In the beginning, games presented simple hurdles: save the princess, or make a line out of those blocks. Your game would eventually exclaim it’s version of “great job!”, and send you on your way. Then, games with optional collectibles and achievements came to be. In this case, the player is invited to stick around for a slew of different tasks after they complete the main objectives. As of late, many video games are being designed as Sandbox (also known as Open World) experiences. Games such as Grand Theft Auto still exist to tell a story, but they do so in a way that allows the player to go totally off script and simply explore the game’s mechanics and world at will. Originally, it seemed as though the allure came from how large a game’s world map could become. The sheer size of the earlier Elder Scrolls game worlds is still considered daunting to some. As the genre has grown, the draw for Sandbox games has grown well beyond a feature as simple as “room to play.” Regardless, it’s time to explore what this trend could lead to in gaming’s horizon.
When attempting to tell a story, there’s a such thing as an audience with too much freedom. What would Tarantino’s Kill Bill have become if the audience had full control of the camera. Would The Bride’s exploits have been as entertaining without each of those engrossing camera angles? Probably not. After all, the camera work (on top many other elements) was crafted and fine-tuned with the sole purpose of depicting the character and her actions in the appropriate manner. Otherwise, the story would have likely collapsed onto itself in a nonsensical mess. This is the risk that game developers take when deciding to make their game Open World. If done incorrectly, the world they create could be cheapened by the actions they’re allowing their audience to take.
This can be exhibited when assuming the role of such a character as Red Dead Redemption’s John Marston. While previous entries in the Red Dead series have seen the cowboy performing as any outlaw would, this game depicts a John Marston who has settled into family life – leaving behind the days of ole which brought both bloodshed and bounty. But, wait… this is the wild, wild West! Like, Clint Eastwood! Will Smith! What better time to get on our horses to shoot up a saloon or hold up a stage coach? Not so fast. Acting out these heinous deeds would be out of character for our peace-seeking gunman. Marston’s only proceeding with the game’s events to earn his way back home. While going on a crime fueled rampage would have no effect on the story, I felt strange acting against an ultimately well-meaning personality. After all, I was rooting for the guy the whole time. I wasn’t about to tarnish his new lease on life for some unbridled violence. While this game’s story and gameplay are incredible, the flexibility it lends the player in an Open World scenario can be considered out of place. Of course, there are characters who can capitalize greatly on the prospect of such open-ended worlds.
Consider Fallout 3’s Vault Dweller: a character who we interact with from their birth. The player’s first actions involve deciding precisely what this character will look like, what their name will be, and what skills they’ll excel at. This is without a doubt the player’s unique avatar. The gameplay starts 19 years after the birth sequence. We begin by embarking on a quest to find our character’s father, James – a leading scientist of the Vault who could possibly save the world. This is the driving force behind the main story. As heroic as this mission is, the game’s meat exists within the side stories which detail other parts of the game world’s events. Outcomes of these scenarios are swayed by player-decided situations which leave lasting impressions on the world that ripple throughout the entire game. Needless to say, it’s easy to get side-tracked from the main story so much so that you may just forget to do it at all. The best part of that is – it’s totally okay if you do. Here, we have a world where not only is our freedom is rewarded, but it’s also required. There’s no right way to do things in Fallout 3, and that is what makes it a successful example of storytelling within Sandbox freedom. Simply put, you’re telling the tale.
As more free-roaming games are made, it’s going to be interesting to watch storytelling evolve and fail along the way. Perfecting Open World storytelling may never happen in the gaming industry, but stellar examples continue to pop up as time goes on. What’s your favorite Sandbox game?