Structured exploration is a design in which players are carefully guided through a game world with the feeling that they are exploring on their own. In my opinion, no game series does this better than The Legend of Zelda.
This blog post contains potential spoilers for The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, please bookmark this page and return once you have completed the game.
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There’s a particular section in Skyward Sword in which you need to return to Eldin Volcano, but on your approach the volcano erupts and the updraft knocks Link off course. You come to later in a Bokoblin prison cell with the majority of your equipment missing.
The video below shows this section in full:
The first stage of structured exploration limits the player to a small range of actions, in the example above, all the player can do is walk around and lift the pots. After attempting to lift the barrel, a Mogma appears and returns Link’s Mogma Mitts. This is the second stage of structured exploration.
Now that the player has a new item, they can access new areas. The game now eases the player to their next item. This process continues and can be summarised in the following diagram:
Every new ability Link learns is always the focus of the next few challenges too, you can be certain that the only way out of the room in which you get an item is to use that same item. It’s also fairly safe to assume that an item you received two dungeons ago won’t be essential in a dungeon in which you get a new item.
The same goes for the dungeon bosses.
Each new Zelda game uses structured exploration for a reason; it is a design that works incredibly well and even though players expect this same design, the games are never too easy. It’s how the puzzles and environments are designed that keep the gameplay fresh, even after 25 years.