Legend of Zelda Breath of the Wild, Link looking down from a vantage point onto green fields, a forest and a castle in the distance.

Recapturing the Love of Exploring in Games

As adult gamers, it can be difficult to find the joy that we once found in exploring every nook and cranny in a video game world.  Speaking personally, I’ve found that even minor deviations from the main plot can quickly begin to feel like a needless chore.

I’m determined to recapture the joy of exploring and discovering as an adult gamer.

When I was younger, I would be gifted a few new video games a year. Christmas and birthdays would each bring one brand new title, wrapped in cellophane and with that – mmm – new game smell.  I’d play the heck out of them then trade them in to get my hands on as many other games as possible through the year.

Given that my access to new titles was limited, I’d try and find video games with either a lot of replay value (Fifa, WWF games, Tekken, Gran Turismo), or games with a lot of content. And by “a lot of content” I mean “stupidly long play times” which would tide me over until the next time I’d be gifted a game.

This approach meant I’d fritter away tens, or even hundreds, of hours playing games like Final Fantasy, Pokemon and Grandia, fully immersing myself into the game world and religiously searching out every corner for hidden treasure chests and the like. I’d think nothing of spending a weekend doing two-hour long endurance races on Gran Turismo then exploring Gaia in Final Fantasy 7 until the early hours of the morning.

Oh, to be young again…

Gran Turismo on the PS1 showing a blue car racing around a race track.

I have no regrets about the time I spent sitting 2 feet in front of the screen wrapped in a duvet trying to eke out every moment from a game, but as I have grown older, the realities of life have taken a toll.  Work, marriage, kids, responsibilities — needless to say, my game time has become more and more limited as the years have passed.

The birth of my children brought about a change in the way I game. Gone were the leisurely strolls through game worlds speaking to every NPC possible and raiding every chest my beady eyes could find, replaced with solely racing through the main story and a few key side quests.

It’s become about the destination, rather than the journey.

Being limited to an hour or two of game time every 3 or 4 days has meant that I rarely feel rooted in the universe of the game I’m playing. I’m no longer an inhabitant of these worlds; I’m a visitor on a fleeting visit. My experience feels disjointed and, thus, I’ve found myself starting to care less about the little details hidden away by the game designers to create a living, breathing world, and more about just “getting through” the games I have.

Having an intimidating backlog of games to play on Steam thanks to those pesky sales has only increased the impetus to complete as many games as possible as quickly as possible.

I have managed to convince myself that focusing on the main story is the best way to experience the “best bits,” and I have used that to justify skipping the side missions that often reveal the real charm of the universe I’m temporarily inhabiting.

In all honesty, this has helped me to get through my pile of shame relatively efficiently, as I’m finally down to less than 100 games to play. Yes, 100…and, yes, that is an achievement.

A list of Steam video games.

But if you were to ask me even routine questions about the games I have played, I’d probably have forgotten or completely skipped over some key details in my haste to complete the story and move on.

Take Remember Me, for example. I remember that the main character is Nillin. I remember the setting was a futuristic rendition of Paris, that my main buddy was called Edge and that the story was about mind control and memories. But I couldn’t tell you who the enemies were, or the names of any other side characters. I couldn’t tell you what the real point was or whether it was accomplished sufficiently.  I think there was an explosion at some point but…maybe not?

A woman standing in a futuristic city in front of a statue.

It’s ironic that I don’t remember all of the details in Remember Me, but it isn’t the developer’s fault; it’s mine.

Remember Me is just one example; I’d say my recollection of 99% of games I have played over the two years would be the same. The main character is X, the setting is Y, the reason for the main quest was Z and, if I’m lucky, I’ll remember that the main bad guy was called Z and I killed him in some epic set-piece. The adventure and experience up until that final moment are mostly lost on me.  They’re minor details.

Even writing that makes me sad, as it is such a substantial departure from the way I used to enjoy playing video games. I yearn to play and enjoy video games the way I used to, and I still would if it didn’t mean sacrificing the beautiful additions to my hectic life that have accrued over the years.

Every so often, a game does come along which piques my interest enough to pull me from the main path.  Fallout 4 had me doing everything except the main quest for a good 30+ hours a few years ago.  Elder Scrolls Online has also been a joy to play, and given that I’ve only completed one main storyline, it’s safe to say that my aversion to side quests seems to have been abated whenever I boot it up.

But, by and large, those moments are few and far between.  I organise my games primarily by the amount of time the internet tells me it will take to complete them.  I avoid getting too entrenched in longer games, particularly those on services like Xbox Game Pass, which can be taken away with barely a weeks’ notice.

I miss the way that I used to enjoy games.  I miss enjoying exploring and discovering new things.  I miss not impatiently counting down to the credits so I can tick a game off of my list.  A part of that feeling is nostalgia, no doubt, but it pains me to know that I’m unlikely to capture that feeling for any significant period of time ever again.

Mo’ games, mo’ problems.  Or something.