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The Right Kind Of Sandbox

Last week, I had some realizations that the kind of game I really wanted to play was a sandbox, but "sandbox" is not specific enough to describe it:
  • Start with the definition of a virtual environment where the player is allowed greater-than-usual freedom in doing whatever they want.  This is, roughly, what "sandboxes" have come to mean among the mainstream; this is how everything from Minecraft to Transport Tycoon can be called sandboxes.
  • Add to that definition that the player should have significant means to creatively express themselves.  This somewhat eliminates "virtual world" games derived from Grand Theft Auto 3 from the definition because they are significantly limited versus something like Minecraft.
  • Add further to the definition that there needs to be satisfying in-game ramifications to the changes the player makes.  This is where my complaint from Minecraft arises: building a castle is initially quite satisfying, and you've created a safe haven for yourself to keep the monsters at bay while simultaneously creatively expressing yourself in the construction... but then what?  There's no real ramifications beyond that.
In summary, it's not good enough to have an environment called a "sandbox," the player needs to be allowed to express themselves in a very flexible manner (a branching story doesn't count because it's a very limited and prefab kind of expression) and how they express themselves needs to matter.

Having established this definition, I then went back and played some RollerCoaster Tycoon 3: Platinum, as it is an excellent example of a game that has achieved an unusually good mix of the three bullet points above.
  • By, putting the player in charge of constructing a theme park, RollerCoaster Tycoon 3 gives the player complete freedom.  It's very much a sandbox.
  • You can place a wide variety of parts (attractions, stalls, decorations).  You can even design your own roller coasters (custom attractions).  You can also recolor the landscape and many aspects of the things you place.  It's very much a game where the player is allowed to creatively express themselves.
  • You build for the enjoyment (or torment) of your visitors.  Your park approval rating brings more visitors.  The visitors bring money that you can use to further expand your park.  By framing the players' role as creating a successful theme park, most of what you are doing has ramifications.
For one blessed weekday, a good time was had in this 2004 game, a far more interesting game than 99% of the games that have come out since by my definition.

Unfortunately, I eventually found myself a bit disappointed by how bogged down I was in the logistics of simply laying paths for my visitors to reach attractions, maximizing the utilization of space, consequently creating actually rather ugly looking parks in the name of maximum profitability.  It seems my inner minmaxer ended up trumping whatever inner artist of mine I possessed, perhaps indicating what I really wanted was more megalomaniacal in nature.  (Maybe I should have been playing Evil Genius instead?)

Oh well.  Fortunately, the definition of this kind of sandbox is actually quite flexible.  RollerCoast Tycoon 3 is, at heart, a management simulation.  However, a well-done role-playing game could also suit this definition, and I am now investigating two potential candidates:
Divinity:Original Sin, which features a somewhat sandbox-like environment with some level of creative expression and unusually satisfying ramifications.  For example:
  • Locked doors can be picked or knocked down, wooden doors feature taking 25% more damage from fire attacks because they are flammable.  It's not unheard of for multiple solution paths to exist to circumvent locked portals, but a good implementation like this is significantly harder to find.
  • Combat has a lot of really cool environment factors.  Oil pools (usually from conveniently leaking barrels) can be ignited.  Poison clouds are explosive, another potential interaction with flame.  Pools of water can be found (or created via a rain spell) and then frozen to create a slippery surface, or zapped with electricity to conduct the attack to everything standing in that pool.  Even the bleeding of combatants factor into this, and in this fantasy world not everyone bleeds mere blood!
  • The NPCs hate it when you steal from them or destroy their stuff.  Not a radically new feature, true, but it is well-implemented here.  For example, I tried to take a key belonging to the local mayor in order to access his back room, so he snatched it away from me.  I then tried to circumvent his door by burning it down, angering him into combat.  After reloading, I put a folding screen in the way of his vision while distracting him with conversation to curtail his roving, which made burning down his door in secret much easier... except for the woman who occasionally wandered downstairs from the second floor library.
  • You eventually get access to a "homestead" that can be expanded and form various functions for the player.  If you are feeling creative, you can try snatching furniture from the outside world and decorating your homestead.  Honestly, as far as creative expression from the player's action goes, it's rather paltry, but at least the combat environmental factors and thievery factors make up for it somewhat.
  • Lots of plot ramifications for earlier actions, or so I hear, but I find this to be the simplest and least organic of ramifications so it does not pique my interest as much.
Not bad!

However, aside from that, I am a little disappointed to say that Divinity: Original Sin is just a pretty standard isometric perspective PC RPG featuring turn-based, action-point combat.  (Although it does have an unusually good cooperative play mechanic that is worthy of a blog entry in itself!)  In the end, I would say that Divinity: Original Sin owes more to Fallout than Ultima VII.

Speaking of which...
The other game I am investigating to see if it's "the right kind of sandbox" is Fallout 4, whose release is just days away.

Aspect one, the basic sandbox appeal, is easily won over because Bethesda's open world games have almost always been excellent hereFallout 4 is basically The Elder Scrolls with a post-apocalyptic skin, as has been the case for the series since Fallout 3's release.  In fact, I'd say the only reason they got away with such a radical revamp to the core gameplay of a well-loved brand like Fallout is because their open world immersion is that good.

For sandbox appeal, that's more than good enough, but where are we going to find the other two aspects of creative expression and ramifications tied to that creative expression

In a word: settlements.
Fallout 4 players are actually allowed to build settlements (if that's not a G.E.C.K in action then Bethesda missed a major opportunity) to attract and support NPC post-apocalyptic survivors.  Players get to build buildings piecemeal (with predefined sections that "just work" when placed together) even place the furniture (so the interior decorators among us are being supported). 

Taken collectively, I would say that the flexibility in building settlements is probably adequate support the "creative expression" part of the sandbox that I felt was needed; settlements do not sound like unsatisfactorily tacked-on features; this isn't Skyrim's Hearthfire all over again, but rather the essential evolution thereof.

As for the remaining aspect, meaningful feeling ramifications, the player is being tasked with rebuilding a post-nuclear society: what could be of greater gravity than that?!  Of course, for this to be more than just lip service, it needs to be supported via the various logical needs of the settlement, and it is: judging by the hud interface, you need to make sure there's adequate food, water, power, happiness, safety, and beds.  In return, you earn money and get access to "some of the best items in the game."  Those sound like pretty good ramifications to me!

Though I may be a tad too optimistic here, Fallout 4 has the potential to be everything I was missing out of Minecraft.  It's going to be an interesting week.
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