could be working towards completing the main storyline of the game? It can be hard to create a circumstance where the player wants to explore…solely for the sake of exploring. No in-game rewards, just walking around out of choice and taking in the sights.
Exploration in video games isn’t all bad. It depends on the player, but there are certainly examples out there of games that go against the grain and encourage looking around to learn more about the world. Xenoblade is one of those games. Let me start off by admitting that, yes, extrinsic rewards for exploring do exist in this game. Uncovering a new areas gives you exp, new areas often contain quests, and the entire realm is peppered with collectables for you to pick up. I enjoyed the perks, but that wasn’t why I was sidetracking from the main story so much. I wanted to know what this world looked like. I found myself climbing as high as I could to simply stand there and survey the land to see how one area connected to the next, returning to places I had already been to see what it looked like in the glow of the moon, and reporting on the new types of monsters that appeared at different times of day like some sort of field biologist. I was drinking it all in with my eyes because I wanted to form a mental map of Bionis and Mechonic to understand how this world worked as a whole.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why this world is so charming to explore. It’s well-designed and varied, but the graphics are rather terrible. This is not a visual masterpiece to look at, so I wasn’t just exploring to experience eye candy. However, everything is bright and inviting. The world is completely wide open, allowing you to spread out instead of being restricted to tiny corridors. I haven’t run into those infamous invisible barriers you often find in games at all during my playthrough. When you have the freedom to go absolutely anywhere, it’s tempting to take that option and run wild! It’s like the world was made for you to to go off the beaten track and find hidden areas. The neat thing is that even if you accidentally run into an area you probably shouldn’t be in until you’re a higher level, you’re not punished for dying. You will simply respawn at the last checkpoint…and there are tons of checkpoints. You keep all your EXP and loot all the way until your exact time of death. Don’t like the checkpoint you were sent to? You can teleport from checkpoint to checkpoint anytime, anywhere (except in battle hurr hurr hurr). I will say this again: Bionis and Mechonic are huge. I do enjoy exploring and tend to walk more than I need to, but the teleportation ability is extremely handy. I won’t be as hesitant to explore an area in a far-off corner of the map because I can just teleport back instead of wasting time doubling back. It can be used to skip exploration for some, but I see it as a tool to go further and deeper into the world without worry of either going too far or stumbling into the lair of a level 77 armoured beast.
It’s hard to explain in words how utterly magical it feels to run around in this world, but I will try to recount some mini adventures for you. Goddammit, I will try.
Slightly woozy from the sharp drop from the many winding paths, I did my best not to look down. I was grateful that the sky seemed to be lightening up, as the paths looked nothing short of treacherous with only the pale light of the moon to show the difference between an edge and a fall to your death. While taking my time, the hazy figure of Mechonis in the distance caught my eye. I’d never seen it this clearly before, without a line of trees or mountains blocking the way. I turned away from the main path to the mine, Reyn and Sharla looking a bit confused at my detour. Still, they quietly followed and even halted at my signal as I waited for a massive eagle to pass over head. I wanted to see Mechonis in peace without a feathered demon raking its claws into my back. I shuffled forward to the edge cautiously, afraid that I’d slip on the morning dew that made the grass slick as ice. Just as I reached the edge, the sun peeked out from the horizon and illuminated the world, giving me the first real view of Mechonis that I’d ever seen. I’d be there soon. Soon.
See? Some really beautiful things happen by chance just from wandering around and appreciating my surroundings. It’s nice to stop and smell the roses. Okay, now one more elaboration of an actual event that happened while I was playing this. Just one more!!
As I was running desperately to save my new friend, I saw something catch my eye. I turned on a dime and jogged to the edge of the cliff to get a better look. However, at that moment, a monster spotted us and attacked. I was startled, and before I know it I was tumbling over the edge, falling headlong to my death. Or…so I thought. I plunged into a lake I never knew existed until I was 5 feet feet below the surface of it, dangerously close to the shore. So close, I don’t doubt I had a minor concussion. I can’t even recall what was so interesting for me to race over to a ledge in the first place. Slowly, I dragged myself onto the shore and looked around. I didn’t recognize a single monster or landmark. There was a maze of bridges and islands laid out before me, and the shore itself was full of monsters larger than anything I’d ever seen outside of a boss fight. All I could do was stop and stare dumbly at this new, high-level area that I wasn’t meant to be in. I was supposed to leave and come back later, but I couldn’t bring myself to teleport away. It didn’t take long before the entire party and I grew restless and got to work getting to know the area while laughing and trying to dodge huge, awe-inducing beasts that could pummel us with a flick of the wrist. Somehow, it was just as exciting as the boss battle yet to come.
Xenoblade Chronicles is a fun game, but I found my immersion into the world they created to be abnormally high. Wandering around and doing nothing can be fun in a game, but I rarely find this to be the case. I have had similar experiences in only a few other games. I used to go back in Paper Mario years after beating it just to walk around the Crystal Palace because it truly felt like a cold, lonely palace. I went there so I could…be there. Almost like a video game vacation or experiencing that feeling of returning somewhere familiar after a long time. I often did the same in Banjo-Tooie, simply returning to Cloud Cuckooland and flying around the level in a few lazy circuits. There was a giant piece of cheese you could bounce on, a castle made of jelly, and rainbows you could walk on. It was truly the most majestic level I have ever had the pleasure of being in! I have yet to play Journey, but from what I’ve heard, this is an excellent example of a game where your reward for exploring is purely intrinsic. You do it for the beauty of the environment and for the experience – not for some shiny gems or power-ups. So, what do you think of exploring in video games? Do you have a game where you found exploring to be incredibly fun? Do you have a favourite level that you can’t help but return to every now and then? Share your experiences with me, fellow traveler of virtual game worlds! After all, another great part of traveling is returning home and telling your friends all about what you’ve been through.
P.S. I recommend this game!