Sep 17, 2013
As eager gamers put GTA V into their machines for the first time today, we take a look at the rise of sandbox games and their impact on traditional linear gameplay.
Sandbox games are becoming more common and progressive, partly due to advancements in technology and depth. We are now finally able to create living, breathing worlds, heralding a new age of gaming.
To start out, there are multiple meanings behind the concept of “sandbox”. What is key is the open world, allowing you to roam around as you wish. On the other hand, a more complex sandbox such as an RPG, allows you to precisely shape what happens, whether this be altering the plot itself, or choosing your characters path. Now video games have come so far, why wouldn’t we create open worlds for exploration? And where do linear titles come into this? Is the single player story experience doomed entirely?
One of the forerunners in this is the Elder Scroll Series. Having always offered a vast land of magic, vampires and annoying animals, the fifth and most recent entry was Skyrim. Throughout Bethesda’s lifetime, they have lovingly recreated vast fantastical landscapes, and pushed the boundaries of what the RPG could achieve. The trouble with this game is, is there is very little freedom, and truly, you don’t have too much choice about the quests. And this is what many gamers enjoy; choosing their own path and destiny. Classic games such as Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic could be played in a number of ways, with a unique path and story. Yet now games are becoming more expensive and complex, creating multiple story-lines becomes costly.
Standby for Sandbox games
Ubisoft have recently stated how they are going to release open world games “on a regular basis”, calling it “the clear direction where game genres evolve”. The company released nine sandbox games in seven years, which shows their intent. Watch Dogs is their next new IP, allowing you to explore a huge city at your will, and they see this mode of gameplay as the future of gaming. A debatable theory, yet the concept has not existed all too long, as it has only been implemented fully within the last two generations of gaming; at least enough to consider a good sense of realism. If you can make a city feel real, and it remains interesting to the last detail, then there is reason to believe such an open world is the next step forward.
One factor that has led to the popularity of the sandbox game is that there are hours upon hours of gaming to be done, even after completing the main story or quests within the game. This provides much better value for money, as it lasts much longer, and many people see the retail price of £40 as quite the investment. It seems only common sense to purchase a product with more entertainment value, but this isn’t a mere decision between quantity versus quality; it still needs to tick both boxes.
Exploration and freedom is key to developing a good sandbox game. People like to explore, and find interesting things. Games which offer little aside from the main missions suffer from being boring and lacking true depth. If you can do whatever you wish, and go wherever you want, the world itself becomes more tangible, and as real as possible for the player. Even the best of games can suffer from smashing the illusion of reality by blocking off corridors or roads with conveniently placed lorries or trees (I’m looking at you, The Last of Us), and therefore take us out of the spectacle itself. If there are no such restrictions, then it could truly be a real universe of its own.
Minecraft is an example of an indie sandbox game that really took off, without any story or aim. For some, this may be quite alienating, without any sense of direction whatsoever. Yet to others, this could be the ultimate format, as you can do or create anything that springs to mind. What more could you want? On the other side with a linear game, you experience the story as it was intended to be told, and if this is the driving factor, then it is important to retain.
Free will or determinism?
Many games which traditionally have not been open world, are adopting this model. Metal Gear Solid V is open world, changing significantly from the previous entries in the series. The latest Tomb Raider also allowed the player to explore the world as you please, alongside scripted levels. The fact that such celebrated franchises are changing what made them popular seems to suggest that open world is the next step forward.
Perhaps a combining the linear with open world escapades is the way forward. For me, Far Cry 3 unexpectedly got this right. The previous entries hadn’t been the best, and was genuinely surprised at how compelling and exciting the third installment was. Why? It has all the aspects of a great sandbox game: the landscape is vast, it is beautiful to look at, and there is plenty to do. This includes hunting, capturing bases, racing, alongside other addictive side quests, maintaining variation. Yet the main missions were also very enthralling, as you genuinely want to bring Vaas, the quintessentially deranged bad guy, to justice. And many of these missions are constructed in a linear fashion, allowing the certain passage through the level that gives action-packed cinematic sequences that rivals most films. This manages to replicate the pace of most action games, whilst still retaining what makes free-roam games so appealing. So was it the story-driven quests that kept me intrigued, or the open world that retained my attention? I’d say both.
Games such as GTA appeal to many people because it has the traits of sand box games, as in you can do whatever you could possibly want, but the storyline has stayed fairly linear, with very little to change. I think it is often worthwhile to prioritize a single engaging story-line over multiple average ones. But if the game is best suited to crafting your only style, then this is still plausible. Many fans disliked GTA IV because it removed many of the features which made the game fun: relying on a set of structured missions, and very little to do otherwise. The next instalment is a return to the classic model, but still focus around the characters story-line.
Is the Linear story coming to a conclusion?
Open world games are becoming dominant, that is for sure. But personally, I do not feel the linear game is anywhere near dead. Sure, many games are turning to open world. But the best experiences I have had recently have come in the form of structured narrative, including games like Dead Space or Uncharted, and for the 10 or 15 hours that it lasts, it is a truly thrilling ride. But that’s where it ends. These games have limited playability. And when spending my precious hard-earned cash, I’d like it to go further. I could easily invest the same amount of money into a game such as Borderlands 2, which could entertain me for weeks on end, perhaps surpassing the 100 hour barrier on a staggering amount of quests.
It all comes down to intentions. Take Assassin’s Creed. If it were a linear game based around fighting guards in corridors, it would be pretty bland. But the fact you can explore Jerusalem, Venice, or Boston brings it to a new level, as you scale ancient monuments and cause havoc across the cities. It is clear that it suits what the game aims to do. Apply such a model to a horror game however; and it may lose all the tension and fear only linear levels can produce. It’s all about personal preference, and the auteur’s choice.
I think it’s important that each form of game exists in it’s own right. Not all games should adopt the free-roam model, as the story the creator wishes to tell may not be suited. If cut-scenes and intense combat is a must, then an open world may not be the best choice. But for many games, adopting a sandbox approach can open up gameplay and audiences that may not exist otherwise.