Ten Player Motives #8
If you asked me which of the ten player motives was the most underrated, I would without hesitation reply: the curiosity motive. Not only do most game designers not appreciate the tremendous power of this aspect of human experience, but there is very little recognition of the intensity of the emotions that can be brought into play through curiosity. Yes, the emotional experience of triumph is intense and powerful, but it is also so commonplace as to be cheap and forgettable. But players never forget a moment that brings them wonder.
Exploration is the standard way that videogames evoke curiosity, but it is not enough to just throw out a world and drop the player into it. Morrowind did this, and unfortunately a great many players were turned off by the vertiginous freedom of the game. Later Elder Scrolls games cleaved to the now over-familiar formula of the Grand Theft Auto open world, shaping the world through chains of waypoints. This formula works, and is very successful, but it's insufficient to get the best value from the curiosity motive. Nobody's enjoyment of Vice City or San Andreas was primarily centred upon exploration.
Curiosity is an experience that runs on unanswered questions. For the open world game to truly satisfy the curiosity motive, the landscape has to be crafted in order to raise questions. Zelda has the best ever example in the cracked wall: the moment players see a cracked wall, they know there's a way through, and it just becomes a question of what will open it (a bomb, a hammer, a minotaur...). Indeed, if you want to learn how to put together an open world to evoke curiosity, Nintendo's Breath of the Wild is a masterclass. Each corner of the world is designed with tall features clearly visible ahead, and from up on high you can spy many intriguing spaces to fly down to. The player is constantly drawn to explore, and there is always something new to discover.
The Zelda franchise has also done well evoking the secret weapon of the curiosity motive: wonder. This is a full-bodied emotion that leaves a serious mark on those who experience it, and in both its landscapes and its bosses, Zelda has delivered. The boss experience at its best is a blend of fear and wonder - awe. Shadow of the Colossus managed to one-up Zelda in this regard, but it was working from the same playbook, and these days there are a great many games that do a great job getting awe out of bosses.
Yet wonder is not just to be found in the awe of titanic enemies to beat. There is wonder to be found for every new player of Minecraft, who experiences it the first time their mining down breaks out into an underground chamber of great breadth. This joy of encounter quickly fades - but it is telling that even a procedural landscape can produce wonder. There are also ways of designing for the experience of wonder that do not require combat - Endless Ocean gave me a more memorable experience of wonder in the encounter with a wild whale than any videogame boss I can think of.
Curiosity is not just a matter of exploration and encounter, though. Hidden object games like Mystery Case Files or Gardens of Time evoke curiosity despite being set on a single 2D visual field. What's more, this is a genre to have enjoyed enormous success among female players - which in part explains why the gaming media has been so disrespectful of it. Like it or not, there is still a strongly sexist bent among the people who write about games, and even female game journalists often earn their success by toeing the party line.
Finally, there is another way to get at curiosity and wonder - letting people create. This in fact was more crucial to Minecraft's success than anyone wants to admit: creative is the most popular mode in this game, and the fact that it is possible to sell calendars showing off what people managed to build with virtual LEGO ought to be telling. Roblox too thrives on the sense of the weird and the wonderful waiting to be discovered - and Google's grand media colonic, YouTube, is just as dependent upon the curiosity motive.
However, to make the curiosity motive work in games requires tremendous co-operation between departments. If you want to evoke wonder, you will need artists with immense skill and passion for their work, or programmers willing to prototype systems that can be made to behave in unexpected ways. More than any other motive, the curiosity motive is a team effort. There is tremendous enjoyment and pleasure to be had down this path - but the whole development team will have to work together to make the jaws of players drop.
Next week: Narrative