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Why Sandbox Games Can Ruin Storytelling


With the launch of what may be the greatest sandbox game ever made in GTA V, I began to wonder about the future of good stories in gaming. 

Don't get me wrong, I like sandbox games. I do think that freedom of choice, to an extent, can make a game much more immersive and enjoyable. But at what cost comes this freedom? How can you tell a story in a game, when the player can choose to ignore it? Developers have to take certain steps in order to keep things on track, and we might be losing some of the magic in the process. 

Proof of concept: Skyrim. I absolutely love Skyrim. It is a personal favorite of mine, and I've explored just about everything the game has to offer. Which is a lot. 

The reason I'm saying this is to avoid people who might think that I don't like it. While not without its flaws, Skyrim may just be my favorite game of all time. It is every RPG player's dream come true, in my shitty opinion. 

Now, I'll have to assume that there are some people out there who haven't played the game, or at least haven't played some of the quests which I'm about to use as example. So here is a brief synopsis:

If you play a Mage in Skyrim, you usually join the Winterhold College. It is basically a wizarding school (High-five if you thought of Hogwarts!). It has its own awesome quest line, for which I am about to give some MASSIVE SPOILERS!

Consider yourself warned. 

At a certain point, the high-elf Ancano decides to take over the College by using the power of the Orb of Magnus (which is a bigass orb of power you find in a dungeon), causing some major mayhem in the process. As soon as you realize this, a teacher comes running to warn you that Ancano has released some magical creatures at the nearby city of Winterhold. Creatures are attacking everything on sight, killing innocent people. You need to gather some fellow mages and stop them before the entire city is destroyed!

Now when I got to this point in the game, my character had just returned from a major dungeon. I was carrying a ton of loot to sell, had to store a few things at home, brew a few potions, the usual. Also, it was past 4am and I had to work in a few hours. But, the way the story was presented gave me no choice.

I had to save those people. Time was of the essence. I would go, save the city, then come back, stuff a few lightning bolts down Ancano's throat, then go to bed. And that's what I did.

Now, to the point: the game gives me freedom to choose. I could have left everything burning at Winterhold, fast travel to the other side of the land, and go for a drink. Or maybe go to Whiterun and craft me some nails. That seems important. I can go kill Nazeem. (I'll drag your dead ass all the way through the Cloud District, deepshit).
I can come back and save Winterhold another time. I can leave my horse to die there and never come back.

But what happens to the story then? Had I gone to sell my loot, or even gone to bed, wouldn't the impact and sense of urgency of the moment be completely lost? What kind of immersion can you get from returning to Winterhold weeks later, to find the city still in the process of being destroyed by the same creatures you chose to ignore? What the hell would the Dovahkiin think when he saw all that?

"Oh right. Magical Creatures. Death and destruction. I totally forgot about that. Sorry guys..."

Had I left the city to its own devices and gone to sell my loot, I'd have ruined a great chapter in the College questline. Maybe even the entire story. I would come back much later, but everyone would act as if I was there the entire time. Very immersion breaking. But hey, I can do whatever the hell I want, right?

This kind of thing leaves writers and developers with their hands tied. This NPC "brainfreeze" is the best option they have. Its virtually impossible to predict what every player will decide to do on every scenario, and to program reactions accordingly.

The same concept applies to a lot of different scenarios in a lot of different games. Sometimes writers go out of their way to create some fantastic stories that pull you in. But at the end of the day, you have to let yourself get pulled in. Otherwise, you will always be on shallow waters.

So, yes, the freedom to fire a rocket at the guy who gives you quests is fun. But is it really worth it? Aren't sandbox games making everything a little more shallow?

Let me know what you think in the comments below!
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About Nocturlabeone of us since 8:05 AM on 10.07.2013

Old-school gamer that spends most of his free time playing something. Loves old games, but goes crazy when a new great game is launched. Has some serious trouble sleeping, so most of his gaming (and writing) is done on a caffeine-or-alcohol induced trance. RPG fanatic, played pen-and-paper before cRPGs. Holds the world record for most hours logged on Neverwinter Nights. Former Fifa 1st Division player, is now retired due to anger management issues. Thinks Ashly Burch is the most awesome person on earth. Highly addicted to coffee. Also, I'm a 80's and 90's pop culture lover and connaisseur. I will use references. Be warned.

Why no personal info? Because for the time being, all I want is to share my opinion with the community, to see if I am crazy, or if maybe I do know a few things. Be sure to let me know.