What does it mean exactly when we call a game an ‘exploration’ game?
One of the most interesting ideas to come out of Episode 1 of our podcast was that Doom is an exploration game. It is bizarre to think a first person shooter from 25 years ago scratches the same itch that Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Hollow Knight do. But it does, and I’ve tried my best to explain why this is the case. Here’s my attempt to define what makes exploration in games compelling and how Doom matches those criteria.
Venturing into the Unknown
We have to be ignorant of what's coming next and what’s lying in wait to be intrigued when we discover it. We can ‘explore’ a police station or an apartment building in a game but it generally breaks down into advanced robbery, at best. These places are predictable and dull. When the world is logical and familiar with nothing weird or abnormal to find, there’s no sense of pioneering or discovery.
Doom feels like a weird and ridiculous place, even in Episode 1 when you’re meant to be on a human built station. There are secrets everywhere, temporary walls, nonsensical lifts and toxic pits and it just gets stranger as we start invading hell. I have no reasonable grounds for expectations when I open a door in Doom because the game has no interest in appealing to sensible building layouts. Doom succeeds admirably at making you feel like the pioneer you are when you wade through the dead in your journey through hell.
Exploration is most meaningful when you are under constant threat. If we’re invulnerable and invisible or there are no enemies or death traps then the exploration is, on some level, meaningless. Its less exploration, more documentation - there’s nothing stopping anyone going anywhere except the simple passage of time. It's not meaningful to ‘explore’ your local library - no-one is going to stop you and why would they? You need to be scared when you’re exploring on some level to get the most out of it.
This is probably Doom’s greatest strength as an exploration game. Every step I took, I was being careful. I was constantly scanning for potential ambushes and trying to keep my health and armour up because every time I picked up any thing, or even just walked into the wrong space I could end up in immediate danger. And if you’re not careful, Doom will swiftly punish you as it traps you behind a legion of monsters that wasn’t there even a second ago. Doom’s danger doesn’t come just from the existence of its monsters. Its the threat of monsters popping up where you do not expect them.
If our progress is along a corridor, we haven’t actually explored - we’ve gone down the predetermined path that the developer has left for us. There needs to be choices in how we progress through a level or world or we’re just dancing to a fiddle. This is not a binary design decision - You can have a metroidvania world spiralling outwards or a level where there are 10 ways to complete a simple objective. But there needs to be something that gives your path meaning distinct from the path that another person has taken.
Doom fails the most here. You get choices to go left or right sometimes, but one will be blocked with a key door while the other way is the actual correct path. You might find a secret that another player has not, but you’re still mostly killing the same monsters with the same guns, getting in the same ambushes and crying the same tears. Doom has player agency in how you rise to meet those challenges, but less so in how you approach or encounter them.
Lost and Confused
If you know exactly where you are, have you really explored? If you never have to look at your map and are never lost, then you can hardly be somewhere new and exciting. Exploration games are partly about getting lost completely. But more importantly than that, they are about the process of mastering your environment and learning where everything stands in relationship to everywhere else. But you can’t feel that process of learning how a map fits together if it was only ever a 4 piece puzzle to begin with.
Doom gets most of the way there I think. The maps aren’t enormous, but they are incredibly dense. And while you’ll never be completely lost, the looping structure of the maps can have you scratching your head a bit as you try and fit it together. Most importantly, Doom succeeds at letting you learn your environment - as you scrap your way through the enemy encounters, going back and forth to ambush walls and previously inaccessible key doors you develop a mental map of where everything resides. When you exit each level, you feel like you’ve come to grips with the previously intimidating space.
So does Doom succeed as an exploration game? I think so. It doesn’t give you the freedom to go wherever you want and accomplish objectives however you choose, but it did make me terrified and excited as I moved into every new area. It matters less whether you’re holding a gun or a sword, or if you’re a platformer or an rpg. The level design is what informs the exploration of these games and I hope to eventually see it again in modern shooters.