ENG 207 A
Sandbox: Freedom Has a Perimeter
If there's one thing I've learned, it's we must obey the rules of the game. We can pick the game, Niko Bellic, but we cannot change the rules. -- Dimitri Rascalov, GTA IV
For many people, the word “sandbox” recalls childhood memories of concentrated play in a sand-filled enclosure where creativity, exploration, and experimentation were encouraged to flourish. Seemingly endless miniature narratives could be created with the tools at hand: trucks, action figures, shovels and pails. Despite the varied play the sandbox allowed, the play area was often diminutive, perhaps no bigger than four by six feet in size. It is this sense of freedom as contained within strict parameters that is at the core of “sandbox” video games. This essay offers a more precise definition of “sandbox” play and refutes its often synonymous use with “open-world and “open-ended.” Furthermore, the tension between providing “improvisational play” (Weise) while simultaneously creating a cohesive story reveals that the game’s sense of freedom need not necessarily correlate with the amount of control the designer forfeits to the player.
The term “sandbox” is used to denote both a mode of play within a game as well as a game genre. In the first sense, “sandbox mode” is a mode in which game objectives are turned off in an otherwise goal-oriented game, leaving the player to roam in the game’s world (Adams). However, the term’s modern usage generally refers to a specific game genre. Ian Bogost defines game genres in his book, Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Video Games as “… similarities between constitutive procedural representations that produce the on-screen effects and controllable dynamics we experience as players” (14). It is not just the events that take place that define the game’s genre; it’s the process of executing these events.
What are these processes then, which define what a sandbox game is? Nobody seems to have agreed upon a concrete definition. Part of the problem is that the word appears mostly as a buzzword used in marketing to entice potential players seeking a “high-dynamic, non linear story…sprawling, vast and epic” (Van Zelfden). Notwithstanding, nearly all gamers identify certain games, particularly those in the Grand Theft Auto series as having “sandbox” characteristics. Video game industry expert Dan Whitehead proposes that there are “two vital gameplay elements” that define the genre: a specific type of environment and game structure. The environment is one in which exploration is encouraged and is free of levels or boss battles. Like the trucks littered about the real-world sandbox, interactivity with surroundings is an important feature, providing “not merely the setting for the action, but…an active part of the overall gameplay, which affects and reacts to the player as they progress” (Sefton). Some game experts have included “vast, open areas” or “massive environments” but this has been an issue of debate (Van Zelfden, Plante).
The second criterion, game structure, Whitehead argues, must be “non linear” by nature, and one in which the game progress is based on a pace set by the player. Emergent gameplay is also a key feature in that players are able to do things not originally intended by the designer (Van Zelfden). Structurally, sandbox games shouldn’t give the player limitations on a particular order objectives should be executed. Chris Plante echoes this in his article, “All the World’s a Sandbox, when he says that a sandbox game “cannot prevent you from performing these actions prior their instructions without contradicting the game’s open-ended structure.”
“Sandbox” is a recent addition to the gaming industry’s vocabulary. The origin of the term is unknown, but the first game to exhibit “sandbox” traits is a 1984 game entitled Elite (Sefton). Designed by David Braben and Ian Bell, the outer-space themed game has an “open-ended wire frame universe of planets, political systems, economics, trading routes and space stations” (Sefton). At the time it was released, the game was referred to as an “open-world” game, where the player is “left to his devices to explore a large world” (Harris).
Elite gives its players immense choices about how they wish to traverse through and interact with its virtual world. Some theorists have attributed the recent popularity of this structure to a form of player-driven cyber independence. In 1996, John Barlow, founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, wrote “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” in response to the perceived threat of government intervention and content regulation over the internet (Jones). He characterized the government as outsiders, uninitiated to the nuances of the cyberworld: the “weary giants of flesh and steel” (Barlow). The government did not have the right or understanding to police what Barlow saw as an area that should be governed by “collaborative actions…self-interest and commonwealth” and one which could be entered “without privilege or prejudice…a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs” (Barlow). This negative attitude toward external management is apparent in the construction of sandbox games. Bohemia Interactive’s community manager Paul R. Statham says the key to the success of the genre is “[tapping] into our ‘don’t tell me what to do’ mentality. Everybody wants to buck the rules in the real world, so in the virtual world it follows suit” (Sefton). Statham might have clarified his claim: what the players do in the game has been pre-programmed: without tampering with the code of the game, the player cannot rewrite the rules. What is significant, however, is that the player can choose how he wishes to proceed and carry out the game’s objectives. Designers of sandbox games understand that because videogames put the action in the hands of the player, these games can afford a sense of independence lacking in the linearity of literature and film.
Even so, game designers and marketers who describe sandbox games as having a free-roaming, vast environment where players have complete control are greatly overstating and misrepresenting the true nature of the genre. “Sandbox”, “open-world” and “open ended” are often used synonymously to refer to the particular genre, and indeed, most industry insiders and game theorists use them interchangeably (Sefton). However, the implications of these terms often distort the facts. Weise notes the problem with defining a sandbox game as simply “open-ended” is that “in the loosest sense almost any game that does not funnel player navigation into some obvious path could be considered sandbox.” The problem with “open-world” is that it connotes endless expanse and freedom, which skews the reality of the mechanics of the gameplay. The player cannot simply go anywhere he chooses to nor “do anything he wants to” (Adams). The scope of the environment is limited by artistic choice, budgetary, hardware, and programmatic constraints. Although a wide range of actions might be at the disposal of the player, the cause-effect deterministic relationships between player and program have all been coded beforehand by the designer (Sorens). More important than scope, Weise claims, is depth, which “does not have to be sacrificed for size”. In this way, the term “sandbox” is an apt name. There is freedom, but it is always constrained by the tools given and the parameters of the environment.
The constraints that run against player choice are not just inconveniences due to limited technology, money, or artistic vision, but rather a necessary component of the sandbox genre. Taken to its extreme, freedom is absence of all constraints- an empty, borderless, (sandy) expanse. “How can designers plan a cause-effect narrative,” asks Chris Plante, “when the player has unlimited choices?” The answer is of course that they cannot. If sandbox games are defined by “unlimited choices” or endless possibility, then the genre might exist only in theory. Designer David Cage believes that there are no “absolutely real” sandbox games since “it’s only a list of scripted things, but there are so many of them and you can play them in any order, you get the feeling that you’re in sandbox” (Sheffeld). Although game developers often tout the “do anything” attitude of sandbox games, a lack of structure can take away from the intended experience. There is a misconception that giving the player absolute power to create the narrative is preferable to one laid out by the designer. Without direction, the player can easily become frustrated or bored in even the most elaborate sandbox games. The very limitations implemented by the designers often serve to emphasize the powers the players are given. Grand Theft Auto IV’s sense of player choice and freedom are immense, yet the game is nonetheless made up of “rule-based models…capable of many outcomes,” yet “conforming to the same overall guidelines.” (Bogost 4).
“Sandbox” invokes deeper examination into the meaning of “freedom” and “structure” and shows that the two terms need not be mutually exclusive. Just as in the virtual world, a real life sandbox is necessarily limited by its size and contents, but these do not have to encroach on the participant’s sense of possibility. Game designers are attentive to the weariness gamers have toward imposed limitations in game design. It is the same fear that fueled Barlow’s declaration – that of undiscerning restrictions which he sees as a threat to liberty and creativity. Such external influences need not be opposed to player choice. Perhaps developer Cevat Yerli’s comment regarding “sandbox” games as a “player’s game, not the designer’s game” is meant only to remind the game designers of their first priority: giving the gamer the tools necessary to entertain themselves. Bogost reminds the skeptics that computers (and analogously, the game engines that dictate the procedures executed in video games) are often misconstrued as “frustrating, limiting and simplistic, not because they execute processes, but because they are frequently programmed to execute simplistic processes” (Bogost 7). Thankfully, this does not have to be the case. Bogost sums up: “While we often think that rules always limit behavior, the imposition of constraints also creates expression” (Bogost 7).
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