Thursday, December 01, 2011

My problem with sandbox games

For those who don't know I'll begin with a quick definition of a sand-box game. It is in essence an open-world game one in which the player is free to wander about and perform tasks that have little to nothing to do with the main story-line.

From the point of view of developers a sand-box game is what we the players are constantly demanding - we want choice (or at least the illusion of it). Rather than being dumped at Point A and herded along to Point B so as to be further herded along to Point C we want to stretch, spread out and do something different. One way to look at it is if you consider such types of games as books or films . After all in the majority of such we don't have a say in the actions of the protagonists - we're taken on a journey by the writer. Given that we like these things why shouldn't we like games that emulate that style?

Because games are designed to be interactive; they're designed to be played. As such playing a game that obviously limits the player's choice can be as frustrating as watching a film that requires you to pick up the remote control every five minutes to pick which scene you want to see next. Given that, it seems to make sense to go in the opposite direction and give the players total freedom to do what they want and indeed some games were produced that had no story and just allowed free wandering. In almost all cases they were disasters - in most cases the players simply got bored. In turns out most of us like story and most of us like progression.

At which point we reach the current crop of sand-box games - they have a main storyline, but allow the player to roam off track and perform other actions. With games like Fallout 3 and Red Dead Redemption these should be the ideal games; so why do I have a problem with them?

I think the easiest way to illustrate this is to demonstrate the differences between a game like the latest Assassin's Creed and Red Dead Redemption. They both feature a large area; they both have main story lines to follow and they both allow the player to veer off and just run around and do other things. So why do I prefer the former to the latter?

Because Assassin's Creed tells me what those wanderings can produce whereas the extras in Red Dead Redemption have to be discovered.

It sounds silly, but in AC I know there are shops I can buy and where they are; I know there are viewpoints I've yet to climb and where they are located. Triggered quests appear on my map so I can find them. I don't have to do them in any particular order; I don't have to do them at all, but I know they are there and so if I choose I can plot my own path through the game that takes in as many or as little as these side-quests as I want.

In Red Dead Redemption I don't get that. Sure some quests pop-up; but there's so much going on that doesn't appear until it's found that to an extent I as a player am back to wandering around aimlessly if I want to experience them. Oh sure I don't have to do that I could just stick with the main story line; but how does that make the game any different from the linear herding style ones? Okay it would be my choice to do that; just as it would be my choice to go wandering. But only the former truly produces in me a sense of purpose. Rather than in AC where I'm heading to a location because I know there's a tower to climb; in RDR I'm heading out into the desert to see if there's anything to 'climb' and if there isn't it just seems I've wasted my time.

It's that not knowing that frustrates me. I've played such open world games many times over and often I would stumble on a side-quest and think "Damn I wish I'd known about this before as the reward given makes the other quests much more bearable" I'm not displaying frustration with myself for not finding this quest earlier I'm displaying frustration with the game for not telling me this quest existed in the first place.

Now I'm sure some people just love that sense of discovery and sure so much unknown territory allows each game to be different every time; I understand and accept that. It's just for me I can't get the same sense of completion out of these games as I can out of the others. I would like to be able to choose not to do a quest rather than not do it because I never knew it even existed. For me that's the real level of choice that games should be offering, but that may just be me.


Orphi said...

I love to explore and see new things. Trouble is, in most games that let you go anywhere you want, there's not much to actually see. Presumably just because designing interesting scenery takes so much time and money.

I loved playing games like Flashback and Abe's Odyssey. Even if the gameplay wasn't that sensational, it was great to explore these strange worlds. Unfortunately, nobody makes games like that any more. Which is a pity, because today we have the hardware to handle it…

If you could make a sandbox game where the entire thing looked as fantastic as some of the cinematic wonders of 20 years ago, I might not even care that I wandered around for 20 minutes without finding anything valuable… but I suspect it's far too expensive to knock out that much artwork.

FlipC said...

In real life I have no problem with wandering off to see if there's something interesting over in that direction. But in games I know they're constrained so the "Oo I never knew that was there" gets counter-balanced with "So what else is there I don't know about?".

In real life if I wander off and don't find something I just shrug my shoulders; in a game it feels like a waste of time. Perhaps an illogic sense of difference between the random and the designed? I know I can't 'complete' real life at 100%, but I can with a game and it irks me when I don't know how.