Thursday, August 5, 2010

Meaningful Freedom (Part 2)

I have a confession that may not come as a surprise to many readers. I don't really "get" sandbox games. There, I said it. This isn't to say that I don't like them, or that I can't enjoy them. But personally, a lot of things that attract people to them don't really appeal to me that much. Either that, or I've become bored with them after playing a number of them. I find that the free roaming aspect can quickly become tedious and repetitive, so I get bored and just want to pursue the main plot of the game.

When people raved about GTA IV upon release, I viewed the reviews with a healthy amount of scepticism, because all I could see was just another GTA game. That's not to say that's a bad thing - I respect Rockstar and what they've done with the series way back from its 2D roots, and sure, I've enjoyed playing them. But in time, I knew the wheel was going to roll around and people would see it was just another step of improvement in their series. Upon playing it, the Grand Theft Commute playstyle grated upon me, but I was more fortunate than some of my fellow gamers in that I managed to get past some of the hardest missions without being forced to continually retry them. "Snow Job", "Three Leaf Clover" and "Catch The Wave" all proved to be common bugbears I was lucky enough to complete first try and avoid lengthy mission replays.

Niko Belic makes a withdrawal, Heat style

These problems could have been fixed with a better save system, which reportedly Rockstar implemented for Lost and the Damned (which I never played). Red Dead Redemption (aka Grand Theft Horso) is better in this regard too, but I'm still not sold on it.  That said, Rockstar aren't the only ones with this failing, as Just Cause 2 has a few missions that don't have frequent save points, which can lead to losing quite some time if you die in a firefight.

However, I don't hate sandbox games. I have enjoyed them in the past and still do. The number of hours I spent playing Sid Meier's Pirates (a different sort of sandbox) is probably a larger figure than I'd care to relate, and I played through all of GTA IV, am currently playing Just Cause 2 for breaks between modding sessions, and absolutely loved Assassin's Creed 2 (especially seeing how it fixed pretty much everything that was wrong with the first game).

Just Cause 2. A.K.A. "Blow Stuff Up: The Game"

So what's my issue with them? The focus of the sandbox games so frequently tends to be on the freedom and freeform nature of the adventure. Go wherever you want, do whatever you want. However, the problem is that your interactions with the game world are very limited, and typically fall into one of three categories: Destroy something, kill someone, or get from A to B within a time limit. Arguably there's also "find location" or "find item", but that's not really much of an interaction, because there's no real significance behind it and frequently no purpose aside from the pure completionist desire. We've given limitless freedom, but unforunately that freedom is limited due to how we can interact with the environment.

Of course, these limitations are understandable, as given the amount of time spent creating the game world, it is not practical to put in deep and meaningful interactions to the same extent as a linear game. This isn't to say that it can't be done at all, because Bethesda do manage it to a degree. But you're never going to see the depth of something like Planescape Torment in a Bethesda sandbox, simply because the effort required is simply far too high. In a sandbox, you get a horde of sidequests and generally a somewhat interesting main quest, but you never get to form any real attachment with any NPCs. Also, going on wanton sprees of destruction isn't quite the same in The Elder Scrolls as it is in practically every other sandbox because of that whole "law enforcement" factor.

Like with my discussions of non-linearity in plot driven games, I feel the degree of freedom is inversely proportionate to the story telling capability of a game in a grand sense. Maybe I've come to love a good story too much that it's getting in the way of me being able to enjoy just "playing a game", but I like to be able to care about what I'm doing as well as simply enjoying it for the fun factor. I feel like comparing sandbox games to a linear game is like comparing an epic series of novels to a set of short stories: both are enjoyable in their own right, but the former has a far better potential to make you feel invested in the world and the characters involved. Sandbox games are "fun", but they can feel like a series of light snacks compared to the big sit-down meal of a good linear game.


  1. If BG2 had let you do the mandatory portions out of order, that would have been pointless. I guess some of the quests ARE mandatory in chapter 2 till you have the gold. But not all of them, so they are quasi optional.

    On that basis doing them out of order is definitely awesome, it loosens the reins. Would the main plot line benefit from that? no not at all there is no point. And regardless of you are or think you are, you cannot keep a story that has a random order as tight and as good at foreshadowing when you don't when they will be at point A, B, B1, B2, and C.

  2. I think one problem with more recent sandbox games is that they still try to tell "the epic story" while keeping the sandbox elements. It's rather noticeable in GTA IV for example, where you're supposed to sympathize with the main character (who feels regret of events in the past) in the storyline but the actual gameplay will typically have you murdering half the city. Yeah...

    Oblivion has the Daedric invasion going on, but *nothing* ever happens as you wander the world. It also doesn't mesh with quests you may undertake outside the main quest. For Fallout 3, they try to sell the personal relationship with your father on you and aside from the horrendous writing, it just does not mesh well with a game where you can blow up an entire town (though good ol' dad scolding you on this is pretty hilarious).

    I think a better way to design sandboxes is related to what you've talked about in previous topics, make use of the non-linearity to empower the player with real choices and don't try to deliver an epic tight story. The beauty of a sandbox is that the player should be allowed to "write" the story himself in a way, but so many sandbox games fails in this.

    For example, a game such as Fallout 1 sets you off with a very simple goal. Find the water chip for your vault. Then it sends you off. It doesn't try to woo you with epic storylines and cutscenes, it doesn't restrict where you go and so forth. It's up to the player to navigate the world, impact it on his way and investigate where he might find the water chip. There are different ways to solve things on your way and you get the old-fashioned RPG slide at the end telling you how you've impacted the wasteland in the end.

    I tend to prefer games like that myself but yep... There are very few games that truly take advantage of their sandboxyness. Ideally, they should be ultimate vehicle for empowering the player but too often it's just "choose your linear mission in whatever order you wish".

    I have some hope for New Vegas in this matter.

  3. I can't consider BG2 a sandbox. It's still a linear game - it just forces you to do some side quests in order to be able to progress the linear main plot.

    I also didn't find Niko a sympathetic main character in GTA IV - for someone who is supposedly "trying to reform" he's certainly doing his darned best to mess up the city.

  4. I dont consider BG2 a sandbox either thats why I like it. Putting a main plot out of order would be pointless and just deteriorate the story. Those quests just made it way more fun, immediate rewards for optional danger.