So, I saw the other day that No Man’s Sky developers at Hello Games are continuing to work on and develop their game, much to the happiness of those who still play, or have started playing. Along with this development is a growing list of what we might call “accomplishments” such as mapping black holes in that galaxy, reaching the galaxy center, and building works of architecture—all of which speaks to Hello Games’ understanding that the game they continue to build on is a true “sandbox” game. Like Minecraft, the developers have and continue to provide tools for doing whatever the players’ imaginations or inclinations might allow within the current parameters of No Man’s Sky.
But, this is an article about sandbox games in general, not a review of No Man’s Sky. The average reader or gamer could be forgiven for asking just what makes a “sandbox” game? Answering this question is hampered by the mixing and applying of other terms, such as “open world” or “free roaming” game, so let me set forth a definition that, of course, will be subject to challenge and questioning itself: A sandbox game, as I shall be dealing with it in this article, is a game like No Man’s Sky, which provides players with a toolset to do certain things in the game bounded only by the limitations of the game design itself, and their own imagination. It is also a game which allows for extensive, if not total exploration of every single available space within the current design, and does not primarily feature a “grand narrative” that drives or imposes consequences, obstacles, or de facto events that emerge from some preconceived society, culture, history, people, significant figures, conflicts, or other story-based elements. In this respect, the players create whatever narratives and stories occur within the game, absent any larger ongoing narrative that guides, influences, or directs their actions. In this respect, we would call Eve a sandbox, while World of Warcraft is not, though they are both also MMOs.
The importance of writing and narrative
Beyond providing this working definition, it also struck me upon reading the news I’ve mentioned above about No Man’s Sky that I have little, if any, interest in playing a sandbox game, such as I have defined it. Indeed, among my purchases and game library, I find likewise few, if any examples of such games. To those who might at this moment knee-jerk and rattle off “no experience, no grounds to speak,” I am compelled to remind those of you that one does not need to stick their hand on a hot stove to know it will sear their flesh. We can know quite a lot about things we’ve given careful and thoughtful study to that we have not personally experienced.
But, more to the point, is the question of why I have such a dearth of interest in sandboxes. Truly, for me, as a writer and someone who adores words and stories, character development, plot twists, and perhaps something so well detailed and realistically believable that I might indulge in the simple process of learning all there is to know about its lore, background, and events, I find myself at odds with sandbox design.
It’s a bit like reading a roleplay or fan-fiction forum; there are stories there, narratives, characters, events—sure, but they’re all created by the various participants of that forum, who, as anyone who has frequented such places knows, come in all skill levels and capabilities. Unfortunately, most are simply not all that interesting. The underlying, primordial truth emerges in such places: writing is hard.
In sandboxes, then, we are left with the offerings such people, creating their own works, offering their own narratives, can provide, and sadly, these are perhaps passably interesting in their own right, but rarely rise above the rest in any significant way to become truly inspiring, captivating, and memorable. This is not to discount those that do, and there are some fan-fiction and roleplay stories I’ve read and participated in that have been very memorable and captivating, but like the player-created architecture in one of the articles I linked above, these peaks of player creation are the rare moments of talent, hard work, and capability that rise above a sea of mediocrity.
An anti-narrative design
Indeed, I don’t even wish to lay the blame entirely at the feet of this fan-fiction creating player-base. By their very design, which excludes any developer/writer provided grand, over-arching narrative of any tangible influence and interactive presence, sandboxes inevitably tend to limit the reach and co-opting potential that any significant narrative may have. To be sure, such grand events, with enough people behind them, may coalesce and carry out some significant action that affects a critical threshold of players across the “world” of the sandbox—but, again, these events are rare, and often short-lived. Before long, the waves die down, and the lake of the sandbox returns to its placid, localized nature of minor ripples in local places that do not disturb much of the rest of the lake.
So everyone gets their own little piece of the world, Fallon; why is that such a problem?
Well, because it’s not realistically believable. Now, before you scoff and tell me that games set in a fictional universe, whether they be the Elder Scrolls or Dragon Age games, are likewise “not realistic,” I must stop you in your tracks. One of the most crucial elements of a good story is its “believability,” rather than its actual truth. It’s the same with lies; the more believable they are, the more effective and successful they are at getting people to buy into them. And ultimately, that’s one of the things that makes a story “grab” you—its inherent believability; that it could happen, it could be true.
Take any piece of science fiction that has captivated and enthralled a great number of people, and I am willing to bet that as long as we adjust and project certain factors of our own universe into as yet unknown or unrealized possibilities, there’s a case to be made that they could potentially happen. Religion, too, in its own way, works off of a believable premise—true or not—that what one believes in, has faith in, could indeed be possible, and indeed, to many believers, is convincingly so to the point that these believers will act accordingly in their own lives in line with this belief.
But what is there to believe in with a sandbox? We already know that the stories are local, that the events are created at the grass-roots level of a random assortment of imaginations. We already know that there’s no over-arching narrative, or if there is, it’s as invisible and non-existent as anything else. Essentially, to draw on the religious analogy above, sandbox games suffer from a kind of atheistic, secular, nearly-absolute relativistic totality—they’re whatever you want them to be, because nothing really exists anyway, beyond what you make of it. And that’s… less than inspiring to someone like me.
Our pre-existing world matters
When we’re born into the world, it precedes us; it determines—to a significant extent—who we are, who we may become, and the conditions and challenges we must navigate in order to make the choices available to us along that path. It determines the potential and possibilities for our survival, our creativity, our freedoms, our relationships, our lifespans. In many ways, then, traditional RPG’s, adventure games, MMO’s, and other games that have this pre-exisiting world-order, complete with history, cultures, conflicts, significant people, places, and events, are more realistically believable and aligned with the reality each of us endure and live in on a daily basis than sandboxes.
Sandboxes do away with all of that. It’s tabula rasa—a blank slate—with them; there’s no history, no overarching storyline, no governments, prejudices, and cultural biases that precede and confront us, no conflicts and propaganda, no lineages and legends. In all of these ways and more, sandboxes are an escape from reality; a place where you can go to get away from all of that. And what’s wrong with that? Children do this all the time; they escape into imaginary dreamscapes that exist like some kind of augmented reality in place of or on top of furniture and familiar places. They exit the world of rules, adults, reality as they know it, and replace it with one they’d rather indulge in for awhile—a little reality of their own making.
And I think that’s all well and good—except that the fact still remains that the very embodiment of this pseudo-alternate reality is that it is not a believable reality, and really, is divorced from such intentionally. That’s how it functions—as an escape from, not an acknowledgment or acceptance, of any kind of believable reality. It seeks to move away from, ignore, or perhaps outright deny the constraints of a more believable reality, in exchange for a personal one of one’s own making, outside of and removed from that surrounding context. For those for whom reality, or anything like it, is a daily, hourly, oppressive suffocation, a straight-jacket of limitations, this may even be the kind of release, the kind of escape that they so desperately need.
But ultimately, that’s about as much as a sandbox facilitates.
You might ask, “Couldn’t players ultimately come together to form a kind of sandbox civilization?”
I’m certainly willing to allow that as a possibility, and I think at times it has indeed happened, albeit briefly. But then, consider: if such a civilization(s) were to arise, there would come with it all the trappings of reality that I’ve marked and noted above: history, significant figures, events, places, conflicts, culture, and so much more. Ultimately, there would be an overarching order, a grand narrative, and–poof!–the sandbox will ultimately have become an MMO or RPG with more in common with Elder Scrolls or the Witcher.
Any new participants, players, would be immediately immersed in such an ordered society, being so pervasive as to transform and colonize the sandbox from what it is, as I’ve defined it above, to something other than a sandbox—a believable reality complete with constraints, challenges, prejudices, history, values, order, and codes; all of which would restrain and constrict the inherent escapist freedom that a player would normally have, and probably desire in their choosing a sandbox game.
In fact, it’d be rather ironically understandable that, if such a player-initiated order happened in a sandbox game, newcomers might be turned away, having chosen this game with the intent of escaping the trappings of reality, and being confronted with yet another reality with those same trappings. How disappointing to such a player would that be?
For all of that, sandbox games lack the overarching structure and narrative of any society, culture, economy, or basic reality that we have ever lived in, in which you cannot just go wherever, or do whatever, without consequences. A reality in which there are power structures, and grand narratives, and sets of choices that have been put before you before you ever get to make a decision. A reality in which there is a composed world with a history and life of its own beyond you and your desires that has pre-existed your appearance, your existence, and has already has been in motion for a long, long time. A world that will go on without you, a world that goes beyond you, and indeed beyond any single individual within it. Your existence is a role, a place within that reality, within that world, not beyond, outside, or removed from it so that you might create your own.
For my part, I would rather immerse myself in a universe like Star Wars or Warhammer 40k over a sandbox like No Man’s Sky, simply because it does have structure and narratives that you have to live within, that there’s context you have to acknowledge. It is a world bigger than our own creative imaginings, and there is a case to be made that a creativity constrained and bounded within the limits and rules of such a world context is pushed to transcend to a much-sought-after mixture of imagination and believability that seems very much like the world we know in many ways, and yet offers a vision beyond that which we have made for ourselves.
And even in such pre-existing worlds, we might still create for ourselves little pocket dimensions and moments of escape, which become all the more valuable because of that larger reality in which we might play or exist.