Musings on Exploration

My favorite video games are all about exploration. No matter what the genre, if I am really getting into a game, it has to feature a world for me to navigate. To me, nothing beats the feeling of discovering a new location or forging a path where I could not before. This isn’t just a joy I find in video games; I sometimes lament that fact that the majority of the world has been thoroughly explored.  Although it’s certainly true that the first time I go anywhere it’s new to me, there is a sort of magic in finding something new — something no one has seen before.

I spent several formative summer vacations going to a day camp in rural Illinois. Although the first few years largely consisted of dodgeball and soccer, my third or fourth year put me in a group that spent a great deal of time trailblazing. I loved it. The camp had a number of out-of-the-way places that we found by foraging through the woods or following winding trails around lakes. I have never been one for camping — the convenience of a warm bed, temperature control, and indoor plumbing will always reign over seeing stars above me as I sleep — but I do enjoy spending time in nature.

While most of the kids spent their time playing sports or crafting art, I became obsessed with the campgrounds themselves. The camp had a number of out-of-the-way locations that never seemed to be populated. Among my favorites were a pair of ruined or unfinished buildings we dubbed forts, a giant hill far off on the border of the grounds, and, in the center of the woods, a twisted dead tree my friends and I called “the snake tree.”

In subsequent years, I grew bold and began to sneak away from my group while they played sports. Sometimes, my friends would join me. We would hurriedly trek to our favorite locales and try to make it back before anyone noticed we were gone. We took, long, winding routes through the woods, avoiding main paths in order to keep from being noticed. We made up stories about the camp as we travelled, many of them involving a made-up murder named “The Axe Man.”

The camp grounds were expansive, but I was also a child when I was there. When I look at images of it now, they don’t seem quite so big. The grounds are public property now, maintained by the McHenry County Conservation District. I think about going back and taking another look at the place with the eyes of a grown man. I yearn to recapture that same wondrous feeling of discovery and adventure. When I fire up games like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, Fallout 3, Super Metroid, or Skyrim, that’s the feeling I am trying to recreate: that of a world undiscovered, of new places to explore.

There is unimaginable art, culture, and convenience in the city. I would never want to live too far from a major metropolitan area. There are moments, though, where I think being alone in the woods wouldn’t be all bad. Not forever, of course, but for a little while.

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