As open world video games take off, exploration is becoming a huge part of gameplay. The trouble is that it can be hard to pinpoint where the action is happening when there’s such a vast world in front of you. It’s interesting to see how different games handle this via the use of tracking — whether that’s scanning the environment (Mass Effect Andromeda), using special senses to follow a trail (The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt), or utilizing technology that reveals more about what’s around you (Horizon Zero Dawn).
One thing that all open world games seem to do is have you collect quests, so you can toggle between objectives to get where you need to go. Bethesda’s open world games, such as Fallout and The Elder Scrolls series, give you freedom to explore, with objectives available on your map based on what mission you’re tackling next. Just click on a quest to track it, and head toward the objective marker on your HUD or map to go find it. When the quest gives you a new task, your marker updates accordingly. It makes things easy.
But you can equally choose not to follow an objective, and just wander at will to see what enemies block your path or what characters try to engage you in a new side quest. Maybe you’ll discover a new city, trade with some merchants on the side of a road, or happen upon a cave full of skeletons and loot. Bethesda’s games, for instance, don’t really give you a special mechanic for exploration like this, other than using your own curiosity and wits.
These are things all open world games I’ve played do, and it works well. But some games go beyond these choices to give you something that feels more self-driven than an objective, but also more purposeful than aimless exploration.
Geralt’s Witcher Senses
In CD Projekt RED’s The Witcher series, your character Geralt is a witcher wearing a wolf medallion, which he can tap to highlight items of interest in the world around him — namely, loot. This is how you find chests to open and quest items. It’s handy.
But in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, the first open world game in the series, Geralt’s abilities are expanded into full-on “Witcher Senses,” which let him track his environment with his unique witcher skills. It’s similar to people who can track animals in the wild. For the player, activating them requires tapping a button, and then the world around Geralt becomes blurred, with important items highlighted in red. These items can also be trails in the wind that he follows, so he can traipse after a scent of wine in the air, footprints not visible to the naked eye, and sounds that would otherwise seem scattered, thanks to his Witcher Senses.
Technically, the game is holding your hand as it guides down a specific route to a specific destination. But the Witcher Senses make it feel much more character-driven, because Geralt is using his special abilities as a witcher to do this. They also give the player the illusion of agency, as they figure out where to go by activating these senses and following the in-game clues. It’s a fun investigation.
Horizon Zero Dawn takes a similar approach with protagonist Aloy’s Focus, a tech device that presents more details about the world around her. It’s like a scanner, which specifies what machine creature she’s about to fight or who she’s looking at.
And like Geralt’s Witcher Senses, it can highlight trails for her to follow. Whereas Geralt’s paths are red, Aloy’s present as purple triangles that shimmer on the ground, dotting along the path she should take. Despite these different visuals, the gameplay is exactly the same. Aloy’s Focus provides that same feeling of seeing something once hidden, which is an ability unique to Aloy — and the player is then rewarded, by following the trail that appears to an interesting destination.
Most recently I’ve been playing with the Scanner in Mass Effect Andromeda, which serves a similar purpose as the Witcher Senses and Focus, but with a very different style. In the game, you play as Ryder, an explorer who uses her Scanner to have her AI implant tell her what she’s looking at. It might be an alien construct, a quest item she needs to pick up, or a loot cache. For some things — like finding something of interest in a barren wasteland — it’s perfect. But compared to the Witcher Senses and Focus, I found it slow and clunky to wield.
This partly comes down to the Scanner’s design. Because it’s part of Ryder’s wristbound omni-tool, opening it requires her to slow down to an ambling walk. She can’t run with it open, so I frequently found myself scanning, running forward a few paces, and scanning again — which is awkward. There’s even a quest that has Ryder following a trail of blood, but instead of a consistent path, the droplets are tiny specks on the ground that are hard to see in the open world environment, and they’re spread so far apart that Ryder can jump into her vehicle between them. The start-and-stop method for scanning along a trail isn’t as effective as the smoke-like paths presented in Horizon and The Witcher.
Another issue is simply with the quest and environment design — not necessarily the Scanner itself. For instance, in one quest, I went to a tiny two-room apartment to investigate a mystery. It was fun at first — there were all kinds of clues to scan, everywhere I turned. The problem was that they never turned “off” after I scanned them. At some point, I was ready to go. I felt like I had scanned everything possible. But the quest wasn’t updating, because apparently I had missed a clue somewhere. Yet because my Scanner still highlighted everything in yellow — whether or not I had already scanned it — I had trouble pinpointing what I had missed. In a space that took Ryder three seconds to run across, it took me 20 minutes to find that last piece of evidence tucked between two other highlighted items.
The last thing that gave me trouble was just the fact that you get a beeping sound whenever there’s something of interest nearby, prompting you to open your Scanner and check it out. That’s cool — except that half the time, the Scanner seemed to be pointing me toward something I didn’t care about, like an alien device I had already scanned a dozen times before in other places.
In short, Andromeda‘s Scanner is functional, and I liked it most of the time. But it didn’t present the seamless, investigatory experience that the Witcher Senses or Focus did.
Tracking’s Potential in Future Games
All of these different means of tracking intrigue me about what it could be like in the future. What if you turned on your special senses and found two paths — perhaps the sound of a distant scream, versus the footprints of a beast that’s getting away — and you have to decide which route to take, knowing the other won’t be there when you get back? I like the idea of there being consequences for these choices. In a mystery, there could also be trails leading to different clues. The trick is making sure that in the cases of multiple paths, every choice is rewarding in some way — not a red herring. The player also shouldn’t feel like they’re missing out on too much by making one choice versus the other.
There could also be more use in open world games. Andromeda‘s beeping prompts to open your Scanner is a great example, as you sometimes have to use your Scanner in a certain area to figure out what the point of interest is. Geralt’s Witcher Senses work the same way — you have to reach a specific area, and then search within it using your special ability to find what you’re looking for. If this could highlight events happening nearby, perhaps for limited times, it would make exploration that much more exciting. For instance, being able to scan the environment for subtle sounds and follow them to a special event would help focus the aimless wandering you often do in open world games. It would also make the world feel even more alive.
In any case, I think tracking in video games is a useful game mechanic, adding an investigation aspect to quests. In open world games, it seems almost necessary to make exploration feel more manageable, and I look forward to how tracking can develop stories and create more of an invested interest in game worlds.