No more crises in the sandbox
Posted by Troll Racials are Overpowered [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 17 December 2013, 7:30 am
I like urgency in games. I like sandboxes or other non-linear games. I don't like them combined on a large scale. Full disclosure: I used the word sandbox because it sounds better than "No more crises in the non-linear game that also features structured quests" and I'm a paid lobbyist for a national sand and box chain. In related news, silica exposure is an imaginary problem, why do you think crabs don't get lung cancer?

Imagine that a cult is summoning a demon and that this demon is going to more or less destroy the world when it gets here. Certainly you're no going to jump right into saving the world; you are an exceptionally weak mage after all. But after a bit of practice you'd be out there investigating, turning in amulets, and finding bastard offspring. Oblivion is my reference point here, but the general notion is widely applicable in games that allow you to explore while using a crisis as a central plot point. The combination ends up being completely absurd.

The crisis isn't just rumor; it is often directly explained to you. In Oblivion it is what gets you released: the Emperor thinks you're the one who is going to save the world. The world could end tomorrow without your intervention. You opt to join a murder cult and hunt down old trinkets for the nobility. That never showed up in any training montage. Though I suppose it is a bit more directly applicable than painting fences or picking up coats.

Maybe Fallout 3 works better, at being ridiculous. Your father has ditched you and you've been kicked out of your formerly safe home. You set out to find him. But before you save your dad from potential death / reunite with your only family, you first do some things along the way. Some of these make sense: someone has information and wants something in return. There's not much you can do about that. A detour to slaughter a town of slavers or disarm an atomic bomb, that's just what anyone else would do, given the ability. Other things, don't make much sense. Do you leave your dad out there so you can find Future Coke for an addict? What about tackling a housing discrimination case? At some point I started to wonder if my character had an attachment to his father at all, or the reverse, given some of the dialog.

Far Cry 3 features a similar level of insanity. Your friends and one brother have been kidnapped, the other brother killed while you were escaping. Since you're just a jackass frat boy you're not a very good hero for a rescue mission, so logically you spend some time getting tattoos, which in this universe makes you more powerful, so it makes sense. Yet there comes a point when it becomes absurd; you're driving all over the first island for days, capturing pirate outposts, fixing radio towers, and going hunting, and doing nothing at all to rescue your friends or gather intelligence on your enemies. This would at least make some sense if it seemed as if it was the result of the player shaping events through decisions, trying to help the island as a whole before worrying about his friends. The delay is never addressed, and in fact doesn't seem to have happened.

That's one of the persistent oddities in open-world games: what you do in the sandbox stays in the sandbox, while sometimes your actions in the little time bubbles leak out into the sandbox, even undoing your progress or canceling out what you have done.

This is when a more personal (by which I mean selfish) story can come to the rescue, a story based only on the player. In Fallout: New Vegas you get shot in the head and that's about it as far as the main plot goes. You're not destined to save the world. You're just a guy who got shot in the head and probably wants a bit of revenge. Given the difficulty of travel, it's not as if the other guy is going to escape; he thinks you're dead anyway. In this scenario there is no rush at all, so why not go exploring? The world isn't going to wait for you and that's just fine, because as far as you know, you're completely irrelevant.

Or consider a game such as Stalker: Shadow of Chernobyl. You have amnesia and a quest to kill a man, and you don't know from whom. Given that beginning it is not surprising that you'd end up doing some wandering and searching for odd jobs. You're lost in a terribly dangerous place, so making yourself useful to nearby people with information and guns is sensible. Eventually you discover a big mystery and pursue that, but at no point is there a sense that if you're not acting toward goal A, then you're putting your life and the existence of the entire world at risk. Though, it turns out the entire world is at risk, and you might have made things a lot worse, or better, or who can really tell given the strangeness of events in the Zone.

Adding some sort of stagnation/stalemate can help as well. One of my favorite game series ever, Escape Velocity, featured all manner of ongoing wars. But they were stalemates and therefore we could expect them to keep going about as they are without our influence. It helps that in fictional universes outside of Civ IV there is no such thing as war weariness. If the war isn't changing one way or another and you're just another small-time shuttle pilot, why wouldn't you go out and see the galaxy?

We could also look at most MMOs in which something is busily trying to destroy the world, yet for some reason we're off picking apples. Surely the locals would be telling us to get out there and fight. The government would be throwing piles of gold at us to get us back out there. Imagine if General Patton had decided that fighting Rommel just wasn't that pressing and took a detour to go hiking in Peru? We'd have put him in an asylum, or at least threatened to turn the whole operation over to Montgomery, unless the Englishman was off learning the bagpipes as a way to scare rats away from grain silos (if that quest does not yet exist, it should).

I love non-linear games, games where I can choose what to do and when. But when the game is overshadowed by an imminent threat, well that tends to overshadow everything else. It turns side quests from fun distractions into absurd detours that no sane person would start. Yet insanity isn't really an option either, because the games never acknowledge that you were doing anything other than what they told you to do. Instead you're apparently some sort of transubstantialmultidimensionaltwoinone being who is simultaneously inspecting caves for bandits while also not doing so, at either the same time as, before, or after, saving the world.



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