How I Found My Niche in Sandbox Games

By | 17:17 3 comments

It seems that games have changed a lot over the years.

 Now I'm no hardcore gamer, nor can I confess to any sort of historical gaming integrity. I wasn't even a twinkle in the proverbial eye when Pong came out, and I never even laid my hands on a Nintendo 64 until decades later at a carboot sale. I was of the age when videogames weren't really new, but were certainly getting rooted into becoming the force of nature that they are today.

For me, it was all about the Playstation. I still remember the Christmas morning and unwrapping the box, and I still have such nostalgic joy for the games on there. They seemed so wholesome, with many actually made for kids. The platform game was king back then, or at least it seemed, with Spyro and Crash Bandicoot and Tombi. By the time the playstation 2 came out it finally had the graphics to get excited about. I and my sister (my eternal teammate) launched into our heyday of two player fighting, skating and racing. (Somehow I always got shafted as player two).
When the playstation 3 finally came out we were much more grown up and the two player and the platform experience was downplayed in favour of online team-ups like halo and call of duty. I had to find something new.

For a while the games grew a little uninspiring and without the platform games being around much, I found it harder to place what sort of games I genuinely could love. Nothing seemed marketed to my interests any more. It was then that I discovered, and fell in love with, sandbox games.

All that said, sandbox games did exist back in the Playstation 1 era. But I never experienced them and, forever to my regret, I never actually got to buy the game that started the itch for freedom: Spiderman.
When we were kids me and my sister were treated to buying the Playstation magazines. The articles weren't important at all, what was fantastic was the demo disc that was glued to the front. One day we fired up this demo and my Spiderman-loving heart did a backflip. It was maybe only a level long but this game did something that I had never seen before. It gave you complete freedom.
While the game had a plot (of sorts), you could instead choose to spend hours swinging around. You would crawl up to the highest building you could find, launch yourself off the top, and swing around New York as far as the eye could see. The graphics were dodgy: they hadn't even bothered to render the ground below you, instead leaving everything below the 10th floor on buildings as a strange mist that would kill you if you crawled too low. And casual web-slinging tourism aside, it was fun to get away from the plot and scout out random bad guys to punch off buildings.

If that's not fun, I don't know what is.

When the playstation 3 came out, it seemed to love to show off it's superior processing power by giving us a whole multitude of sandbox games and first person shooters. My aim is...dodgy to say the least. While Red Dead Redemption and Grand Theft Auto took the world by storm, I had trouble even shooting rabbits and pedestrians in third person. All I knew about the  first person style were awkward, dull military shooters.

Then came along Skyrim.

The game was vast, realistic yet varied. I finally found a style that suited me. Who cares how good your aim is if you can flawlessly sneak up on people and arrow them in the knee face?
You could walk for hours, fighting random encounters and following the mini stories of the game's populace without ever having to dig too deeply into the main plot. Heck, even when the main plot was over, the game never had to end. Because of the freedom, you could build up your own character through the idiosyncratic stories you told. My Kajhit, for example took on a follower who she fell in love with. They were married and she lost her wife in Dwemer ruins and, following on from it, I deliberately had her choose shadier moral choices and to be cautious about hiring new followers as so many died so quickly. Eventually she walked alone throughout most of the game, before finally finding a follower who stuck and learning how to care for them. It involved you deeply in the game, and even the pre-scripted plots had multiple moral options.
What was more, you spent months and months - over a hundred hours - on one game alone. It was immensely satisfying and relaxing. I was hooked.

After Skyrim ran it's natural course I looked for the same 'hit' of freedom and fun and came across Far Cry 3: or, more accurately titled, Nature Hates You And Probably Has Good Reason To.
Here you could explore a sunny paradise of killer animals. This sandbox was fun as it mixed your usual goal of smattering badguys with bullets alongside handgliding and throwing yourself off cliffs while wearing a wingsuit. Personally the plot was a load of laddish cringeworthy nonsense, but the freedom was a whole lot of fun.
Plus I could sneak around with a sniper rifle, so again really my aim wasn't all that important. Bonus.

All the same, you were still restricted to two islands. Was there really a game out there that was truly 'endless'?

Enter Minecraft.

Minecraft is a neat little game in how it deliberately rejected the stunning graphics of it's sandboxy predecessors, but nevertheless was high res and liable to set your computer on fire from the sheer vastness of the land that could spawn before you. Craft seemingly anything out of the randomly generated environment around you, build a house, watch as it get's blown up by monsters. What's not to love?

My only problem is that I tend to want to start over again every time I log on because I want the 'perfect' blend of different randomly-generated biomes.
Never going to happen.

A few days ago I finally finished playing Fallout 3 after picking it up. (I'm always late to the party).
Made by the same people as Skyrim, this was an earlier game, but unlike Morrowind and Oblivion, I found it modern enough to play. There was sneaking and sniping capability and as you stepped deeper and deeper into the game the stories of the hundreds of NPC inhabitants was gradually revealed. constantly worrying about radiation poisoning and beset by monstrous beasties among a bleak scarred wasteland, it was a fantastically dystopian escape.

Now I've picked up the sequel Fallout:New Vegas, I'm pushing the immersive sandbox experience further by choosing the 'hardcore' mode, which forces you to worry about your Hydration levels, hunger and sleep levels as you play. In many games you might wonder why it's worth the bother but, for me, sandbox games will always be about putting yourself into the character that your imagination has created in synergy with the game developers. When you fire up your game you can step away into a fantasy world that is, in the end, yours to live. The game developers give you an environment and a set f tools and invites you to go crazy and make whatever you can of it.

This feel of realism and freedom is, I think, what will always charm me about the sandbox genre, and I hope to keep playing them for years to come.


After this rather anecdotal entry, here's an update:
I'm currently researching a new Curio, but it may be a few of weeks before I can get it written up. Until then, I hope you enjoy a solid batch of 'Welcome to the Internet' posts and don't forget that you can always keep updated through following me on Blogluvin' or by using the email subscription button to your left.
Finally, if you would like to suggest any questions and oddities that intrigue you for future posts, feel free to drop a line in the comments.

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  1. How'd you find New Vegas, in the end? After sinking far too much of my free time into 3, I just couldn't get into it. Had a wonderful soundtrack and a strong start, but I guess the vast desert didn't grab me like the claustrophobia of the Capitol Wasteland. Oh, and the Dunwich Building. The bloody Dunwich Building.

    I do have a particular favourite sandbox, and that'd be Just Cause 2. It's a huge, gorgeous and visually diverse game that's a blast to just wander around in. Dirt cheap these days as well!

    1. I must admit that I never got that far into New Vegas in the end, I really should get back to it! I think I agree with you about the difference between the desert and the wasteland - the wasteland always seemed to have a story in each element you wanted across, whether it was a robot roaming around or a merchant or just some ruins. New Vegas just didn't seem to have quite the depth or feeling of threat - everything seemed cleaner and more 'civilised', but at the same time had an Old West vibe that I couldn't quite key in with. (I get the same with Red Dead Redemption, really. And - outside of the game world - to a lesser degree with shows like Firefly. I don't know whether it's to do with being English and so cowboys not being part of my culture, or whether it's down to never watching many cowboy films in my childhood, but I can't warm to them easily.)
      I've not seen much of Just Cause - is that the series where you can do slow mo jumps in the air all the time? I had no idea it was sandboxy, I'll have to take a peek :)
      At the moment Father Christmas should be arriving with a Playstation 4 this year, so I'm very excited to give Far Cry 4 and Grand Theft Auto 5 a go soon.

  2. Just Cause 2 is a game where you play an Honestly-Not-CIA-Agent-Nooo sent to bring down a corrupt dictator (why? Just 'cause! :D I'm sorry. I'm so, so sorry). You get about through an infinite supply of parachutes and what may as well be a magic grappling hook. It's almost comically huge (including a city, a vast desert, tropical jungles and marshes, temperate areas and a frigid mountain range), and a great laugh to explore, even if you don't just indulge your destructive fantasies. The core story is pretty forgettable and even after all these years I've never finished it. I just goof around in the sandbox for a wee while when the mood strikes.

    I have to agree with not clicking with the Old West vibe, as I've similar circumstances (Brit, didn't really watch Westerns until adulthood), but I do have a slight thing for the whole "Weird Western" thing, where you take the feel and transplant it outside of the Old West. Things like Firefly (although Browncoats bloody scare me), Borderlands and Cowboy Bebop manage to take the feel (the wide open frontier, adventure, rough and ready justice, civilisation and all it provides including social, moral and financial obligations versus freedom in all its terrible glory, kung-fu geishas) and play around with it elsewhere. But I suppose they have enough of the other stuff (in the case of, say, Borderlands, the corporate warfare of multi-galaxy spanning arms dealers) to keep those of us who didn't grow up on John Wayne, Marshal Dillon and Roy Rogers in on it. I'm afraid to say Red Dead Redemption didn't grab me like it really should (although that's entirely down to the mechanics of the game, after GTAIV I was sick to the back teeth of the control scheme) either. The Undead Nightmare DLC has some lovely music, though.

    I've heard mixed things about GTA V (I'm waiting for the PC version so I can play the multiplayer with friends) but Far Cry 4 seems to have gotten nothing but praise, for the most part. Just watch out for those Honey Badgers.