Games of 2016: Exploration


ost games unspool geographical variety in order to mark progression and provide visual diversity. But physical exploration is also a fun pastime in itself, whether you're pointing and clicking on drawers in a dressing table or setting destination points in far-off galaxies.

This helps to explain the fervor surrounding ...

No Man’s Sky

... from Hello Games. Since its first appearance back in 2013, it has presented itself as an entire universe of possibilities, an endless array of worlds waiting to be discovered.

It's a space exploration game which treats the firmament with the awe it deserves, laying out a vast tableau of stars and planets. Players are invited to be the first to step foot on strange new worlds, to interact with weird creatures.

Combat takes place in spaceships and on the ground. The game balances resource gathering with reputation management, inviting the players to get into the fights worth fighting and to avoid those likely to end in tears or the unwelcome scrutiny of powerful authorities.

The game has an alien feel, inspired by schlocky sci-fi novels of days past. "As a child I would look at the sky at night and all the stars and I would want to visit them," said co-founder Sean Murray last year. "That's the feeling I got later, when I would read books from the golden age of sci-fi, from the '60s and the '70s, and that's what we want to do."

No Man's Sky sets itself up as that most holy of video game holies, the all encompassing galactic exploration experience. Ultimately, this PlayStation 4 game, due to be released in June, will live or die based on the range of variety and stories it can provide.

But exploration isn't just about traversing galaxies. It can also mean poking around in cupboards and behind curtains, a favored pastime of the central psychopath in the new ...


... which is due to be released on consoles and PC on March 11. The basic premise of the 15-year old Hitman series never changes: your job is to assassinate bad people. But the complexities of the missions in this game, which is effectively a current generation reboot, are something new.

In one section, protagonist Agent 47 is dropped into a swanky Parisian fashion party, held at a mansion. His job is to kill the host. The killing part only takes a second, but figuring out how best to do the deed is a lot more time-consuming.

Agent 47 isn't merely looking for the best balcony from which to shoot the target. He's wandering around the house, listening in to conversations, finding out where the mark is going to be. He's taking on disguises and stealthing into hidden areas on a quest to create the complete visual map of the physical place and the people wandering about. It's an exploration of place, people and timeline.

"This game is not about giving Agent 47 a lot of new abilities," said Creative Director Christian Elverdam last year. "It's about multiple AIs operating in a complex world. The sheer detail of things you can tamper with has increased in ways that we haven't been able to do before."

Exploring a house was also the central premise of Polygon's 2013 game of the year, Gone Home, from Fullbright. This year’s effort from that team ...


... is set on a space station in the latter part of the current century. You take the part of new arrivee Amy Ferrier, who must figure out where the handful of crew members have gone. There's no killing or shooting in this game. Like Gone Home, it's mainly about looking at stuff and figuring out the story.

Gone Home relied on letters, notes and drawings to tell its story. Tacoma uses recorded avatars of the crew members, so the player gets to know them through their previous actions. Lack of gravity is also a factor, with players able to move around rooms in three dimensions.

Gone Home celebrated the lost world of pre-Internet 1990s, while Tacoma has some fun with future speculation. It also explores what happens to people when they are confined in close proximity.

"We have people from disparate histories and life experiences that led them to this [space station] posting," said Fullbright Co-Founder Karla Zimonja last year. "They have to learn to depend on each other and see what relationships they can eke out, because otherwise it's pretty easy to lose it."

Also set in space is and trying something new is ...

Outer Wilds

... which was one of the first games to appear on the new crowdfunding site Fig. It also won the 2015 IGF Seamus McNally Grand Prize. Developer Mobius describes it as "equal parts Myst, Kerbal Space Program and Majora's Mask."

The player is an astronaut who begins each game on a planet that is 20 minutes away from being destroyed by a supernova. The challenge is to explore the solar system and figure out how to stay alive. After each 20-minute session, the player knows a little more about the universe and how to avoid oblivion.

"Watching our studio grow and coalesce around Outer Wilds has been equal parts crazy and awesome," says Producer Avimaan Syam. "Now that we've been successfully crowdfunded, we can finally focus on bringing this wild solar system to life, rebuilding every celestial body from the ground up."

Open world games define the notion of exploration, spreading out large maps for players to examine at their own leisure. These past few years have seen many designers struggling to balance freedom of movement with narrative tension.

Still in space but closer to home is ...


... a first-person float-a-thon in which the player is stranded on a disastrously damaged Earth orbit space station. Created by a team including former Microsoft man Adam Orth, the game is also a metaphor for powerlessness. Orth left his job in 2013 following what he described as an "internet firestorm" which erupted when he annoyed Xbox One owners with a defensive series of tweets about that console's "always on" capabilities.

Designed primarily with virtual reality in mind, it's also coming to Xbox One and PlayStation 4 as well as Windows PC. Players move through the space station, trying to stay alive by grabbing oxygen bottles, and collecting information about the catastrophe.

"After everything happened, when I was kind of in the dark times, I started thinking about what I wanted to do next," Orth said in 2014. "I was trying to figure out the right way to deal with my feelings about what happened. You try to put those things into the stuff you create. So I had a game idea about just being stranded on a space station. Then I started feeling like it was kind of one-to-one to what was happening in my life. I basically woke up one day and my life was just in ruins. That's where this game came about."

For something a bit more violent ...

Far Cry Primal

... seeks to further a series that began life as a lushly decorated first-person shooter with tactical aspirations, but is now better known for offering gigantic maps where nests of enemies await annihilation via gunplay and explosions.

Set in the Stone Age, Primal is trading guns and bombs for spears, clubs and bows. Due to arrive in March on PC and consoles, it puts players in the role of a warrior who is able to tame and form alliances with wild animals.

"You start really naked," said Creative Director Jean-Christophe Guyot last year. "It's primitive man versus gigantic nature. Our goal is to really recreate the primitive style of living in the Stone Age."

Primal was announced only a few months ago. By contrast, Ubisoft's ...

Tom Clancy’s The Division

... has been with us since it was first announced at E3 in 2013, and has suffered numerous delays. It's set in a modern New York City in the grip of a pandemic that threatens to tear civilization apart.

As a government agent unfettered by the niceties of legal process, it's the player's job to travel around the city, bringing order and justice to the madding crowd. The game also seeks to open itself out to a cloud of other players, each pursuing their own interlocked adventures.

"The open world is the actual city itself," said Game Director Ryan Barnard in 2013. "It is persistent for you. The choices I make in the game, as I progress through the story of the game, that persistence is for me. So if you and I group up [and] you join my group, you will join my universe, my persistence, and inherit that."

Like many such games, it follows a pattern of completing missions, progressing character combat capabilities and unlocking more missions. The draw here is the location and the situation.

As with space exploration, anarchy in the city is a common fantasy. A very different kind of city is the setting for Electronic Arts’ ...

Mirror’s Edge Catalyst

... which is due to arrive on May 24. Faith Connors is a runner and parkour expert who knows her way along a zip-line. She inhabits a futuristic city called Glass, a place that is handily suited to high-speed traversal.

While the first game, released back in 2008, relied on a linear path, this sequel presents progression choices, so the player can pick their destinations from a series of options. Guns have been replaced by first-person melee combinations.

"We're building a city," said Senior Producer Sara Jansson last year. "You move seamlessly through it. As you play, though, you'll unlock more and more areas to free roam. But you'll be able to move seamlessly through them without any loading screens or ever stopping. You can move in and out of buildings and between different areas. You can always move fluidly between them."

Another game in a city-based franchise to re-emerge is ...

Crackdown 3

... for Xbox One, developed by a team headed up by David Jones, who is best known for his part in creating the Grand Theft Auto franchise.

The new game's main thrust is to allow destruction, rendering urban developments into rubble. The game presents itself as a multiplayer sandbox in which the toys all get broken.

"We have to be very clear about this," said Jones last year. "In the multiplayer, it's 100 percent destructible and it's forever, as long as the game lasts. It is 100 percent destructible environments and 100 percent persistent over whatever sort of game session we're talking about."

Destruction of a different kind is the driving narrative behind ...

Homefront the Revolution

... which takes place in the aftermath of a North Korean invasion of the United States. Set in Philadelphia, it tasks the player with undertaking terrorist missions against the occupying forces and their collaborators.

Scripted missions are mixed with random patrol encounters. Players who manage to successfully hamper the enemy will, in turn, inspire the inhabitants of Philly to rise up and help out in future missions. Districts fall, one by one, a departure from the disappointingly short and linear campaign from 2011's Homefront.