Maybe I Don't Prefer SandboxesComplications Ensue
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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

I finished playing BIOSHOCK over the weekend, 2K's hit 2007 first person shooter set in an underwater Ayn Randian retro-futuristic dystopia.

(See now this is why I'd like to do more writing for videogames. When was the last time you saw an underwater Ayn Randian retro-futuristic dystopian TV series?)

I'm coming to the realization that I don't really prefer sandbox games. For a while there it was kind of an axiom with me that movies should tell stories but games should let you play in a sandbox and not necessarily have to follow the story. Partly that was a reaction to watching Hunter play ultra-linear games like Final Fantasy X (I think it was X) where you just go down the path and kill everything in your way; that seemed rather dull. And I have spent many happy hours playing totally open-ended megalomaniac games like the Civilization series and SimCity, where there is no story at all and the world is your sandbox.

But then along comes ASSASSIN'S CREED 2, and while you can run all around the cities of Renaissance Italy, and do a few side missions, really the game is about a sequence of assassination missions and the unfolding story. And you can run around the levels of BIOSHOCK, and theoretically even go back to levels you already cleared, the game is about a series of levels where you discover, through audio diaries that you find, exactly what happened to the city of Rapture and how you fit into its destiny.

I'm beginning to think that maybe I like having a game tell me a single story. (Or having the game let me discover a story.) I'm not sure I need a slew of side missions. I did a few side missions in MASS EFFECT 2, but I quickly began to feel that I was wasting time -- the Illusive Man needed me to get my crew up to speed and take them through the Omega IV relay! And did anyone miss not having side missions in HEAVY RAIN?

Hmmm. Maybe I don't really prefer sandbox games.

I just started RED DEAD REDEMPTION, which I understand is fairly sandboxy (and with an emergent, persistent world to boot). I guess I'll see how I feel about that.



Love these crossover game reviews and discussions Alex. A very worthwhile subject for screenwriters, with so many emerging opportunities in gaming.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:58 PM  

Perhaps your original hypothesis was merely based on misleading data. I'm a big fan of RPGs such as the Final Fantasy series, but Final Fantasy X was a terrible game. The reason was that it railroaded you. The player makes no impactful decisions but is merely carried along by the tide of predetermined events.

The best RPGs (and similar) give you a linear story but let you discover it for yourself by making decisions which lead you closer to or farther away from the truth. This is obviously a simplification, but know what I mean.

By Blogger glassblowerscat, at 7:59 PM  

I also recently played through Mass Effect 2. I felt the big let down compared to the first was the narrative was nowhere near as strong. The first was great - you felt free to explore the universe and do things at your will, but a strong narrative ultimately held it all together and drove you toward a satisfying climax.

The sequel felt like a bunch of side missions all vaguely pointing toward a shallow and brief plot.

But it was fun anyway. Gameplay itself was better than the first.

Speaking of which, I've heard people say when it comes to games, gameplay is king - not story. This is scary given we're used to story being our monarch when writing for any other medium, but it does seem to be true in both theory and practice. What say you, Alex?

By Blogger Swil, at 10:53 PM  

Obviously gameplay is paramount in a game. You can have a game without a story. But as games get more sophisticated, I think gamers want yummy new worlds. I really enjoyed the world of Bioshock; the worlds of GTA and Fallout leave me cold. (I don't like bleak. Horrific, I'm okay with. I guess I want there to be a real upside?) And stories flesh out the game play. Who is your character? Why is he fighting? What will he win? The other elements of story (character, goal, stakes, jeopardy) flesh out what would otherwise be a meaningless struggle against a series of antagonists.

Hunter and I both tried the ultimate sandbox game, WoW, but we got bored with it. It's almost impossible to tell a story to millions of people simultaneously, and WoW doesn't achieve the impossible. So unless you get in a guild full of fun people that construct their own stories by the way they run dungeons -- and I didn't find one -- you're left with just the gameplay. And that got dull. (Maybe I could have found one on an RP server, but that felt a little bit too much like trying just a little heroin.)

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 7:31 AM  

Alex, I mostly feel the same way about these games genres and am not a fan of GTA. But I was fully wooed by Fallout 3 after giving it a few hours.

You'll be happy to know that Bioshock 2 (finished yesterday) is a step up from its predecessor and creates an interesting alternative storyline inside the same amazing world.

Very curious about Red Dead Redemption. Please update when you've given it some time.

By Blogger Unknown, at 12:13 PM  

I think the best games *feel* like you're in a sandbox, while leading you down the garden meet the level boss.

By Blogger Hepworks, at 3:56 PM  

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