Sunday, February 14, 2010

The sandbox game

Writing the "Gated game" post got me thinking more about video game genres.  While most AAA titles are variations on the gated game, there is a particular type of game where gates are not central to the game.  Like the gated game,  this genre of video game has so far gone without a proper name--you'll find them mostly in PC RPG's, inspired by the Ultima franchise and D&D.

I don't like the genre name "Role-Playing Game."  The name itself is both redundant and ambiguous, and the definition has been lost somewhere along the line.  RPG fans can contemplate what the standard is for a video game to be called an RPG; I'll make up my own definitions.

Today I'm borrowing another poorly defined and ambiguous genre name: "the sandbox game."  From my understanding, this name was first applied to "open-world games" such as GTA; ostensibly because compared to the usually confinement of action games, these games felt like giant sandboxes.  The problem is that the structure of GTA is that of a gated game.  While players may have somewhat of a choice as to which of two or three missions to do first, eventually they will have to do them all to complete the story--which is the only way to "beat" the game.  Another variation on the gated game.

However, the Elder Scrolls games have a different set-up.  While there is a so-called "main story path," players of the game consider it to be just one option among a plethora of things to do.  In fact, there are multiple story arcs throughout the "side quests" that rival the main story itself; so much so that many old hands of the series don't even bother with the main story.  The fact that a player can find depth and reward outside of the main story means that the gates have fallen: no longer is the player forced to go through a gate to get his reward (i.e., the carnival toy).  Now, the toys are spread out through a giant sandbox, just waiting to be discovered.

While I can give Ultima and its offspring credit for being a different genre than the gated game, I can't say that it's necessarily a better genre.  In the post about the gated game, I said that the main weakness was not having an ultimate goal--each goal the player receives could be the last one, or not.  Sandbox games take it a step further, by making the goals optional.  Essentially, this leaves it up to the player to decide what her goal is.  Main story?  Side quests?  Thoughtless murder?  The game supports all of these decisions, and it is at this point that we must stop thinking of it as a "game."

Sandbox games are toys; or rather, giant sandboxes in which toys may be found.  Many of the toys developers choose to put in their sandboxes are games: the main quest is a gated game along with the side quests.  However, there are also dungeons with monsters waiting to be fought and hidden treasures scattered about waiting to be picked up and played with.  A sandbox game is judged not according to its rules, but by the toys strewn about it.  The more toys, the better.  The better the toys, the better.  The better the rules, superfluous.

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