It’s the Sandbox Jim …. but not as we know it..


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Video games have always struggled to strike the right balance between the size of the game world and the detail poured into said world, this dilemma is something that has become easier and easier to dodge as our gaming machines have become more and more powerful. Creating a living breathing world is an incredible achievement and those few who manage it are revered like Gods in the gaming world and much like it’s immortal counterpart this idea seems to never die.

For me this idea of exploring a world at your own will began with early RPG titles. While not necessarily “Open world” games, titles like Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest and Breath of Fire gave gamers an early opportunity to navigate an entire world in the however they wished and while some of these games may have changed tactics in recent iterations other developers have taken the idea and made it their own.

Grand Theft Auto (1997) though simple in it’s execution was huge in scope and allowed players to travel through three large cities however they felt necessary. Many others have challenged Rockstars crown as the Kings of the open world title but the Edinburgh based production house remain firmly planted upon their very own iron throne. This isn’t to say that one of to days most admired titles has had it all it’s own way, nor is true to say they haven’t taken a few hints along the way.

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The Humble beginnings of a world beater

Shenmue (1999) is widely regarded to be the first title to be set in a completely open 3d city which featured a “living” populace offering players un-rivaled  freedom to interact with the world around them. This was a huge step in the video game world and Segas contribution cannot be ignored although it may have been somewhat overshadowed by what was to come.

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Is this the real life …. or is this just fantasy

Rockstar as ever unwilling to relinquish their grip on the open world genre would soon after release GTA III, the first game in the series to feature a fully 3d sandbox city in which the player was free to cause as much mayhem as they wished, it was an insane achievement. Sega did not want to give up the fight though and they struck back with their own crime based open world title Yakuza and all the while PC gamers were gifted with The Elder Scrolls series which is undoubtedly the most important game in the “open world first person” sub-genre.

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All of these titles featured impressively sized game worlds be it a city, county/state, island and in some cases even a country but in 2004 Blizzard came and stole all the accolades by creating a game that encompassed an entire world to be explored by you and millions of others in the most acclaimed MMORPG of them all. What WoW did affected and continues to effect everything that came and will come, despite recent drops in revenue this game will forever be regarded as a gift and a curse by gamers across the world. Then there’s the small matter of a little game you may of heard of called Minecraft the founder of the proceduraly generated unlimited world, MC once again changed our perspective of just how much of a sandbox a game can be and it’s popularity continues to soar, this kind of dynamic world and changing environment could be seen the epitome of the genre.

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This place is your life now!

Most games these days don’t shy away from creating an experience that can be shared with a friend, even games that are traditionally a solo experience are beginning to see the value in multiplayer, after all a game like any other form of entertainment is at it’s best when you are sharing it with a friend or two .. or more. Forthcoming titles such as Destiny, The Division and The Crew have shifted ideals from being about multi-player or open world and instead look to focus on creating a persistent shared world which can be occupied by thousands upon thousands of players. This idea is one still very much in it’s infancy but it’s something that we all as gamers are becoming more and more intrigued by with every passing day. Combining the elements of open world play with the full on living world experience is a salivating concept for everyone. Add in to that the ability to meet strangers along the way, those who may wish to join you or those who definitely wish to kill you (and steal your beans) and you have a frighteningly appealing genre that might just mean the end of the real world for good.

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Is the MMO the ultimate gaming Destiny?

All that said “Sandbox” games can be something of an enigma and it seems difficult to achieve balance between a compelling story and complete freedom, many games have tried and many have failed, sometimes you don’t need a story as proved by the hugely popular Arma II mod DayZ but other times it’s simply the most important part. Some of the most critically acclaimed games of recent years buck the trend for open world and are much stronger titles for being more linear. Bioshock, The Walking Dead, Half Life 2, Dishonored, Portal, Heavy Rain and The Last of Us have all been nominated for and taken home many awards globally. This shows that there is still life in games that are more focused on creating a story than simulating a world these smaller more narrative driven titles offer the player something deeper than a world to play in and will often invoke a stronger emotional attachment than their larger counterparts but it may just be that they are more difficult to develop.

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Get ready to be punched in the feels

Creating a living world is one thing but creating a believable story is something else entirely and something that can often be neglected in games which are more focused on adrenaline fueled action and competitive multi-player. The art of weaving a tale is as old as time and I for one don’t think it’s ready to rest it’s weary head just yet.

It’s true to say that video games are always evolving and always looking for that next big idea, how do you guys feel the gaming world will evolve next? Are open worlds or deep stories more important to you? Do you value a short game over a seemingly un-ending one or would you prefer that your favourite game could last forever? Let me know in the comments below and as always thanks for your time.

-eremenko

2 thoughts on “It’s the Sandbox Jim …. but not as we know it..

  1. I have a solid opinion on this: I prefer compelling stories, even if something is a bit off in the world created. But this is just my personal preference, and it is heavily influenced by my research on games narrative.
    But I can’t say I had great experiences in sandbox games. You see, I play Guild Wars 2 frequently, and I enjoy it quite a lot. I think the apparent “lack” of story it not something that hinders the experience, and I enjoy every minute, day and night, spent inside it. I guess the magic of certain MMOs is the opportunity they give you to feel comfortable within the game.
    This is something I didn’t feel with The Last of Us. Man, what a great story, but hey: I was bothered every minute by their situation.
    Another sandbox game that comes to mind is Terraria. Although it almost disappointed me at the end, I spent over 100 hours in it mining, building and killing monsters. There was no story, but I was there doing my stuff! And I had a castle!
    I think we, gamers, are really privileged. We got to benefit from both worlds.

    • Terraria and Guild Wars are both great examples of games where you created your own story. MMO’s do that a lot, the world around you may be seeped in lore in some instances but the story in these games is often the tale of your very adventure.
      Thanks for reading, really glad it resonated with you. Always appreciate your opinions.

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