When I think about the video game experiences in my youth that mean the most to me, quite a few of them come to mind. I vividly remember the first time I beat Bowser in Super Mario Bros. — my first experience actually beating a game – and the time my friend Jesse and I spent a month of after-school sessions to figure out Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. Some of my favorite memories, though, involved games that required massive amounts of exploration, or to put it more simply: wandering.
Games like Super Metroid, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, and Final Fantasy all provided me with long stretches of gameplay in which I had very little idea of what to do next – I would simply wander throughout the game world until I found the next key to the puzzle. And, thinking back, I loved every second of it.
Looking at my current gameplay experiences, though, I think I’ve lost this somewhere along the way. I never just wander in games anymore. If a game presents me with multiple paths, I can’t help but look up some tips online to determine the best way to complete the game. I rarely feel the desire to play a game more than once, so I seek out the quickest path to victory the first time. Admittedly, this is a problem of my own making. Tasks like “Breaking My Backlog” reward results, rather than the process of achieving those results. On a more universal scale, this is also caused by a severe case of FOMO, or the fear of missing out. With as many great games as are released, the idea of taking my time to play one single game for a long period feels like it’s going to prevent me from playing all of the other games that are out there.
It’s a pretty unhealthy view of the hobby, of course. No one could ever hope to play all of the games that come out. Every game we play in modern gaming is a choice we make, and we then have to decide if the choice we’ve made is a good one, or if we need to reverse course. And if we decide the choice we’ve made is a good one, I think there is value in deciding to stick to that course, no matter how long it takes us. For one thing, we learn to appreciate the game in its entirety. A lot of developers put a lot of work into the games we play, and we do them a disservice when we rush through them. (Please note: I’m not talking about speed running in this case. Speed running requires a completely different appreciation for the game, and that appreciation is often deeper and more flattering to developers than even the slowest, lengthiest playthrough). Outside of showing appreciation to the devs, taking your time also allows you to just enjoy your time with the game. If you’ve really had fun with a game, if you’ve really loved it. Why would you want to rush that? Why would you want that feeling to end?
The weird part is I know all of this on an academic level, and I can even back this up with personal experience. I can look back to the sense of wonder I felt as a child taking my time with the few games I had, and exploring all of these wide-open games. I can think back to the sense of accomplishment I would feel when I found the next piece on my own, and I can say, “I loved that. I miss that.” I do understand all of this. But, when it comes to practicality, when I’m in the thick of the game and faced with the unknown in front of me, choosing to invest an unknown amount of time into making it to the end on my own feels like a waste.
When I first played Castlevania: Symphony of the Night back in the late 1990s, I remember getting the ability to turn into a bat and immediately flying up to the top of the map, where I knew something big was going to happen. I found Richter Belmont and I defeated him. The credits rolled, and I felt empty. The ending was depressing, and the castle was half-finished. Additionally, unlike every other Castlevania game I had played, the final boss was not Count Dracula. I enjoyed what I played of the game, though, so I decided to hop back in. Maybe if I completed more of the castle, I could unlock another ending? This was the Playstation in the late 1990s – multiple endings were all the rage.
So, I started wandering.
Those of you who have played Castlevania: Symphony of the Night know what’s coming next, because it’s one of the coolest twists in any game I’ve ever played. As I explored the castle, I found more powers, I found more treasures, and I found a cutscene with Maria Renard, where she gifted me a pair of sweet sunglasses that were supposed to reveal hidden things. When I fought Richter again, I equipped the new glasses and discovered what everyone else who had played the game before me already knew. Richter was being mind controlled. I defeated the mind-control orb, and I was rewarded with a whole new castle to explore. The new castle was identical to the first castle, except it was upside-down. It was such a great and wonderful surprise, and it felt truly rewarding in response to the hours I had already invested exploring the first castle.
Would I have felt the same way if I had had the twist ruined for me? If I had logged into GameFAQs and seen the words “Inverted Castle” or “Second Castle” in a walkthrough, would the reveal have seemed as special as it did by discovering it on my own? Maybe, maybe not. I don’t know, but I don’t know that I would have wanted to find out. There are some genies you can’t put back in the bottle.
I’m currently playing through The Messenger, a game that evokes many memories of both NES and SNES games. I find the game interesting for a few reasons I’ll write about after I finish it, but for the purposes of this discussion, I will talk about a single element about halfway through the game that I feel is relevant. Please note: These are some minor spoilers for the game in the following paragraphs. It’s all information that is alluded to in the various trailers for the game, but I’m going to get fairly specific in some of my observations, so if you haven’t played The Messenger and want to go in fresh, I would recommend playing it before you finish this essay. Also, you should play it because the game is really fun.
So, the first part of The Messenger pays some very clear homage to the NES, specifically Ninja Gaiden. It’s clearly an action-platformer based on the 1988 8-bit classic, though it controls far better, and the gameplay feels much smoother, but that’s neither here nor there. When I played the first section, I based all of my expectations on this reading. Levels were clearly defined by a beginning, middle, and end. Bosses were where they were supposed to be – at the end of the level – and there was a clear narrative goal my character was working toward. There felt like a definitive end of the game which was located after the last level.
The Messenger, however, chooses to flip that script. When I got to what should have been the end of the game, the story flung my character 500 years into the future, and the game itself shifted into a 16-bit action-platformer. The game controlled very similarly, but the graphics all got an upgrade, and everything felt a little bigger. Also, the gameplay totally shifted from a level-based action platformer to a Metroidvania-style exploration title. I could revisit any area I wanted to, and newly-discovered paths connected previously unconnected areas. The game world became a beautiful, cohesive, singular entity, and my path through the game became one of exploration and non-linearity. I was tasked with finding a series of magical musical notes hidden somewhere in the world, given nothing but a few vague clues that hinted at some of their locations.
I found the first note easily enough. The game basically points you in that direction. But, with that one complete, the world opened up, and I could go anywhere I wanted, and the notes could be anywhere. I felt that familiar urge to look the note locations up online. But, I stopped myself. What if I didn’t do that, this time? What if, instead, I just wandered? There is definitely something cathartic about exploring with no clear direction on where to go. I am rediscovering this, and it’s actually making me enjoy the game even more than I already was.
So, where does that leave me? I’m not sure, which I guess is kind of fitting. One could even say I am wandering through my reflections on wandering. If that’s the case, then I’m excited to see where I end up. But, I’m more excited to see how I get there.
When I wrote my Master’s thesis, wandering was a huge part of it. I usually wrote the essays with very little direction on what the piece was actually about. Other times, if I did start an essay with some direction, it would rarely maintain that direction by the end. At some point during the essaying process – whether in the first or fifth draft – something would shift, and a new direction would become clear, the final shape of the essay would become evident. In either case, realizing an essay’s full potential required wandering as part of the creative process.
That said, it is important to remember that wandering does no good if it doesn’t eventually lead somewhere. I’ve titled this piece “All Those Who Wander,” but it’s important to remember the full line:
“All those who wander are not lost.”
The unspoken implication in this is that some who wander are lost. And while I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with being lost – we all get lost at some point – I do think you have to at least keep some purpose in the back of your mind, or your wandering will literally get you nowhere. You don’t have to know what that purpose is, and ultimately wandering may be the way you find that purpose, but I do think if we choose to wander, it should always be a temporary state. Ultimately, as humans, I do think we should always strive to find something to wander toward.
As for me, at the moment, I think I see a musical note over there are on top of that mountain, so I’m just going to go ahead and wander in that direction. That’ll be a good first step.
(All images obtained from the Steam page)