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Exploration and discovery in Nintendo games, and what it means to me
Editorial by 
April 24, 2012, 18:56:52
Somewhere in my mid 20s I had a period where I started to write short fiction stories. Nothing too dramatic, for the most part they were only a couple of pages long each. I had always been interested in writing, but up to that point I had only dabbled in it through school papers and a couple of video game reviews, so writing fiction became a means to flex my creative muscle in a bit of a different way. My main focus, however, has always been on my music, and web programming (which ultimately led to the creation of Negative World, albeit most of the current design is not my own), and I just couldn't find time to do both of those as well as write fiction. My short story phase was destined to end almost as soon as it started. And because I tend to have a very cluttered mind, one thing replaces another, and I had forgotten all about my stories for many years.

Until a few months ago, that is. I was moving around some files on my laptop and stumbled upon some of my stories. Now, I don't particularly have a strong connection to them one way or the other; I think some of them were ok for what they were (an amateur attempt), but I don't believe that writing fiction is one of my best talents. However, while perusing these stories I rediscovered one of my favorites, and I finally made a connection that somehow I had failed to make both back when I had written the story, and in the years following it (during which admittedly, as stated above, I wasn't really thinking about my stories much.) I have a link to my full story below (it's only 3 1/2 pages long), and I am curious to see if you can make the connection as well. I hope that you will take the time to read it, as the rest of this editorial kind of depends upon it:

An Old Man and a Hole

I'll bet by this point a good portion of you know exactly where I am going with this, that is, if you actually read my story. If you're thinking along the lines of "Miyamoto's childhood"... you nailed it.

The creator of everything good in this world.

I'm not entirely sure where the story of Miyamoto and his childhood exploration of caves originates. Most of us Nintendo fans have heard it many times over, in many different forms. Here is one version, taken from the Miyamoto Shrine:

Miyamoto would often explore his natural surroundings in Sonebe to bide the time. Rice fields, canyons, grassy hills, waterways. the ideal setting for such an adventurous young man. Then one fateful day, Miyamoto made a discovery that would later resonate in his future endeavors, as would many things from his childhood. Shigeru had discovered a hole in the ground. Not just any hole, but a large hole. Upon closer inspection it was obvious that this hole was actually something more. It was in fact, the opening to a cave.

Young Miyamoto returned several times before building up enough courage to enter. Armed with only a lantern, he ventured deep inside until he came to another hole that led to another section of the cave. This was breathtaking for such a young man. Unforgettable even. And Miyamoto certainly never forgot.

Although this story is often connected to the Zelda series (for a very good reason), I believe that the sheer sense of the joy of exploration and discovery it illuminates is something that permeates Miyamoto's game design philosophy to the very core. And as Miyamoto is often cited (also for good reason) as one of the most influential video game developers of all-time, I believe that it is safe to suggest that the influence of his childhood cave exploration has reached far beyond Miyamoto's own games, and has found a permanent place in the very DNA of the video game industry itself. Don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting that he invented some brand new idea that was never before seen in video games. Exploration and discovery have existed in video games since (almost) the very beginning, especially in certain genres like the PC adventure game. But it's not unfair to suggest that Miyamoto's design took it to the next level, sometimes in very dramatic ways.

I think one of the best examples of the type of exploration and discovery that I am thinking of takes place in the original Super Mario Bros. Many of the elements of that game have become common enough over time such that it is tough to think back to a point when they were still radical ideas, but believe me, they were. Super Mario Bros. was a game that single-handedly changed the landscape of the video game industry, and those of us that were around to experience it at the time can attest to a nearly unparalleled experience.

Do you remember the first time that you realized that the pipes weren't just barriers, but that you could actually travel inside some of them to find secret areas? What about the first time you jumped and hit a block that wasn't there a moment before, finding a secret power-up? How about breaking an ordinary brick to see a vine climbing up into the sky and wondering... what could possibly be up there? What about discovering that not only could you run on the ceiling where you would naturally think that you probably weren't supposed to, but that it would lead you to pipes that would warp you ahead to new stages? And I think that I would be remiss if I didn't mention the secret that our very site is named after. Call it the minus world, the negative world, world -1, whatever you like. Sure it might have been an unintended bug, but it merely added to the mystery surrounding the game. Super Mario Bros. felt like a game with nearly unlimited exploration and discovery, and despite playing the heck out of it back in the days, I guarantee that there are many things about that game that I still don't know about.

Oh no I'm stuck in the wa... woah, what's this!?

I feel like I could go on and on, detailing the exploration and discovery advancements in various games throughout the history of Miyamoto's career, but I think I would simply be preaching to the choir. Most of us know what he has done and why it is worthy of praise. I will say this, however: The Legend of Zelda (original) took the sense of exploration and discovery already present in Super Mario Bros. and turned it up tenfold. There is some argument over whether this game has passed the test of time or not (I believe that it has, your mileage may vary.) To me that is irrelevant. The fact is that with this single game Miyamoto & Co. once again changed everything. I don't think there are many video games in the industry that can't trace some elements back, in one form or another, to The Legend of Zelda.

Anyway, I digress. This is becoming very historical when what I wanted to write was something a bit more personal. In looking back on my story of an old man and a cave, and making the connection to Miyamoto's childhood cave experiences, it dawned on me that this is a key element of my enjoyment of not just video games, but of almost anything in life: the feeling that I can explore and discover things and never quite know what is waiting for me next. Of course, video games let you partake more directly in the experience than most forms of media. There are some amazing books and movies and songs and more, but how many of them truly lend themselves to exploring and discovering on your own?

And it is no accident that my story involved discovering that one could walk on rainbows and dogs could talk (and more) in a plain old cave in a hillside. I have always thought of myself as having my feet on the ground and my head in the sky. I suppose that I'm an escapist. Not that the real world as it is doesn't hold excitement for me, but there is something very appealing about the fantastic, going to bizarre places and meeting creatures and seeing things and doing things that you could never experience in the real world. I think that this is something that Miyamoto understands, perhaps (based on the push for more and more "realism" in video games) more than most modern video game developers. Now I'm not going to claim that there is no potential for exploration and discovery in say, a World War II based shooter or a realistic racing game, because I think that there can be. But I also think that, on some level, the more realistic that you try to make something, the more predictable many of the elements involved will be. Although there can be something compelling about exploring and discovering in a recreation of a gritty urban environment, or even something like a natural, colorful forest (not that we see much color in so-called "realistic" games), I tend to prefer to make my way through worlds and places that I could only dream of. Miyamoto's cave and the cave in my story both interest me because they represent this idea that maybe the commonplace can be a portal to something more, maybe... just maybe... you find something truly enchanting.

The entire world is mine to explore!!!

I want to end this by detailing a few more video game experiences of exploration and discovery that have touched me in some ways. This is by no means an exhaustive list, simply some of the first to come to mind:

I distinctly remember playing Mega Man 2 back in the days and being shocked to play a stage (Crash Man) that starts on the ground and is almost completely vertical and leads directly up through the clouds into space. I was also shocked, to be honest, at the stage select screen. I had never played a game before that let you choose to explore the stages however you seemed fit.

In Ironsword: Wizards & Warriors II there is a point where you are scaling a large mountain searching for an item to give to a bird whom is waiting at the top. When you find this item and bring it to the bird, he picks you up and carries you up into a world in the clouds. How is this not amazing? I will never forgot this moment. (Do you see a pattern here? I seem to enjoy traveling from the ground up into the sky...)

There was a point in The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask where I heard a noise coming from the bathroom and went to explore. I don't want to spoil this part for whomever will be playing the game for the first time with the (possible? inevitable?) 3DS remake, but let me tell you, I was not expecting this. And this game is chock full of interesting discoveries and surprises.

In Metal Gear Solid I was tasked with defeating an enemy named Psycho Mantis. Again, I won't spoil it, but for those of you who know what I'm talking about, it's a pretty interesting moment in video games. Makes you think about the potential of exploration in video games beyond just what is happening on the screen.

For a semi-modern example, I was playing Metroid Prime and trying to figure out how to cross a lake to get over to a crashed ship. I couldn't figure it out (IE it wasn't possible yet), so I let it be for the time being and went off exploring elsewhere. Imagine my surprise when, while trekking through a completely different area, I found a small morph ball tunnel that brought me directly into the crashed ship... from a completely different direction. This kind of non-linear exploration always excites me.

These are just a couple of the times that video games have excited me with their exploration and discovery. As long as you're here, why not add a few of your own? We can bask in the glorious glow of exploration and discovery together. That sounded bad, didn't it...

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Posted: 04/24/12, 18:56:52  - Edited by 
 on: 09/30/13, 01:38:59    
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Zero said:
There are some amazing books and movies and songs and more, but how many of them truly lend themselves to exploring and discovering on your own?


Your post was interesting to read. I'll check out your story in the link a bit later. (at work right now)

Posted by 
 on: 04/24/12, 20:22:26
@GameDadGrant Well...

Still, it's pretty limited in the sense that it is essentially just a string of linear narratives where you get a few minimal choices at times.

Posted by 
 on: 04/24/12, 21:30:54  - Edited by 
 on: 04/24/12, 21:31:06
I have this book!

Posted by 
 on: 04/24/12, 22:05:29

I'm not sure, but I think one of the endings to that book sees the figure on the cover being beaten up by the little girl. The girl then takes the suit and becomes an intergalactic bounty hunter.


Posted by 
 on: 04/24/12, 23:24:14
Ha ha good point. I just kind of randomly picked a book cover, didn't realize how Samus Aran-influenced it was...

Posted by 
 on: 04/24/12, 23:42:30
@Zero I loved the story! You really have talent for this and I encourage you pursue it. I've always wanted to write myself and used to dabble in it when I was younger but I didn't keep any of my stories. I actually feel encouraged to write something after reading yours. Do you have any more? Maybe you could write a book a short stories.

@Zero With regards to videogames and exploration, I think the Arkham games are recent examples of huge complex linear games that can still surprise you with hidden secrets. The first one featured the bluprints for Arkham City and no one knew for a long time. The second one features an easter egg in which you can see a pregancy test next to Harley's old costume. The test is positive. Here's a link to a capture.

Also, Ocarina of Time has an easter egg that I never knew and I've played the game for almost 14 years. Here's a video where you can see the dying solider easter egg.

In real life , I would like to explore more that I presently do. When I was a kid, I would go to all sorts of places, just like Miyamoto, because I was extremely curious. Once, a loose nail penetrated my right foot for being so curious. I also got lost in a forest once with some friends. It was great! I wish I could still do some of this stuff but I live in Orlando, Fl and there's not much to explore here. Maybe one of these days I'll go up to St. Augustine and take a midnight stroll through a "haunted" graveyard, just for fun.

Posted by 
 on: 04/25/12, 00:33:48
Are the Arkham games linear though? The main story is in a sense, but the world itself is pretty open (doubly so in the sequel, maybe too much in my opinion) and there are all kinds of side quests and such (doubly so in the sequel.) And even the main story involves a lot of backtracking and the likes.

I remember as a kid some friends of mine and I always talked about getting a raft and riding it through this huge drainage pipe that went under streets and such for about a half block or so. It curved so it was pitch black by the middle of it. Kind of creepy. We never did it though.

We did, however, do tons of exploring to find skate spots...

Posted by 
 on: 04/25/12, 00:41:36
There's a moment in Super Metroid where you go through some secret but necessary area, and I think it pops you out, completely randomly, into some vertical shaft in Norfair (I think. it was firey). That kind of stuff blows my mind, and that's always what I equated with Metroid (excluding Fusion) up until Prime 2. And even Prime 2 I think had moments where it was like...ooooh, THIS is how I get here. It really bums me how little discovery it felt like there was in Other M.

Posted by 
 on: 04/25/12, 00:42:51
@Zero The first one is very linear. The second one is much more open and has a lot of sidequests. And yes, it does feel like Metroid in execution. The main story is still short and linear, though. Even so, I declare it my GOTY for 2011. I loved every second of it. The best part was seeing all the attention to detail in the game. If you're a fan of the comics or the Animated Series, you are in for fan service overload.

I did the same thing but with bikes. We would ride everywhere even on tall hills just for the view and to discover new places.

Posted by 
 on: 04/25/12, 00:51:55
@PogueSquadron Oh, another awesome part in Super Metroid was when I running through a hallway made of glass and on a whim thought "hmm, maybe my power bombs can..." without seriously thinking it would work. I mean, why should it? Stuff like that never worked back in old games.

But it did.

Posted by 
 on: 04/25/12, 00:52:44  - Edited by 
 on: 04/25/12, 00:53:20
I greatly enjoyed reading this editorial, Zero, and it serves as a powerful reminder of why I love Nintendo. Your short story about the old man and the hole was nice and ties in with the overall theme quite well. The sense of wonder that comes with a lot of Nintendo games never ceases to amaze me. What if I go just beyond the boundary?

There are so many examples of instances where I was surprise by what I found, but one that I just have to mention is Super Mario Bros. 3. Being able to venture behind the scenery through the use of the magical white panels was very mesmerizing!

In real life, I loved climbing trees as a kid, or just reaching the highest point possible, anywhere I went. When my family and I would go to Mexico every year to visit relatives, I had a lot of opportunities to climb hills and small mountains and see the world from a different perspective. Of course, what do you think I did when I played Super Mario 64 for the first time, and I defeated Bob-Omb King in the first level? Zoom the camera out and swivel it all around, watching Mario and the mountain top shrink in size, and appreciate the brave new world Nintendo was carving out (and continues to carve out).

@sirmastersephiroth I didn't know about that OoT easter egg!

Posted by 
 on: 04/25/12, 06:21:32
I was actually thinking of that Super Mario Bros. 3 example but chose not to include it because I didn't discover that on my own. Then again I guess I didn't discover a lot of things on my own back then. Video game knowledge was more... collaborative? It's like we had our own Gamefaqs back then called "talking to friends".

Posted by 
 on: 04/25/12, 06:28:14
@roykoopa64 Kind of morbid isn't it?

@Zero Friends...the original forums.

Posted by 
 on: 04/25/12, 06:50:26
Zero said:

An Old Man and a Hole

Posted by 
 on: 04/25/12, 08:15:26
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