Now, while I may have failed at writing… well, anything this week, I did happen to pick up a copy of Red Dead Redemption. Sure, I didn’t pick up up until Saturday evening, but, did get my hands on it. (Xbox 360 version.) And, I did play it. In fact I played a decent 5-hour chunk, and while I feel I need more time to provide decent impressions, I also feel like now’s a great time to talk about “Sandbox” games in general. What makes a good sandbox game good? What works in a sandbox game and what doesn’t? What are some examples of good and bad sandbox games?
For the hell of it, let’s first define a “sandbox” game. On Wikipedia, a sandbox or “open world” game is described as follows:
The term sandbox refers more to the mechanics of a game and how, as in a physical sandbox, the user is entertained by their ability to play creatively, boundless of artificial structural constraints, and with there being “no right way” of playing the game.
Yeah, I referenced Wikipedia. Got a problem with that? In any case, the above description is pretty darn accurate. Sandbox, free-roaming, open world; they all mean the same thing: a game in which you’re allowed to freely traverse a massive, open gameworld, and interact with that game world however you see fit. Think Grand Theft Auto. Assassin’s Creed. Infamous. Prototype. Fallout 3. The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. And, of course, Red Dead Redemption.
So, what is it that makes a sandbox game fun? What makes a good sandbox experience, as opposed to an average one?
In my opinion, the most important requirement for a sandbox game is also a very simple one – there has to be a wide variety of things to do. Quests, tasks, missions, whatever they may be – but in order for the player to shape his own experience within the sandbox, you have to give him the appropriate tools. If you present them with a massive, open world to explore, and then populate it with only four or five different activities, then the player will quickly become bored. Plain and simple. And yes, I am glaring at the original Assassin’s Creed right now.
I’ll take this as an opportunity to discuss Red Dead Redemption. As Ethos stated in his insomniac edition of Scatter Storming, there is indeed, a “shit ton” to do. And, for now at least, it’s all fun. There are bandits to kill, Sheriffs to aid, property to buy, poker to play, horses to ride, treasure to hunt, movies to watch – the list could go on and on and on. And this is what’s opened up in the initial five hours – I highly doubt I’ve seen all there is to see. It’s quite shocking, really. And a lot of fun.
Another crucial component of a quality sandbox game is this: the ability to impact the world around you in a noticable, meaningful, or profitable way. Preferably all three. In Red Dead Redemption, if you perform noble task, you’ll score with the noble folk – including local Sheriffs and other such influential people. However, if you go for a more aggressive, self-serving, or violent approach to things, you’ll get in close with the seedy criminal factions. In Assassin’s Creed II, city guards will treat you differently depending on how many people you’ve stabbed lately. And, not to mention, your financial contributions can restore an entire town from slums to splendor.
A bad example would be the original Assassin’s Creed. Assassin’s Creed II is one of the best sandbox games I’ve ever played, which makes it that much more ironic that the original Assassin’s Creed is probably one of the worst. I’ve already called it out for having nothing to do within its massive world; but in addition to that, what you do has absolutely zero effect on the world at large. Kill as many people as you want, be they civilians or assassination targets, and nothing changes. And, aside from stabbing people, there really isn’t any meaningful way to interact with the world of Assassin’s Creed. I know it’s a bit late to be on the Assassin’s Creed hatewagon, and that’s not really my intent here – it is, though, one of the better bad examples.
If the player is expected to spend all of his time within the bounds of a single, massive gameworld, then it had better be a good world. And by “good” I mean endearing, believable, and attractive – make the player want to explore it. Red Dead Redemption pulls this off quite impressively; night and day, a bustling virtual populace makes the world seem very much alive, and very much like a real place. People talk aloud about current events in the world, passer-byes on horses shout hellos, bandits attack on the road, drunken idiots attack prostitutes – some of it sounds trivial, and some of it ridiculous – but its the small, quirky things that make a world feel alive and endearing to the player. A big city filled with mindless, shambling mutes doesn’t quite cut it – and, while I could glare at Assassin’s Creed yet again, I think I’ll take the opportunity to glare at the much-overrated Infamous.
Gameplay in a sandbox game is, perhaps, the greatest challenge. Why? Because gameplay mechanics have to be solid enough to hold up for a long period of time, (as many hours as the player chooses, really) and they have to be able to work in a variety of interchangeable gameplay scenarios. Since there’s no traditional level design, you can’t ever really use gimmicks – such as, say, a level on the back of a massive Titan. No offense to God of War, or course; just using that as an example of something you generally won’t find in a sandbox. So, this being the case, the core, “day-to-day” mechanics (as it were) have to be strong. And, once again, Red Dead Redemption is a shining example of that. Combat is nothing new – in fact, it’s suspiciously similar to that found in Uncharted – but it’s solid, fun, and bloody. The “Dead Eye” ability, while just another incarnation of Bullet Time, is still incredibly awesome. It has to be used sparingly, but that makes it all the sweeter when you activate it, and deliver head shots to five different bandits with your double-barreled rifle. Horse riding is surprisingly enjoyable; perhaps because of how beautiful the rugged Western landscapes are, and thus how beautiful the sites are.
Perhaps the most difficult thing to do, though, when building a sandbox game is this: maintaining a narrative that can move at the player’s pace, yet retain its focus as a whole. Sure, you want a compelling story to accompany the world you’re in – but, you also don’t want to be hindered by it. It’s a tough line to walk, but once again, Red Dead nails it. Basically, the story is advanced whenever you decide to take on a story mission. These missions are often simplistic, and short, but they always add something to the overarching story. Even if it’s just a three-minute conversation during a carriage ride into town, you’re always given some valuable bit of information or character development. And, since these missions are generally short and sweet, that means you can keep the story moving at a brisk pace – if you want to. But you probably won’t want to. You might want to spend 45 minutes or so completing two or three story missions, and then an hour or two riding around, shooting at game, fending off bandits, picking flowers, or trying your hand at the (highly addictive) poker minigame. Think it sounds simple? Well, it should be, but not many games get it this right. In Infamous, the story takes a backseat for hours at a time while you carry out overly-elongated story missions that do very little to advance the actual plot. If you don’t have a compelling story to accompany the world, players will lose interest.
Sandbox games can provide some of the most memorable gaming experiences, since they’re largely shaped by you, and how you choose to exist in the world around you. But, like any genre, there’s a big difference between a good sandbox game, and an average one. Or… a bad one. With the advent of current-generation hardware, the genre’s become quite a bit more popular than it once was. Frankly, it’s a trend that will probably continue to grow. With games like Assassin’s Creed II and Grand Theft Auto 4 selling in the several millions, the people have expressed their love of the sandbox genre. But hey, if games like Red Dead Redemption are any indication, this could be a good thing.