EMPTY OBJECTS IN DUNGEON EXPLORATION

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LockeZ
I'd really like to get rid of LockeZ. His play style is way too unpredictable. He's always like this too. If he ran a country, he'd just kill and imprison people at random until crime stopped.
5958
So, let's imagine that you are making a game where the dungeons and other locations are full of interactive objects, and the player is searching for ways to get through. I find this is easy to make interesting in something like Legend of Zelda, Lufia 2, or Wild ARMs, where the player is making their way through a maze-like ruin filled with traps and puzzles, and the things they have to search are obviously just game elements. These traps and puzzles add a lot to the dungeon, and get the player to think about the space in interesting ways, but have little logical reason to exist in the game world. How many block puzzles have you seen in real life, after all? The gameplay often comes at the expense of realism in these games, at least to some degree (although some games are better than others at justifying the nonsense).

It gets a lot harder to make the exploration interesting in a game where the exploration works more like Divinity: Original Sin, Skyrim, Neverwinter Nights, Fallout, or even Phoenix Wright. You know, games where every cabinet and drawer can be searched, and every object can be interacted with in a variety of realistic ways. And where the locations are realistically designed buildings where every room has an obvious use, not insane pyramids with moving pillars that crush you. This kind of exploration system is most common in western RPGs. You can try to put the same kinds of Zelda-like puzzles in your games when they work like this... but they often become nearly impossible to solve, because every random cabinet and drawer is a red herring. This leads these kinds of games to have much simpler exploration, where the most "puzzle" you ever really tend to get is a lever that moves an elevator or a key that unlocks a door. And the player nearly always has to be told a clue about where to find that key, because if you leave them to search on their own, they have hundreds of potential places to search through in the dungeon.

It's that searching through dozens or hundreds of places for things you might need that drives me crazy. It often feels like a waste of time to me. But for certain genres of games, such as games where the plot is focused on solving a mystery, or games where the main appeal of the game is exploration of a fleshed-out world, I completely understand why they work like that. It's not a type of game that I can simply toss in the garbage and say "They should stop making games like this, just make the important objects sparkle and make everything else non-interactive."

My question is, in games that use this second kind of exploration system, where every object can be interacted with in a variety of semi-realistic ways, and every container can be searched, what are some good tricks you guys have found to make exploration still feel engaging and exciting? How do you keep the player *wanting* to go in each room and open each drawer, and not constantly feeling disappointed or annoyed?

And for some related questions that feed into the above question, how often is it okay to have rooms that contain nothing useful for the game - just one or two rooms per dungeon, or do you not mind when most rooms are like that? Do you think that adding lore and narration to each object to explain why it's there and what it's used for is better, or worse, than a message that just says "Nothing of interest" when you walk up to a strange looking machine in the factory ruins a press A to search it?
In that kind of game, it might be best to construct puzzles logically. For example, coming upon an abandoned house in the woods that has a safe that needs electricity to open.

Is the house still hooked up to the grid? Or does it have a generator? Well... how would you solve this problem in real life? Are the fuses all intact? Can the generator still run? It just goes from there. Using real-life knowledge to solve real-life puzzles. What if there are no fuses? Uh... How would you solve that problem in real life? It might bend a person's brain a little. ("Let's put a tinfoil ball in the fuse socket." "Let's use this cooking oil in the generator; It's a diesel engine.") Then you could have multiple solutions to the same puzzle, as is often the case in real life, but you know how that goes from a development perspective...

So, for these open-world kind of puzzles, it might be best to offer the player a route to the most logical answer. No electricity -> hook up the electricity. It's already hooked up! -> The fuse is blown. Find fuses.
Red_Nova
Sir Redd of Novus: He who made Prayer of the Faithless that one time, and that was pretty dang rad! :D
9192
It's important to understand what you want the player to get out of exploring your game. "Interesting" and "annoying" are very nebulous metrics that will vary wildly from player to player, and even from developer to developer. Until it's understood what kind of non-critical content you want to go for, then it will be extremely difficult to nail down what would make it interesting for the player.

The way I see it, there is a key factor that separates the two exploration types listed in the OP: The nature of the goal. In Zelda, Lufia 2, etc. the goal is clear and rigid: get to the end of the dungeon, beat the boss, and move on to the next one. Anything that doesn't contribute directly to progress towards that goal can feel like weight on the player that can get overwhelming when in excess.

Fallout, Skyrim, and Phoenix Wright operate differently on a fundamental level. Their goals aren't as clearly defined and simple to achieve as those in the first category. You don't know exactly what you're looking for, so you have to start looking around the world. Fallout 4's main plot involves finding your son with little to no hints to go on. Ace Attorney games require you to piece together a mystery, so you often won't know what will be critical pieces of evidence until the moment you come across them. If you don't make direct progress towards the goal, players still treated to character banter, worldbuilding, and other non-critical information that most players playing these kinds of games would appreciate anyway.

The reason why I spend those last paragraphs not answering your questions is because what can be seen as engaging and exciting for one type of exploration will likely not work for the other type, and vice versa. Correct me if I'm wrong here, but it sounds almost like the question of the topic is to see what kind of exploration rewards that would work for the second type of game could appeal to a player of the first type of game. Unfortunately, I don't think there is an answer to that. If the game is too focused on the completion of that goal, then just about any kind of non-critical dialogue will grate on the player. The only thing I can think of right now is to relax the rigidity of the main goal and to use the exploration of seemingly inane objects part of the fun of finding the way to solve the main goal, rather than contribute to solving the main goal itself.

If there is still determination to try and fit in exploration elements into a more goal-oriented game, then I think it might be best to go for a more subtle approach. Take the Souls series for example: item descriptions and environment design can provide plenty of lore and backstory for those who want to dig into it without directly interfering with the goal of reaching the end of the dungeon and fighting the boss. Getting a new weapon can be a direct benefit for the goal oriented player, and those that want more context and open the weapon's item description for the context that they want.

My entire current game is just:

enter room > exhaust potential item/lore spots >or engage with an enemy > or bump into an obstacle that forces you to find an accessible room to find an item that might unlock said obstacle giving you access to another room, repeat.

That's extremely simplified but it's what it essentially boils down to when I think of what to put in a room when there's no enemies. I think the audience will probably just accept that because that's especially expected in a survivor horror game where digging through glowy trash bins is a break from the intensity of claustrophobic combat. Explore > Combat is just really tried and true especially for a "what the fuck happened here" game. No one sets out to make a rummaging game but most games end up being them. The common line of thinking is just: "I need a reason why the player can't just bee line to the boss, I'll put an obstacle that forces you to take the long way around and maybe backtrack, oh I know I'll put little crumbs along the way"

A lot of my ideas on addressing the issues equate to redoing how the structure is even setup in the first place. Though I don't know if they're issues to be solved so much as a format that is pretty reliable in creating just enough filler between the meat.

There are some things I try to do to break up exploration within the format:

-Give the player 3 locked rooms but one key, then just tell the player what's actually in the rooms via security camera hacking. In a classic zelda scenario you just kind of open doors willy nilly, so I think an aspect of informing the player what they're going to get out of it now and withholding the non-chosen items longer is enough to create some kind of neuron light up in the player's brain. Especially if the items are of actual benefit, even if objectively just one of them is. It's basically just MMO quests but embedded into the room scavenging.

-Areas that are completely optional, are unlocked by items that are also completely optional to find, these items will also make combat not just easier but different especially with limited inventory. Somewhat metroidy but a little more "what do I bring with me and how will that affect combat once I'm out there unlocking an optional area" Generally though its just making cool new abilities in spots that there'd usually be uh 21 gold pieces... to mix it up as opposed to putting them in mandatory spots of importance or after a boss.

-Weird setpiece moments that aren't cutscenes before getting stuff. It's hard to think of an existing example for what I mean, but creating an in-game moment that doesn't feel like a puzzle or obstacle but just something that reacts to what the player is doing and feels different from the rest of the game. In one room I have a friendly robot NPC that just follows you around, its not explained on what it does. But when you go near a broken lore terminal it goes towards and repairs it (and maybe unlocks some item for you). The exact same thing could have been functionally done by just having the player walk up to the terminal or look for a repair tool to fix the terminal but the NPC just exists to make it feel different and maybe initially confuse the player. Though I'm also just making it to just create a "moment." beyond gameplay or story. This robot also appears maybe 2 times in the entire game.

So I guess what if the NPC opened the cabinet for you and gave you an item for talking to them? It seems pointless but contextually it's technically different and even just the confusion of "huh? is this a puzzle? do I gotta do something for this? no wait my gameplay brain can go to sleep" is something. Just don't do it 50 times in a row I guess.

-Making environments and item placements not as static. So basically there's a bridge that collapses and takes you to another area, if you use an explosive trap near it that is. That collapsed bridge however will block off an area preventing you to getting a desired item, if there's an enemy on the bridge when it collapses the enemy will from now on spawn from under it if you don't kill it. Also the lack of a bridge prevents a convenient shortcut. Lot of moving parts going on but basically without even the player intending it the places to get items or engage with enemies can be changed and morphed. Just planting the idea that the player could have been safely rummaging vs frantically rummaging vs rummaging later is enough to break up the monotony.


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Universally I think all of my points boil down to break it up as much as you can and create variety. Subvert the "gonna go into a room and A to B the nearest pot" expectation when you think it's about to get old, then fall back into it for the sake of dev time -> play time efficiency. Otherwise I'd probably throw everything out the window and make something akin to Death Stranding or Ben Foddy's Getting Over It, where the terrain itself is the gameplay there are no items to scavenge (other than to maybe carry) and the incidental nature of the levels themselves creates unexpected interactions. That's a super nuclear option though. I don't have anything to elaborate on that idea guy pitch but that's the direction I would look into and experiment with if I got sick of the cabinet scruvammaging whatever.
LockeZ
I'd really like to get rid of LockeZ. His play style is way too unpredictable. He's always like this too. If he ran a country, he'd just kill and imprison people at random until crime stopped.
5958
Cabinet Rummaging Game is now a recognized game genre, thanks for adding that to my lexicon. Also I found these posts insightful so far!

I wasn't thinking about horror games when I made this post because I don't play them but they're kind of a perfect example because so many of them end up doing almost nothing else with their gameplay except for cabinet rummaging. Because they want the player to feel weak and helpless, the combat needs to be rare, short, and mostly focused around running away. So the games often end up being 96% trash cans and 4% shadow demons. However, at the same time, that tension that something in the building is actively searching for you makes the trash bin digging feel a lot less boring. You're spending a resource in order to do it, and have to choose what to prioritize, instead of having infinite time to search absolutely everything. That's important!

In an RPG, a chance for a random encounter with each step you take can probably accomplish a similar feeling, though I don't think they're as good at that. But they don't have to be as good in order to be good sometimes. If your game doesn't have random encounters, then you can accomplish the same thing with respawning patrols that wander the hallways of the dungeon, and crash the player's party if they take too long in one spot. Assuming the encounters aren't trivial and the player has limited resources to get through the dungeon with, I think this can be a solid option to give the Type A personality players something to worry about and keep them from feeling bored, while also giving the Type B personality players an open area to freely explore in the way they want to.

I still worry about the player feeling like they're being punished for just moving forward and trying to progress in the game. I know I sometimes feel that way. In a game like Divinity: Original Sin or Neverwinter Nights, if I don't check every single object in the game, I lose rewards, since occasionally they have crafting ingredients or small amounts of money or a magic scroll or something. And there's no downside or cost to checking them.

But I also don't want to miss out on some valuable reward or important piece of information because the game only let me rummage through 15 objects safely before continuing, and I checked the wrong glowing trash bin. That's awful. So, at least in most games, I don't think that whatever cost or penalty the players get for spending too long opening drawers should generally be a hard limit of any kind, just another problem they then have to deal with.
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