[woman before lake before mountain]

Mrs. HM and I are explorers. In our pre-parent years, we’d embark on walks without any goal, just to see what we might find, and often blasted straight through lunch hour into the threat of imminent death from starvation at 4pm.

In 2005, we spent a few days on the island of Madeira. Madeira is riddled with irrigation channels called levadas which are also used by locals as footpaths. We spotted the start of one near our hotel and, on our final day, chose to follow it. It gently led us around the coast, snaking through villages and plantations and eventually headed inland along the edge of a rocky gorge. But we never completed the journey as, after half a day of hiking, we had to turn back to catch our plane home.

[shot of levada overlooking plantation and coastline]
Levada dos Piornais, 2005

Exploring is our vice and it’s an activity we look forward to resuming once the children get a bit older. But our joint obsession also thrives in virtual spaces.

Both of us spent countless hours wandering the neglected alleyways and meandering train routes of GTA III’s urban centres. I’ve scoured the junglescape of Far Cry 2 apparently hunting diamonds when in fact I had hijacked them as an excuse to explore. STALKER was another of my virtual world romances, whose anomaly-pocked hostility was fascinating to grapple with. And Mrs. HM basked in every shadow of Thief’s Haunted Cathedral, the imperative to search for loot under every abandoned desk and chair somehow more potent than the need to get the fuck out of there.

My first virtual world was the first action-adventure game Adventure (Atari, 1979) on the Atari 2600. It was Warren Robinett’s attempt to bring Crowther & Wood’s Colossal Cave to a machine with a staggering 128 bytes of RAM. Adventure was my favourite game amongst all of the Atari titles we owned and, to this day, remains a staunch favourite of many 2600philes. When I originally got my hands on the Stella emulator years back, it was Adventure I loaded up first.

[screens from Atari VCS Adventure Game Program]

The player, who starts in the Golden Castle, has to locate and retrieve the Enchanted Chalice. On the first difficulty level, the Chalice is found inside the Black Castle. The sensation of discovering the castle for the first time – its blocky silhouette leering down at the nondescript square hero – and imagining what could be inside was profound. For the committed explorer, there are few video game highs that can compete.

But there were no other Adventures to play. Being the first, this was all there was and I continued to rattle through the game, running away from dragons and a crazy bat, until our Atari console and cartridges were sold to fund the coming Atari home computer.

Adventure games continued to follow this “discrete” 2D model of rooms for a long time although later games enlarged these spaces so that they no longer fitted onto a single screen. But eventually we arrived at the present day when the “open world” became commonplace. In these three-dimensional, expansive and more realistic environments, usually the only seam in evidence is the infamous loading zone. Yet I can’t help but think that something has been lost in all this grandeur.

[shot upwards through centre of skyscraper]

The focus is now on quantity and spectacle rather than the quality of discovery that the explorer craves, the possibility of finding things that others would miss. These worlds are increasingly portrayed as merely a canvas upon which the game plays out and not part of the game proper.

The first time I realised this was during GTA: San Andreas where the game’s sprawling map was too unwieldly and its streets seem to blend into one another. I spent most of my time lost in its brown, urban blur. Newcomers were not welcome here.

FUEL also offered an enormous land mass to explore, but it is largely repetitive and does not reward thorough exploration, being more about the infinity of the asphalt. These new worlds are too vast to know completely and cheat the explorer of personal enlightment.

This isn’t a recent phenomenon. Mercenary: Escape from Targ (Novagen, 1984) modelled an entire planet – except that most of it is barren. Further, the planet’s only city is composed of structures of little function, separated by vast distances that take minutes to traverse without the aid of transport.

Modern joined-up worlds have acquired dead space to puff up their size and construct an illusion of real-world scale. But between this my-world-is-bigger-than-yours penis envy and the increasing scarcity of environmental narrative in such worlds, the mask is starting to slip. Perhaps a 3D world broken into smaller, discrete spaces like Adventure would be better at delivering the drug of discovery.

And so, Kairo.

[kairo screenshot]

Kairo is Richard Perrin’s game for the discerning explorer, currently in alpha. Instead of offering a vast, contiguous 3D environment, it presents a lumpy geography, an assortment of chambers that do not fit together either spatially or stylistically.

Each room boasts a specific colour signature and unique architecture. The locations distinguish themselves from one another with ease which means every new chamber is a prize for the explorer. From memory, I can quickly recall the hazy green maze room, the cylindrical pink chamber with struts that stretch into vertical infinity and the purple hub chamber with a column of rings at its heart.

There are also little secrets to be found in Kairo, odd shapes and graphical flourishes that have no real purpose in terms of play yet imply narrative relevance.

Although the game appears to lack story (it could be categorised as an “abstract puzzle game”), there is clearly something going on here. This lost place has a personality but, given the short length of the alpha, it doesn’t get much of an opportunity to speak to the player. It reminds me of Gregory Weir’s Looming but where Looming was a disquieting experience, Kairo is calming and reassuring. Only good things happen here.

[kairo screenshot]

Kairo is still in alpha, of course, which means everything can change. The first version prevented the player from falling off platforms, but this has been amended in the latest version. Personally, I preferred the game in its original form, when it was about discovery rather than watching your feet.

It’s also a little difficult to construct a mental map because the player effectively teleports between rooms and the usual spatial and style cues are absent; however, this design frees up Perrin to give each chamber a unique feel.

But I am hungry for more Kairo, having played the alpha from start to finish twice already. It is a game that takes me back to an eight-year-old’s joy of a game called Adventure.

It’s a game for the explorers amongst us.

To play the Kairo alpha, you will need to pre-order the game from the Kairo site. The alpha currently contains one structure, the smallest, of the three that Perrin has planned.  Whilst the Kairo site says the full game will be released in 2011, I wouldn’t be surprised if it slipped.

[kairo screenshot]

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26 thoughts on “For The Explorers

  1. And literally just minutes after I post “Kairo is calming and reassuring… only good things happen here”, Richard Perrin uploads his IGF Entry Video which plays like the preview of a horror movie. Hmm.

  2. Interesting article as always HM. I would make the case for Bethesda games when it comes to rich exploration for me. Morrowind and Fallout 3 in particular both offer large and rich worlds with a healthy variety of environments to check out and interact with. And possibly my favorite part of these games, you can just leave the actual gameplay behind, and just go off on your own adventure of choice.

    In the indie field of gaming Proteus is the first to come to mind (before even Minecraft) as an excellent adventure game that’s all about exploration. I’d highly recommend checking that out.

  3. Nice writing – exploration’s definitely one of the most important aspects of games for me. I’m with Armand on Fallout 3 in particular – I thought they did some great stuff both in terms of providing a visually interesting and fairly varied world, and also the little bits of embedded narrative outside the main line – particularly some of the vaults that weren’t “necessary” to finishing the game, but which were fascinating to explore and learn about.

    I have different feelings about San Andreas though, I must say – it still stands for me as one of the most enjoyable large-scale worlds for exploring. I’d agree that it’s somehow not very well defined and thus “blurry”, but the experience of driving through it, always in motion, is quite magical, I think – that combination of rural and urban spaces really worked for me as a way of really emphasising scale and my own trajecory through space.

  4. @Armand: Thanks Armand. Despite what I’ve written, I still think there’s lots of explorational fun in games, but a particular sweet spot – rapid discovery, compact, constant engagement – is what I have been missing which Kairo has nailed. On Bethesda, I am still worried about plunging my time into an open world game. I do want to get into Morrowind, for example, but it’s the fear that it’d swallow a year of my limited gaming time, destroying my ability to write about anything else: the time it takes me to play through the Kairo alpha is in the same ballpark as the Morrowind intro and character creation.

    Then there’s also my now-conditioned response to open worlds that it’ll involve a lot of forced travelling. Between distant places. I’ll get round to Proteus one of these days…

    @Pippin: Thanks! I won’t get into the details of our San Andreas story because, well, there’s a lot to be said on it. I’m hoping to write an article on this at some point, because bad words on GTA:SA are very far and few between. But in a nutshell, I can see how a different perspective could make it a more enjoyable experience (much like how I took FUEL) but GTA: SA was the next generation of the GTA bloodline – and that carried certain explorational expectations.

  5. Minecraft.

    he ultimate exploration box. I have recently returned, and forgot how easily you get sucked in. The randomly generated terrain throws up the most beautiful configurations, that look like natural wonders, epic cliffs that no one will have ever seen before. I always set out to go cop down some trees or something then find myself spotting a small open hole in the ground, 2 hours later I am gleefully working my way around the bottom of the map based on pure curiosity. to see if lava if I can find any interesting looking lava falls.

    I recently discovered they also added randomly generated abandoned mines ( a total suprise). And these work really well quite creepy with there zombies and seem endless.

  6. Having recently beaten Shadow of the Colossus with my girlfriend, I can attest to the beauty of exploration. That said, neither of us have done any unguided exploration for the most part, but earning nice views and wondering how the gameworld was in the past provide a different-yet-similar treat for the mind. The lack of enemies outside of the bosses makes this contemplation easy; you’re either working out how to get to your destination or reflecting on your surroundings as you go there.

    I was actually disappointed by how useful the rooms in the Metroid Prime games were across the board. No room was just there to be part of a beautiful alien world- there was either backstory, enemies, or items. That’s always been the oeuvre of the Metroid series, but it’s less awe-inspiring when compared against the first impression of being in places that don’t necessarily have a purpose. In other words, it’s practically the opposite of Shadow of the Colossus.

    P.S. The spelling of Kairo’s name pushes the song “Cairo” by Kamp! into my head. Nice.

  7. @adam: Minecraft is something I am totally sure I would dig (HAH) in a big way. And that is why I keep well away from it. It would become my gaming black hole, where all other experiences would be lost and I would just play Minecraft, Minecraft and – if I wasn’t watching what I was typing – Mincecraft.

    @BeamSplashX: Come on, be honest. Your girlfriend finished it for you, that’s what you’re trying to tell me. It’s interesting that you imply purpose as being the antithesis of true exploration. What kind of purpose do you mean? Do you mean a sort of primary gameplay value, that the game cannot be completed without it, or any gameplay value whatsoever?

  8. I should also mention Richard Perrin explained to me that Kairo in its entirety will expose the player to a wider atmospheric palette. It’s not going to be just positive thinking. The new IGF trailer puts out “creepy” vibes that are not present in the current alpha version – but will be experienced in the full game.

  9. We switched off on bosses, but my girlfriend actually left beating the final boss to me. We eventually switched again for the time attack mode, though, so she ended up having to beat him in about a third of the time I did.

    I wouldn’t say purpose is the opposite of exploration, but Metroid’s architecture is built around hiding items to a degree that suggests the galaxy was built specifically for the main character in advance. Even if it gets difficult, it really seems like you’re meant to succeed at every step because someone’s prepared the way for you. It was more acceptable with the abstracted sidescroller architecture of Super Metroid, but the visual fidelity and story emphasis of the Metroid Prime series shakes that notion up too much.

    If you explore in Shadow of the Colossus, you can find health and stamina upgrades in the form of fruit and white-tailed lizards, but neither of those things come across as forced when you find them. So it’s not really purpose itself that harms the feeling of exploration, but the knowledge that you are not finding things that fill a space. Instead, you are in a space built around being filled with things for you to find.

    The thought of earning beautiful views being made formulaic is a bit of a worry for me.

  10. Lovely piece. I am currently in the thrall of Dark Souls that has that real sense of adventure about it. But like your story where you had to abandon exploration for a plane; Dark Souls threatens you with having to abandon your searches and rambling because it wants you to get killed at every step.

    Treading that tight rope makes you constantly question the wisdom of wandering off the beaten track.

  11. @badgercommander:
    It’s funny you mention that, since it reminds me of how I explored in Gothic II. That said, I used quicksave in Gothic before propelling myself past instant-kill enemies that would inevitably catch up, so I could take in the sights without long-term penalties.

    Of course, I also quicksaved when I reached an especially high spot of terrain- the only sensible thing to do before I jumped to my AWESOME death.

  12. Another excellent piece with which I can’t help but agree. Also, I can’t help but be intrigued by Kairo, though it will have to wait. As for me, well, I can’t help but feel most modern game worlds feel oddly empty. Must have something to do with that uncanny valley I suppose. The more realistic a world looks, the more detail one would expect to find.

  13. Excellent piece, as always, and very interesting that you bring all this up Joel on the back of me playing At A Distance at the Eurogamer expo. Despite the whole Indie Arcade having front row seats for the Just Dance 3 show, At A Distance gave me that same feeling of being a kid again and exploring some abstract alien space. I’m thinking back to the primitive monochromatic Sinclair Spectrum days here. In fact, if I didn’t know that you had no friends to play At A Distance with at the expo I’d swear you were actually talking about it instead of Kairo, they seem very similar games, aesthetically and conceptually, which gets me very excited.

    @beamsplashx: You bring up two games there which I adore wandering around in and exploring. That’s a great observation regarding Metroid Prime as well: that the environment is purpose built for you. This is something my brother brings up all the time but I just sort of take it on the chin because Prime’s worlds are just beautiful and full of little details to witness if you look carefully enough.

  14. @BeamSplashX Yes there’s a delicate art to – um – Intelligent Design where you can’t see the hand of the creator, only the leaves blowing in the wind. And when a game says “this is a view, well done” invariably it destroys the whole point. I want to find interesting, unique stuff that doesn’t necessarily have a gameplay purpose. FUEL is a brilliant example of where gamification of exploration goes wrong: it marked out “vista points” as in-game achievements yet each one was far worse than views I had already taken screenshots of.

    @BadgerCommander: If I could play Demon’s Souls without selling my soul to a console, I would. You know I would. But you raise a great, great point: sometimes exploring becomes that much more intoxicating when you doing it under hazardous circumstances. Thief was big on this – exploring was hard work but the game always knew how to reward you. A note here, a bit of loot there, maybe a few arrows. Or even just a strange-looking room. It seemed to judge the explorer/gameplay balance extremely well.

    @gnome: That’s certainly one nail you’ve hit on the head there. The more a world seems to promise, the more easily it disappoints. But I’m a nuisance really. I think if a game gave me excessive detail I’d get fed up with it – too much clicking on everything and looking in every cupboard. Some games do this already, but perhaps they only bore me because the developers fill the spaces with such tedious things. Even though not technically an explorer as the game is linear, I was generally disappointed with some of Portal 2’s secret spaces (I’ve not found them all, of course).

    @Josh: Welcome to Electron Dance, Josh! If I could get over my instinctive fear of online environments (too much TFC and HLDM back in the day has conditioned me to leave 3D virtual strangers alone) maybe I would spend some time on Second Life! Are you recommending the “ordinary” Second Life or the sex world which is where I understand most of Second Life’s activity takes place these days?

    @Gregg: I would’ve played At A Distance with a random stranger – but whenever I passed by the game it was never free. I’ve never played any Metroid: I guess it’s just one of those things I have to admit I’ve missed.

  15. “If you’re willing to emulate, Super Metroid and Metroid Zero Mission are great games that have aged gracefully.”

    Come on HM, you know you wanna.

  16. @HM: A valid point. I think an excellent example of what I mean would be Jonas’ Book of Living Magic. Each place felt vivid, detailed and actually alive.

  17. Metroid Fusion is also great and there’s always the Dolphin emulator for the Prime games as well… 😉 heheh. Never did play Zero Mission though, perhaps that’s what I should play on the plane to Australia…

    I really hated that in FUEL with the vista points. ‘Nope, this isn’t as nice as the view over there I’m afraid, I’m off.’

    And can I just add, big-up to Mrs. HM for exploring the Haunted Cathedral. Yowzers, that’s personality defining stuff right there!

  18. On a perhaps related note, exploration is one of the reasons why I miss the space-based games of old. Frontier, in particular, brings back memories of jumping into random systems to see if there were any weird quirks in their astronomical layout or political and trading habits (“Wait, are you telling me you’ll pay *me* to export diamonds from your system?!”).

  19. A nice piece, Joel. I’d love to read you exploring the concept of exploration more some time, unless that would be an article that is already dwelling somewhere in the archives.

    Exploration really was what made me fall in love with my favourite games, whether it was exploring the wastelands, characters, settlements and half-lost history of the original Fallout games, the galactic region of Star Control 2 or the evolving possibilities and scope of Civilization or 4X games like MOO2 and Imperium Galactica (even if, eventually, space operatic possibility gave way to the realisation that you will always culminate at the biggest gun). It’s something I still find exciting – it’s what led me to spend about 250 hours with the recent Fallout titles, and to explore every inch of STALKER: Call of Pripyat – but I guess that it’s not something that alone draws me in. Exploration is predicated on a compelling world, I suppose.

    (Tangent: that may be why I am struggling with A Valley Without Wind at the moment. I think the early game fails to invest you in the setting. Right now I am just exploring to find loot I don’t care about and to get to bosses that give me EXP that will, supposedly, make the game more interesting. But it is only a beta, and I am going to play on.)

  20. Super Metroid? Yes, I can see that happening in the next week. Or two. Give me a year. Or two.

    @Gregg: At the time, she was playing it until 5am on my PC.

    @Matthew: Thanks for dropping by! I’m right there with you. I used to be able to get such a feeling of exploration out of early strategy games which were, to be honest, just a table of stats. Yet exploring that table – in the context of the constraints of simplistic 80s technology – was a ride for the imagination. Galactic Empire didn’t even have any graphics (it featured briefly in my “Eulogy for an Atari Childhood” video a couple of months back) yet we’d spend hours jotting down the stats of each planet. It makes you wonder if that’s all we’re really exploring today – prettier spreadsheets. (I recall Electronic Arts’ Seven Cities of Gold which could procedurally generate America to explore.)

    @ShaunCG: Unexpectedly I’m continuing on the topic of exploration in two days with another game- a game that has no game activity other than the act of exploring. Yet I still don’t think I will have said enough on exploration as it is so important to what I think is fantastic and vital about video gaming. I’m sure I’ll keep bringing it up again and again like a curry after a drinking binge.

  21. So, Armand, despite 30 years of technological advances, Skyrim is simply a more shiny version of Adventure? Man, I never thought you were going bash Skyrim like that. Not after that Tap-Repeatedly spat!

    No need to thank me.

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