Alright, let’s talk about sandbox games.

Sandbox games are pretty self-explanatory. Rather than follow the traditional formula of having the player progress through scripted stages, levels, or areas in a more-or-less linear fashion, sandbox games place your playable character in an open area with a variety of different objectives to be completed and allows you to complete them in any order you can/want.

I’ve been watching a Let’s Play of The Saboteur and it’s gotten me thinking about the genre. Next to first person shooters and sports games, I’d argue that sandbox titles are amongst the most prolific and broadest reaching genres currently in the public’s consciousness. This is all thanks to a little game you may not have heard of called Grand Theft Auto.


The epic story of an immigrant and his horny cousin

More specifically, Grand Theft Auto 3, a game which brought the sandbox to the 3-D realm and into the popular eye. Grand Theft Auto 3 turned a lot of heads, mostly due to its rather questionable content, most of which revolved around the stealing of cars and the mass-murdering of everyone and anyone you saw. The very definition of a sandbox game, GTA3 allowed players to explore New York, make money, choke bitches, and steal cars. Its sequels, Vice City and San Andreas, continued to expand upon just how lavish, large and explosive its sandbox became, until the game worlds became so big that they imploded upon themselves, swallowed a box of rust and gravel, and became Grand Theft Auto 4.

Now, to get this out of the way, I’ve never really cared much for the GTA series. I found the earlier games bland, and the later games tedious, but despite all that I’d say that GTA: San Andreas is probably one of the greatest sandbox games of all time, because it understood, intrinsically, what a sandbox is for. The entire point of a sandbox game is to give the player as many options to do as many things as possible. A pure sandbox game would present an entire world with a million things to do and let you do it–in otherwords, a MMORPG but without the people.

However, technology, time and imagination make it hard to make a game like that very interesting. Actual sandboxes got real boring real fast because, really, what can you do with sand other than ruin your clothes, get it in your eye, and make soggy-looking castles? San Andreas realized that, as big as it was, there wasn’t a whole lot to DO outside of various missions. Everything revolved around driving places, shooting people, and maybe flying a plane or two. The many missions were varied and interesting, but the world itself–comprised of three entire cities–seemed stretched thin and shallow.

Doesn't it just call to you?

Of course, GTA made massive amounts of money and caused lots of gaming journalists to cream their pants in feverish glee at the prospect of  bigger worlds, faster cars, more hookers and nobody really stopped to point out the obvious flaws. Of course, time forces innovation, whether innovation is wanted or not, and the typical sandbox game is quite a bit different from GTA–and by “quite a bit different” I mean “exactly the same, but with an added gimmick to advertise the game by”.

Just Cause had a grappling hook, The Saboteur had Nazis, and Prototype had the ghoulish abandonment of one’s humanity in pursuit of power and num nums. Of those three, Prototype is the only one I particularly liked, mostly because it wasn’t exactly the same as Grand Theft Auto. Prototype was much like another sort of open-world game, the Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction, as both were made by Radical Entertainment, a Canadian company that spends most of the time it isn’t squeezing the blood out of the dead and rotting Crash Bandicoot franchise absolutely not ripping off GTA. It also  makes mediocre racing games and shitty snowboarding games.

Anyway, Prototype tickled my fancy because it had an actually deep and realized combat engine with a focus on chaining combos and switching various power forms in order to take on increasingly more difficult enemies. With a B-movie-style 50’s Science-Fiction/Horror plot and laughably grotesque levels of violence, Prototype proved that you can do more in a sandbox without needing to drive a fucking car and commit crimes. Of course, even Prototype isn’t that original, simply expanding upon what Crackdown had already done some years before, but I reward the effort at least.

Sandbox games have continued to grow and develop beyond the waves of GTA clones. Now we have superhero-style sandbox games, like Prototype and Infamous, western-style sandbox games like Gun and the seminal Red Dead Redemption, but we still haven’t shaken off the lurking shadow of the GTA, as even good sandbox games like Red Dead can be described as “Grand Theft Auto in a ___”. GTA  has become the die-hard of the gaming world, and is increasingly growing just as stale.

Sandbox games aren’t all cars and shooting and crime. We’ve got your FPS sandboxes, like Fallout 3 and S.T.A.L.K.E.R., RPG sandboxes like the Elder Scrolls series, and strange sandboxes like Assassin’s Creed, which combines elements of all the above and adds in hilarious anachronisms and stabby stabby murder to the traditional formula.

My problem with sandbox games is and always has been that they give you too much freedom. You’ve got a whole world to explore, but you have no clue where to start, and you eventually start to realize that the world isn’t as big as it seems, since there’s only so much you can do, and the open-ended structure makes it hard for there to be big, ‘memorable’ sequences outside of those you create with happenstance and fuckery. Most sandbox games have loose controls and hilarious levels of gameplay and story segregation, where whatever you do in the sandbox ultimately doesn’t have any lasting impact on the world itself. In San Andreas, you could eventually control the city through a gang war side game that was honestly more interesting than the main story itself, but even that was just a means without an end.

Sandbox games must appeal to folks who treat their games like, well, a game. They just want to pick it up, do some stuff for half an hour, then go about their day. That’s all well and good, but I need more. I need impetus–why I am doing what I’m doing? What will happen to this setting if I do X, Y and Z? The latest generation of sandbox games have been attempting to address this, and I’m genuinely grateful. The Saboteur, although a relatively mediocre game, rewards your destruction and mission completion by making the game…well…visible (or at least removing the god-awful black and white filter). Fallout 3 attempted this and partially succeeded, as news of your exploits are sung on the radio and you have the potential to destroy an entire town pretty early on, but so far, there hasn’t been a sandbox game that’s REALLY made me feel as though I’m an active part of this virtual world.

If I’m in a sandbox, I want to actually build a sand castle, not just play with someone else’s. With the technology available to us, I’d like to see a sandbox game that has a world that constantly shifts and evolves as you go through it. If you start gunning down cops and pedestrians, I want to see less people in the streets, houses being boarded up, armored patrols replacing state troopers. If you start robbing fast food resteraunts over and over again, I want the news to report, and other stores start arming themselves against you.

Fortunately, I think we’re headed in this direction. I think GTA’s grip has lessened on the genre, as more developers start taking original ideas and implementing new ways to run a sandbox. And the old formula wasn’t bad per se. I’m not the biggest GTA4 fan–mostly because I find the controls troublesome and the storyline bland–but my GTA-fan friends love the detail and intricacy of the world and the evolution of old gameplay mechanics.

I just wish it wasn’t such a one-way mirror–we can see this lovely world, but scarcely touch it. I don’t get bored of living in the real world, because there’s always something changing in response to my actions. I shouldn’t be bored in a virtual world for exactly the same reason, and the fact that I am shows that this genre still has a lot of evolving to do.