The Crumbling Sandcastle: Is a Sandbox Always the Better Solution?

The popularity of sandbox games – games where the player is free to play while ignoring major goals or missions – is on the rise. With huge new titles such as Grand Theft Auto IV, Oblivion, The Witcher, and Mass Effect, players are given a bigger role when it comes to playing games: they have the freedom of doing what they want, when they want, as they like. Or do they? Players are actually more limited than they think in a sandbox game, and in someways moreso than some more linear games. One must ask if all this freedom is necessarily better. There are still many successful games that give a clearly defined mission-per-stage.

Limited to your Imaginations and Desire

Sandbox games are limited to what you are willing to do and what you wanted to do. The biggest problem arises when you no longer want to do anything else. As a gamer, I typically like to have the whole buffet in a game: do everything, win everything, unlock everything, achieve everything. Trying to do this in a sandbox game is comparable to going to an “Asian food” buffet. You’re likely to find Thai food, sushi, Chinese food, and maybe even a burger for those who aren’t interested. However, if you tried it all, you’ll probably get full before you had a little bit of everything, and I guarantee if you went to respective Thai, Japanese, and Chinese restaurants, you’ll get better food there.

The 3D Grand Theft Auto games were the first to bring this fact to attention. Grand Theft Auto 3 was the hottest game on everyone’s lips when it came out. About a month later, the same people who said they loved the game got bored because they no longer wanted to go on wild crime rampages. Most of the players decided that it wasn’t worth playing the missions.

This was my problem with Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. I wanted to do everything. So what did this encompass? First things first, I wanted to make my character a god on land. It was easy enough to build my character up to a hulking juggernaut of muscles. However, as this is a crime simulator, I wanted to be proficient with guns. Okay, so where do I get guns? Kill several cops and enjoy it while you aren’t killed by the military or tag your gang logo all over San Andreas. I must have hit 20 tags before finding three critical flaws in the game and got bored with trying to earn more than a worthless pistol. I thought having money would help, so I decided to go on a paper delivery route. Oh, except I can’t ride a bike to save my life. I must have spent two hours on that bike for my biking ability to level up one unnoticable sliver.

Oh, and if I haven’t mentioned it before, I do not want to waste my time with drive-by shootings and stealing someone’s TV.

I may sound like I’m picking on San Andreas, and yes, I hate this game, but this game isn’t the only offender. I wanted the rare weapons in Phantom Brave, so what do I do? I sit at the hub, flicking through a million randomly-generated dungeons looking for the rare one of those that would produce a creature called a Bottle Mail, essential for stealing things. The actual game wasn’t terrible, but tell me where the fun in looking at a menu screen comes in.

The Hardware Issue

Sandbox games aren’t merely limited to the player’s interest. Sandbox games are also limited to the hardware present. That’s not always an obstacle, but keep in mind that it’s much easier to code and process a linear game than it is to code and process a game with several parallel events.

The easiest place to show this comparison are the Nintendo 64 Legend of Zelda games. Ocarina of Time is more of a linear game, and Majora’s Mask was more of a sandbox game. Ocarina of Time followed the usual format of three dungeons, a turning point, and eight subsequent dungeons. Majora’s Mask, following a different route, only had four dungeons, and needed a memory expansion to play. In replacement to the seven dungeons, Majora’s Mask sports slightly enhanced graphics and several parallel storylines in the same in-game three-day time span.

The reason sandbox games take more computational power is because it is processing several events at one time – or at least several real-time operations finding which events are activated in your game, as opposed to a very clear sense of what has or has not been done with no regard to necessary order. Think of it this way: it’s easier to direct traffic in a two-lane, one way highway than it is to direct traffic through a parking lot with no parking lines.

For a more recent example, look at two other sandbox games: Dead Rising and Grand Theft Auto IV. Dead Rising clearly does not give you quite as much freedom as Grand Theft Auto IV does, but the gameplay is decidedly smoother – framerate issues are far less common, draw distances are rarely an issue, load times are less, and the graphics of Dead Rising are easily better than the Grand Theft Auto IV graphics.

Good Job, Peter Parker

“With great power comes great responsibility.” Or rather, when you can do so much, you’re forced to start with so little. When you’re dropped in a large world with nothing but the clothes on your back do you truly feel like you’re so far from the end, and it’s daunting to know that you just spent the last ten hours and you haven’t yet unlocked a hot car, an assault rifle, a girlfriend, or any sense of progress. In linear games, it’s more or less clear when you’re close to the end and even clearer when you’ve beaten the last bad guy, and it’s not hard to gauge your own sense of how much you’ve done in the game.

The next obvious questions to ask is how much freedom are you truly granted in a sandbox game. Most games will not offer you the luxuries you would like unless you played most of the game their way. Granted, no player should have the “kill all baddies switch” available to them when they turn on the game, but it’s a timeless question in real life and it has just extended to video games: are we truly free?

Grand Theft Auto does give you lots of options, but are you really free to do as you please? Can I end the game as a college graduate who might be able to turn his life around? Of course not. That’s not really a realistic avenue to take, but you still aren’t free to do that. Can you play as a zombie in Dead Rising when you die and try to infect everybody? Can you kill anyone and everyone, or can you opt to kill nobody? Games are usually programmed on the simple idea of yes or no.

Let’s not forget that sometimes taking one option will restrict your choice to taking another option. Suppose you kill a character, and later on he is supposed to introduce you to another character. If he’s dead, you will never meet the other character and decide whether or not you want to kill that character. When the choices you make have too many consequences, you end up having to double back to that same spot to see what might have happened if you made the other choice, and the sad truth is you can’t always notice a difference.

The truth is that you are limited to what the game developers have scripted for you. While some sandbox games give you many options, what if you’re more creative than the game developer. If I become head of the assassin’s guild, I want to be able to order hits on whomever I please. If I want to kill an important character, I should be given that option.

Is the Fastest Way from Point A to Point B Always a Straight Line?

Obviously linear games do not offer the same freedom as sandbox games. To prove my point, try going left in Super Mario Bros. However, that’s not to say you don’t have significant choices to make in these games. Do you go down the pipe? Do you try to collect those coins hanging dangerously over that pit? Do you take the warp pipe? Can you find the warp pipe?

These decisions can make the same stage playable in several different ways. Call of Duty 4 is a very good example of this, especially when playing under Veteran difficulty. While the mission is the same, you could significantly improve your odds based on a number of tactical decisions you make. Do you run recklessly to a possible checkpoint in favor of the severe time constraint, or do you hold back in hopes of a clearer path but risk not making the targeted area in time? Do you listen to the game and play it by the book or do you go searching for that hidden rocket launcher that would make the level easier than melting butter with a microwave?

With these decisions, a stage can be tackled many ways. Even if it boils down to doing it the easy way or the hard way, it’s still at least two significant ways to approach the same problem.

Hey Mikey, He Likes It!

Sandbox games have so far been a fifty-fifty experience for me: half sandbox games I play don’t motivate me enough, and half sandbox games I play are great.

Grand Theft Auto IV is one of the more recent examples of great sandbox games. Do I do many of the side missions? I’ll fill in a request here and there and go on a date or two, but I have yet to really do any of the hidden quests or just run around exploring the city. However, Grand Theft Auto IV has a lovable main character that plays well with the idea that you can choose your own fate. The main story is gritty, enticing, attention-grabbing, and most importantly, funny.

Let’s not forget Dead Rising, which is easily up there on my list of favorite games of all time. The main storyline was easy enough to follow, and it’s a mountable challenge to actually do everything side mission in the game. However, if I wanted to goof off, that’s an entirely welcome option. Something’s charming about being able to kill zombies with anything that isn’t nailed down.

Harvest Moon is one of the earlier sandbox games that have been released, and is also one of my favorites. Again, it’s a mountable challenge to unlock everything: fix up your farm, get married, make friends with the local townsfolk, and get to see beneath the skin of everything you started out with. There’s also a unique charm in a nonviolent video game where your goal is to try to become Mr. Popular and make lots of money in a wholesome occupation.

Finally, my favorite game of all time, Chrono Trigger, has the best of both worlds. You have a relatively straight line to follow for most of the game, but once you get a sense of the gravity of your actions, you are given options that make major changes in the game. Once you do everything, you can mess with the storyline even more and find out what consequences come from your actions.

While I’ve played my fair share of stinkers, a number of sandbox games are actually fun to play. Saying that the sandbox doesn’t have its place in modern gaming is going too far, but saying that it is the only avenue for gamers is fascism.

My Sandbox is Better Than Yours

What makes a sandbox game enjoyable? I like games that aren’t punishing to the player who wants it all. Half a dozen to a dozen storylines endings aren’t terrible, but it should be somewhat clear how to achieve said storylines and endings. Little to nothing should be left to random chance, either, because I won’t sit around waiting for that hidden object that might not ever show up.

The most important thing about sandbox games is that what you can do is fun. If you’re going to let the player do everything, everything damn-well better be enjoyable. I enjoy killing zombies and finding out why they came back from the dead. I enjoy raising a farm and going to town to make friends. I enjoy trying to figure out an intriguing, hilarious storyline with lovable characters, but I also enjoy going on dates, stealing cars, or exploring my city. I don’t enjoy micromanaging a team through a series of menus or wasting time with moronic tasks. If you’re going to make me pay $60 for a video game, I want my money’s worth – I didn’t pay full price to play half a game.

In short, remember that we gamers have histories of trying to do everything you give us, and that no game should attempt to alienate us from reaching every corner of its soul. Most importantly, it should be fun, so if we do have to double back, we don’t regret a moment of replay from the onset of the game to where we left off safe for a better attempt. We play games to be rewarded and entertained, not punished and labored.

~ Setsuna Setsunai

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