Are Sandbox Games Failing?

Are sandbox games a dying breed? With titles like Far Cry 2, GTA IV and various others competing to present you with the best possible open world gaming experience, more recently one that is as contemporary as it is realistic, it’s hard to argue that sandbox titles are beginning to lose their aura of enticing quality.

Verisimilitude aside, there are very telling signs of what constitutes a sandbox experience, and what is simply one quality aspect of the game copied and pasted hundreds of times onto a larger map. Whereas Liberty City was full of life, various characters, themed islands, and varied missions, Ubisoft’s Africa was essentially the same six missions and vehicles dotted around a mountainous landscape devoid of any real motivation for off-hand exploration.

To take two examples in comparison, one of GTA IV‘s landmark storyline missions requires you to head all the way across the city to visit a car you’re attempting to purchase. You meet the girl selling the car, you get in, and she begins to hit on Niko non-stop. Whenever you feel like it, you can take a 180-degree trip back to a safe-house and accomplish your real mission: to kidnap the girl and hold her to ransom. She panics, grabs your steering wheel trying to drive you off a bridge, and somehow you make it back across the various islands, and take a photo of your hostage with your mobile phone, before sending it to her parents in the form of a contemporarily electronic ransom note.

Over in Africa, you’re required to head to a cell-phone tower and press a button to intercept a coded message. You then go to the location it tells you, kill twenty men, and repeat until you’ve finished all the missions exactly like this.

If the mission descriptions didn’t highlight the problem here, then the size of their respective paragraphs will. The problem with newer sandbox titles that don’t come out of the minds of Rockstar is that they’ve taken the common stereotype that the successful criminal franchise in Liberty City, Vice City and Sand Andreas contain identical missions, their phoned-in nature secondary to our level of satisfaction with the virtual criminal activities we are able to indulge in whilst playing.

I’ll say this once, and I’ll thankfully never have to mention the title again: Saints Row 2 was only ever a success because it parodied a title that took itself very seriously. Sadly, it also got everything right in terms of what constitutes a sandbox title, as you could literally do anything you wanted, and that’s something few videogame developers seem to have factored into their design process. Being able to drive a car around Paradise City in any direction isn’t sandbox freedom. Being able to highjack a lorry that spews human waste everywhere while dressed as Bobo the clown however, is.

In a sandbox, as a child, you had various tools at your disposal; world-shaping tools, such as your mighty red plastic shovel, and tools through which you explored your newly-created universe. Video games that adhere to the sandbox genre are largely restricted into two categories: those that are shaped by the red shovel and those that you are simply expected to play with, your Hasbro fire-truck traversing the lay-lines of someone else’s creativity.

Sandbox titles that rewarded world-sculpting attempts, from the two-dimensional artistry of LittleBigPlanet to the mountain and crater gameplay of the obscure Doshin the Giant are sadly examples of some rarity. To give someone the tools to create their own world is akin to rewarding the player’s interest in the game universe with a simplistic-down software development kit – allowing them to create, but only within the restrictions of the software itself, and nothing else. As pleasantly reminiscent as this may seem, harking back to the rise of Valve’s Hammer SDK and the rise of Garry’s Mod, this isn’t always a good idea.

What tools do you allow your player access to? Can they build simple buildings, or shape the land itself? Are they able to create new objectives, and share these with other players, a la the upcoming expansion for Spore? Or are they limited to a simple set of tools that can be positioned in a variety of ways, whilst remaining in a strict environment, like The Sims? It’s all too easy to give a player the powers of a god, but it’s never clear at what point it stops being a creative experience and starts being work. Ask the thousands of mod enthusiasts on the internet how they felt after the first two years of building a new level for Half Life that no one will ever play bar themselves.

Even though you can do literally anything in these titles, a lot of developers seem to have got lost on the way to planting an actual objective in the mind of the player. It’s all easy to lose hours in Viva Piñata, only to realise that you’ve not actually progressed towards a goal: all you’ve done is made a large lake and filled it with paper ducks. It was a similarly unfulfilling experience with Doshin: while the land manipulation was there, there was no real objective bar collecting samey items from groups of tiny, poorly-rendered humans after either conquering them with violence or generosity and calm. Whilst it was at the forefront of innovation with regards to karma-inspired gameplay mechanics, was it a step forward or a step back in terms of quality of gameplay? It was never formally released in the West (outside of Australia), and that lack of purpose might have been why.

On the other hand, you’ve got worlds that are created for you that you can simply treat as a large playground for the expensive and entertaining toys put at your disposal. Rockstar’s GTA franchise is a fantastic example of this, and the introduction of a third dimension into their titles was only the beginning. Feel like making a pile of cars and pushing it off a bridge onto a pigeon? That’s fine. Feel like taking a friend out for spaghetti before going on an adrenaline-fuelled game of cat and mouse with the cops? That’s also doable.

But outside the giant, successful franchises like the world of Liberty City and its cross-country counterparts, have other toy-filled sandboxes pre-built by developers met the requirements of the fabled "awesome gaming experience"? As mentioned earlier, Saints Row 2 only did so by removing the rules set down by the realism of Rockstar’s titles, and parodying the games for all they were worth.

Assassin’s Creed 2 has been formally announced recently, and it brings forth the cautious enthusiasm in me I reserve only for the sequels of truly fantastic gaming experiences. However, as good as it may have been, it was literally the same missions over and over again. It had brilliant surroundings, stunning graphics, great storyline, but it was plagued by horrifyingly boring and repetitive objectives. It was never "listen in to a conversation, then run along a wall next to a speeding horse and pickpocket the informant as he rides away", followed by an immediate variant save the first part. It was simply "listen in, walk off, kill poorly introduced faux-historical figurehead, repeat step one".

It is important to note that the definition of sandbox gameplay is a wide, varied and oft-debated topic on the part of games journalists. One moment it’s world creation, the next it’s simply the ability to wander off the beaten path, a la Fable II or Metroid. But the problems are the same each time: too many distractions and the entire game reveals itself to be nothing but. However, too few and you’re accused of not really being a "sandbox" title, and cast aside with other unfairly accused games such as Ubisoft’s time-travelling assassin simulator.

Henry Jenkins, Director of the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program and author of many titles on media, amongst other academic accolades, had this to say on his blog:

"I think of worlds in which, if you need to kill the dragon in the cave and you happen to have a drill, there’s no reason you can’t just drill straight down, bypassing all his little traps, and kill the bastard. That’s open-ended to me. That’s sandbox. The pleasure of such incredible agency is much more satisfying than any forced narrative structure."

This is essentially what I’m getting at, in about sixty words instead of over a thousand. Open world titles are titles you can explore, but only if you want to. Exploration should not be forced, a la Spore and its repetitive "befriend/behead" gameplay in the Creature Stage onwards. It should not be snuck into titles like a thin dagger, as Assassin’s Creed did with its infuriating map system and infinite amounts of guards.

Sandbox gaming should be, in my opinion, a god-damn sandbox. There should be toys, an ability to shape how those toys are used, and most importantly of all, the ability to simply reach over to your friend’s sandcastle and demolish it with your Hot-Wheels roadster – you know, the one with the purple paint and green flames. Don’t let it get to the point where all the toddlers start crying because there’s too much sand and not enough toys. In fact, them (we) should never have to cry at all, too distracted should we be by a truck that spews poop whenever we are so inclined to do so.


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Author: Christos Reid View all posts by

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