The Philosopher-Geek has already written a very good post on the meaningful game, and that might be important to read before you step into this one, because I’m going to investigate two specific traits that he lists in that post. The specific traits I am interested in discussing are: 1. The Meaningful Game does not allow the player’s choices or possible actions to derail the game or contradict its characters, and 2. The Meaningful Game does not contain side-quests. These two points are most commonly bungled in games that reflect the “sandbox,” “free-roaming,” or “open-world” style of design, and so I’d like to investigate the narrative challenges that appear when building such a game, and address the apparent sliding scale between depth and width, or freedom and consistency. But I’ll start by defining what I mean by “sandbox” and “open-world,” and addressing why such models are popular.
Absolute Freedom, Mostly
As has been previously noted in various posts, one of the distinctive qualities of games (both video and role-playing) is the interactivity of a game, or the control that the player has over a character, country, and/or narrative. Games express this freedom in a variety of ways, but it’s hard to argue that the greatest expression of character freedom can be found in games that fit the sandbox model.
Now, open-world games are slightly different than sandbox games, but they reflect a similar desire and have similar aims. Open-world games are an answer to the “levels” of early gaming, which offered linear environments experienced in a pre-determined sequence. These games more closely resembled the style of art and entertainment that came before (mimicking novels or films), since the only real freedom that players could exert was often through the physical behavior of their avatar character, and potential ends were either “Success,” if the player bested the challenges of the game, or “Failure,” if the player did not perform adequately. Even games that did not have a defined order to levels, such as Mega Man, placed similar structure before the character. An open-world game seeks to break down the artificial barriers between discrete elements of a game’s environment, instead including it all in one “world.” However, it is important to note that there are always limits to a game world; all of it must be programmed, and there will always be walls enclosing the player, whether they are invisible, illusory, a level-wrap (think Pac-Man), or enforced by a character’s refusal to leave the area of narrative importance. So open-world games are defined more explicitly by their refusal to draw boundaries between sections of the game and the ability to freely explore those sections.
Sandbox games are often synonymous with open-world games because they essentially do to narrative constraints what open-world games do to environments, and it’s easier for that narrative freedom to be expressed in an open-world than a level-based game. Sandbox games will occasionally do away with the notion of a main plot, but for the most part the plot is available as one option among many, and sometimes the player can ignore the main plot (and thus the whole notion of “completing” the game) to instead pursue other tasks in the game-world. Thus, sandbox games often feature prolific and prodigious side-quests, if they are not composed entirely of small missions that avoid a main plot completely. Sandbox games encounter the same internal paradox as open-world games, namely that there is a limit to what the game can offer. Just as there must be artificial constraints regarding the size of the world, there remain artificial constraints in the narrative (or non-narrative) structure of sandbox games, such that eventually the player will simply run out of things to do or run into situations where the world cannot be interacted with in a specific way. So just as open-world games are defined by their refusal to draw boundaries between “levels,” sandbox games are defined by their refusal to draw boundaries between “right task” or “plot task” and “other game actions.” In other ways, it does not proscribe how the player should play the game beyond the natural constraints that programming only a certain number of ways that the player’s avatar can interact with the world generates.
This style of game is so popular precisely because it gives a great deal of a certain type of freedom to the player. The player may tackle tasks that the player is most invested in, and in the order that the player wishes. It also allows the player to set his or her own pace in the game, which could be a good or a bad thing; I’ll address this in a bit. Essentially, these games offer thousands of nuggets of experience, and the player is allowed to pick and choose which nuggets he or she will “consume”, and in which order. The game is a gateway to a large buffet of potential experiences. However, I think that this proclaimed freedom can be a trap for the player as much as a boon, and I also think it’s worth evaluating whether the pursuit of more freedom in-game is a worthy task, and especially whether this pursuit generates better art, or at least allows the player to either better access good experiences in a game, or access better experiences within a game. I’d also like to investigate whether this model of game better lends itself to certain sorts of narrative; after all, structure and mechanics may benefit one type of story, and render another less enjoyable or completely inaccessible. By the end of the article, I hope to identify what sorts of stories the sandbox style best serve, and what types of stories sandbox games should avoid.
The Cost of Freedom
In Polishing the Diamond, Enlightening the Mind, Jae Woong Kim writes “Absolute freedom is loneliness.” I think that this describes my average experience with sandbox games. Take Oblivion as our first example. In order to give the player maximum freedom in the production of this character, the player starts the game by generating a character of any race and with any set of favored abilities (or ways to interact with the game), regardless of whether these choices are intelligent decisions or not. The choice of race does have some small influence on your abilities (sometimes a big influence), but it has very, very small narrative repercussions. Your abilities can determine what narratives you have access to in-game, but the choice itself has no impact on the narrative.
In almost all ways, your character is a blank slate; moreover, the tools that the game give you to flesh out that character’s personality are not very diverse, nor does the game as a whole take much notice. In the pursuit of giving the player absolute freedom in his or her environment, the depth of distinct narratives (that contain specific main characters, a unified theme, and a cohesive “plot”) tends to be shallow, short, and emotionally stunted. It is hard to lay this failure at the feet of the writers; after all, they’re responsible for thousands of non-player characters. In an attempt to give as wide an experience as possible, and to provide such a diverse range of experiences (including radically divergent systems of mechanics within a single game, such as a stealth system, magic system, melee combat system, ranged combat system, leveled systems for everything from alchemy to armor, and the attempted unification of these systems) and narrative support for each experience means that the game is spread thin. If more focus is given to any one portion of the game, then whole systems might have gotten the axe… probably including the “Axe” skill.
The player never has a dearth of options in Oblivion, but unfortunately every option provides a narrative about as fulfilling as any other game’s side-quest. Oblivion falls short of being a Meaningful Game simply because the player rarely, if ever, feels that anything meaningful is going on, and his player character is meaningful and interesting only because the player inhabits him or her. This would be less of a problem if interesting characters populated the world, but they don’t.
If you’re unfamiliar with Oblivion and games like it, here is an example of a single quest. The game is absolutely full of situations like these, and it displays the level of depth that all but a few characters in the game display. I am fairly certain that the designers of Oblivion were more interested in creating the broad experience of “There is a whole world out there waiting for me to interact with it in minor ways” than the experience of “I am a person doing meaningful things.” This is generally true of most sandbox games; the veneer of freedom and option comes at the sacrifice of depth, emotionality and meaning.
Oblivion lends credence to the depth vs. width scale, that if a game grows wider in options and content, then that content will be less deep and reactive. While this scale isn’t a given, it is useful in expressing why the events of the game are not often compelling or engaging, at least when assessed as a narrative. While player freedom is what makes video games a unique art form, if that freedom is viewed as an end (high freedom equals a good game) instead of a means (player choice is a vehicle through which we can tell a compelling story suited to the medium), then it will not produce a Meaningful Game.
The fact is that it is difficult to create a video game with a compelling narrative or, perhaps more accurately, few video games succeed at presenting a compelling narrative. I also believe that, for a game to be meaningful (and quality art), its elements must be quality. If such a game has a narrative, then it must be a quality narrative. It’s my opinion, then, that if a sandbox game presents a single, “main” narrative, then the entire sandbox must exist within the narrative in order for the game to be meaningful, and probably in order for the game to be quality art. There are also alternatives to a single main narrative, which I’ll get to in the next section.
Oblivion is indicative of most sandbox experiences in that, while it is the product of a great deal of work and effort, and is certainly admirable in many respects, it fails to be meaningful due to its shallowness and the derivative quality of its content. In other words, for all their scope, and arguably because of their scope, sandbox games tend to be bad art.
Paper Beats Rock, Sandbox Beats Story
The sandbox is popular for a reason: there are a lot of things to like about the sandbox. Player freedom IS interesting, and the ability to set your own pace and access the content that you find interesting sooner rather than later can be a good thing. Moreover, I don’t think that the narrative failings of most sandboxes are a trait of the sandbox, but it does seem to indicate that simultaneously creating a central narrative and a sandbox is a self-defeating route. The typical narrative formula seen in most games clashes with the notion of absolute player freedom, either generating massive inconsistencies in character or plot, or simply forcing the character or plot to be so empty that they merely serve as a rough motivator for the events of the game (or the plot that’s there because they said we needed a plot), which both generate bad art.
In some tales, the sandbox style simply does not make sense. In any narrative in which there is an important central narrative and the side-events detract from pursuing a larger, more pressing issue, a sandbox does not suit the narrative. The first article on the meaningful game spoke on side-quests, and the points that Bill made regarding them holds just as true for the way that sandboxes interact with central narratives, so I won’t tread over that ground again. For the most part, then, I will argue that sandbox games should not attempt to follow any sort of linear narrative; they simply aren’t suited to that type of story. Infamous, Fallout 3, Grand Theft Auto… these games are all fun, but they all have a central narrative that falls flat because of its location in a sandbox, and because the developers decided that having a sandbox was more important than making the story worthwhile and compelling.
Assassin’s Creed (the first one; the second begins to lose this trait) is an example of a game that successfully builds a central narrative into a sandbox style game. This is because the narrative is in no way sacrificed to player freedom, because Altair’s goals are always paramount and are the source of all his actions, because even “filler” activities often use the opportunity to further characterize Altair and the world he lives in, and because there is very little in the game that isn’t designed to belong within the “central” experience and narrative. Hunting down flags and random templar begins to feel a little game-like, but the game predominantly rewards actions that drive the game along, thus maintaining a proper pace, and, more importantly, never interrupting the distance between the player and Altair. Most sandbox games do not feature so stellar an implementation; Assassin’s Creed’s focus on story and consistency is the exception.
Therefore, I argue that in order for the sandbox to be meaningful, the developers must avoid simply slapping a typical, straightforward, novel- or blockbuster-style narrative onto a sandbox and expecting it to be successful. Different forms often demand a change in convention and structure, and the sandbox rarely receives proper treatment in this regard; instead, if a narrative exists, it is a typical, straightforward affair strung like a thin thread through the middle of the sandbox, and its quality is usually poor or, at best, roughly equal to the quality of the narrative in the rest of the game.
But It Doesn’t Have To Be This Way
Sandbox games could become much more meaningful if they followed Assassin’s Creed’s example, but the truth is that the traditional narrative model doesn’t function as well in a sandbox (even AC has regular slip-ups, becoming derivative here and there). Luckily, there are many kinds of story, and many ways to incorporate story into a sandbox.
Right now, the most obvious model of heroic story-telling is what we see in novels and action/adventure films. These are long-form stories with high stakes, and they typically feature a consistent build in tension and conflict until the “final confrontation,” in which the hero vanquishes the villain that has tormented him or her for so long. It is this model, the single, uninterrupted, building hero narrative, that is most commonly seen in games, and sandbox games often wind up with this sort of narrative simply because games today need narratives, and sticking to the mold is either the obvious choice, the only perceived option, or the choice that seems likely to sell best, since it has worked so well in nearly every other game.
But if we step outside of video games for a moment, we can see that there are many ways to tell a hero narrative; heroes don’t just exist in novels and feature-length films. The models exhibited by television shows (i.e Buffy, Star Trek, Veronica Mars) and collections of short stories (i.e Elric and Conan) offer a powerful alternative to the feature-length narrative, and even contain methods of breaking up a central narrative or doing away with the central narrative altogether. Conan stories are strung together by the character, nothing more; Star Trek: The Next Generation is a continuous tale because it deals with the same characters, but for the most part each episode is a reset. There is some sense of “whole story,” in that the individual tales are linked, but the tales can be accessed individually, and there is no design for a grand narrative that builds to a huge pay-off.
In my opinion, the tropes and models of these short-form stories provide a much better rubric for sandbox games than do central narratives. Instead of declaring one particular series of events the “main” story and making everything else filler, this model would realize that a sandbox game is really trying to tell a whole host of stories, but would remove the temptation to let the narrative’s quality slide. I expect that, in order for the average sandbox game to be a meaningful game, the developers will have to take cues from television shows and short stories, and so seek to tell tales of limited scope and, hopefully, with a consistently high value of emotional content and meaning.
I’m curious to know what you think about this idea. I suspect that a paradigm shift is what’s required for sandbox games to become meaningful and manageable; do you agree? Or do you think that the problem lies elsewhere?