One of the feelings that I think games are especially good at evoking is the fear of getting lost. The idea that you’ve made one to many wrong turns, and now you don’t know how to find your way back. Because of games ability to let the player explore a gameworld, they are in a unique position to make the player feel lost, and create an emotional experience around that feeling.
This was one of the things I found most engaging about Minecraft. You could explore in any direction, come across a cave, find it just keeps going down, and become very concerned that you won’t be able to find your way back to your home base with all the new resources you’ve collected. You start getting this very interesting mental tension between exploring further when you see a new interesting area up ahead, or turning back to avoid getting further lost or killed by some cave monster.
Minecraft conveys this feeling so effectively with a combination of a few elements. First of all, when you die, you lose your inventory and go back to a spawn point which could be a long distance from where you died. It also has no in-game map that you can follow to find your way back home. Finally, it has very interesting procedurally-generated areas which warrant exploration, and which can go on and on, drawing you deeper and deeper in.
The other element, which is a little more common, is not just having a lot of space that the player can get lost in, but allowing them to do so. As I said in the post on Leveling Systems, many games will put up barriers to the player progressing to new areas until they’ve accomplished something in the current area, or gained some new power. This is very useful to act as a guiding hand to the player, letting them get familiar with an area before moving them onto the next area, but you can’t have the feeling of being lost if the game doesn’t let you get lost in the first place.
Ultima Underworld was a good example of a game that didn’t put up roadblocks. There were many times in the game where I’d find the stairs leading down to the next level before doing much of importance on the level I was currently on. I would usually descend the stairs out of curiosity, but have this vague feeling of dread exploring the next stage, feeling like I wasn’t supposed to be there yet. Even though there’s an in-game map, it felt like I had gotten lost, and made for a very interesting game experience. You really felt like the caves you were exploring were vast and labyrinthine, because the game didn’t wait until you were familiar with your current area before allowing you to venture into the next area.
The other part of the equation is giving the player many paths that they can take. It’s hard to get lost in a linear experience, but if you allow the player options in where to go, it plants the idea in their mind that they either chose the wrong path, or progressed too soon. This is amplified, then, when you can’t turn back. This could be for physical reasons, for example, if you fall down a pit and have to find a different way back up, or for implicit reasons, such as not remembering which way you came.
The recent game Antichamber did a good job of making the player feel lost with it’s constantly shifting geometries. You could very easily go the wrong way, and turn around to see that the passageway you came through is now gone. This feeling was especially strong early on in the game before I started relying on the map system to get around more easily. It’s also interesting to note that, if you do everything right, you can conceivably never see at least 80% of the game, because so many of the stranger rooms are places you only go if you’ve messed something up, gotten lost, or missed an efficient way to do something. Part of the fun in the game was to just keep exploring deeper and deeper while getting progressively more lost.
And here we find the other side to getting lost: the joy of finding some interesting landmark after wandering around lost. Going back to the Minecraft example, say you explore deep enough in that dangerous cave to find a wealth of rare resources. Suddenly the anxiety of getting lost pays off, and a new pressure is added to the player to return safely back home with their loot.
I worry that with modern gaming, both mainstream and indie, focusing more on providing a guided and paced experience, we miss out on creating an experience which I believe games can deliver better than any other medium. The feeling of getting lost, and the dread and wonder it can produce.