Friday, October 9, 2020

Up There

has a post up today about dungeon exploring in World of Warcraft Classic. And by exploring he means clambering about to reach places you probably weren't meant to go. It's something I like to do in any MMORPG that has an art department worthy of the name. There are usually things worth seeing if you're willing to poke your nose where it doesn't belong.

How practical it is to explore inside instances and dungeons varies enormously, not only according to which game you're playing but also often which class, race or level your character happens to be. Indeed, level can often be the limiting factor.  

In many games I've never really had any clear picture of the architecture or interior design of dungeons until long after I've outlevelled them. It's hard to admire the finer details of dado rails or crystal chandeliers when a horde of angry goblins are doing their best to set you on fire.

If you're playing a game where the dungeons are all instanced - most games since about 2004 - sometimes there's the option to wander around afterwards, taking in the sights, providing there's no respawn. Mostly, though, you'll be with other people who don't share your predilection for tapestries and caryatid columns and you'll have to leave when they're ready, which will be as soon as the last boss dies.


Thankfully, as Telwyn also points out, there are plenty of outdoor locations to explore. When we think of exploration in open world games the mind tends to flood with vistas of distant mountain ranges and rugged sea cliffs but you can explore the world indoors just as handily as out. Most MMORPGs, no matter the setting or time period, come fully equipped with camps, farmhouses, temples, industrial complexes, ruins and structures of all kinds.

Every time I do one of the Bartle test variants on some website or other my Explorer quotient comes out on top but I sometimes think it's more about the theory than the practice. Yes, I find myself drawn most strongly to those responses that reflect curiosity and inquisitiveness, and yet I wonder whether I'm not really more of an armchair explorer, even when I'm literally sitting in an armchair.

My forays into the wilderness tend to be sporadic. I'll take a session opening a map or exploring a zone only to return to my regular progress-based activities for the rest of the week. I do have a tendency to run anywhere and everywhere in a new game, often pushing far beyond the point where I'm able to engage with the content by any means other than the screenshot key. Once I'm set, though, and my initial drive to see what's over every next hill has dissipated, it's mostly the progression mechanics that keep me logging in. 

Exploring in MMORPGs tends to be something that requires inner motivation to sustain. As Telwyn says, while there's often an amusing detail to be found, anything with gameplay value tends to be very rare.


Some MMORPGs make much more of an effort to reward random exploration than others. These days, finding certain locations or ticking off every point of interest in an area often leads to an actual Achievement, not just the sense of one.

I remember Rift designers having a particular propensity for scattering collectibles in the most obscure spots and from what I've read Star Wars: the Old Republic's datacrons are even harder to find - and reach. Going back to dungeons, EverQuest II, a game where housing is more important than most, has a habit of hiding acquirable house items in plain sight as part of the furnishings.

None of these experiences really prepared me for playing Genshin Impact, which doesn't follow any of the rules I'm familiar with. It is, famously or infamously, a game that owes much of its design and arguably its very existence to Breath of the Wild. As I understand it, BotW is itself an outstanding example of the "open world" genre of non-massively multiplayer games, a genre where, at least according to some complaints I've seen, players can feel obligated to explore everything just so as not to miss out on anything worthwhile.

I can imagine how that could become wearing, eventually. I certainly lost patience with the similar convention in games like Baldur's Gate and Divinity: Original Sin, where no room was considered fully furnished without a dozen or so boxes, barrels, chests or sideboards, every one of which had to be opened, just in case.


For now, though, I'm finding the prospect of something worthwhile around every corner highly motivating. It very much helps that GI has by far the best climbing mechanics I've ever enjoyed in any game. The animations are subtle and satisfying and my character seems to understand concepts such as height, depth, inertia and incline. There's rarely any need to do more than point her at the obstacle and let her do her thing and yet it feels entirely as though I'm in full control.

That would be lovely but it wouldn't make a game of it. The endurance resource does that. Managing your energy makes climbing cliff faces an exercise in timing and judgment. Is that a ledge up there? Is it wide enough and flat enough to rest on or will I find myself clinging to the slope, unable to go on? Does that overhang hang over too far? Will I be able to sidle along to the side and slide past?

Get it wrong on a sheer face and you'll fall to your death, to be replaced instantly by another member of your team, who'll be able to revive you, always assuming you've remembered to pack an omelette or a steak. But then there you'll be, back at the bottom where you began, trying to decide if it's worth the time to do the climb again.

I spent most of a session doing just that last night. I started out trying to gather a certain resource and ended up climbing the highest peak in a range just because I thought I could. And I was right. What's more, when I pulled myself up over the rim I found not only an astoundingly lovely view but a ring of statues, a fountain and a mysterious puzzle. 


I solved the puzzle on the second try and received a multi-part quest. It felt exceptionally satisfying to have undertaken the climb for the pure elation of the thing and then to be so fulsomely rewarded for my effort. Much more satisfying than had I known the quest was there and climbed up specifically to get it.

This is why I'm trying not to read much in detail about the game. I generally don't in the early stages of a game I'm enjoying. It's a conceit that's hard to maintain for long. There's always a tipping point, when being uninformed flips from exciting to frustrating. So far, no sign of that happening in Genshin Impact.

Given the extensive work miHoYo must have put into the open world environments, I do find some of their design decisions regarding the domains, GI's instanced dungeons, of which there are many, counter-intuitive to say the least. The domains I've seen so far have been attractive enough as scenery but they've also felt linear and undifferentiated in comparison to what's outside. 

The rooms very obviously exist only to be cleared in a specific order. Unlike the richly decorated and lore-filled exterior buildings, the domains seem characterless and utilitarian. When you complete the final objective a timer begins, allowing you around a quarter of an hour before the instance closes but as yet I've not been able to find any reason to stick around more than a moment or two.


There are, occasionally, a few resources or materials to be gathered, in keeping with the setting but there don't appear to be any special collectibles or items. I might have made more of an effort to find out if I was missing something  if it wasn't for the fact that climbing skills appear not to work at all inside domains. That really puts a damper on the idea of going exploring there.

It's entirely possible I'm missing something, of course. That's the downside of not looking stuff up at the start. It's more than likely I'll find out in time that I should have been using those fifteen minutes to track down some vital component or other. If so, I'll come back for it then.

For now I'll stick to outdoor exploration. It's a great big open world out there and I want to see every last wonder it's hiding.


  1. Back in the WoW Lich King days my son (about 10 years old at the time) got the Explorer achievement by visiting every location in the game — before he could fly at level 60. I was awe-inspired. One of my fondest memories of the game was finding my way up Mount Ironforge and seeing the little camp on top and flying/floating down into the Wetlands. I did a lot of mountain climbing and exploring in that game, and honestly enjoyed that more than "actually playing".

    Breath of the Wild is a fantastic explo game, and Genshin Impact sounds to have lifted its climbing mechanics fairly literally. Good for them! I'm waiting to try GI until I can conveniently play it on my Linux box, which probably means until it hits Steam, but I'm really looking forward to it.

    1. Probably my favorite memory of the first time I played WoW was finally working out how to climb up to the abandoned Gnomish airfield, back before it got turned into a quest location. It took me about three sessions to find the route that worked and it felt like solving a puzzle. There didn't really need to be any tangible reward, either. Just the satisfaction of solving the puzzle was enough.


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