Do Sandbox Games Even Need Main Missions?

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Yeah this is a brazen question to ask and it is partly to draw attention, but it get’s at the conflict I’ve been seeing in many open-world games made over the last few years, mainly action sandbox games in the Grand Theft Auto tradition. Of course sandbox games can have good main missions, but in a great many of them, main missions seem to actually detract from the central appeal of the game.

I just followed up Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag with its Freedom Cry expansion, and I see the same problem in it I saw in the base game. The ironic thing is, in Ubisoft’s obsession with open-world games, every time it makes one it seesm to actually come up with a pretty fun sandbox gameplay loop. They even manage to be pretty unique from game to game. But then Ubisoft always feels the need to bury that fun, unique sandbox game inside the most boring, tried-and-true AAA corridor imaginable.

In my previous post I already talked about how Black Flag is another typical Creed game that happens to contain a really good Caribbean pirate simulator. Freedom Cry is another typical mini Creed game that contains a surprisingly fun Django Unchained and Catcher Freeman simulator. The song at the beginning of that video is a pretty good summary of what you do in this game, and should have been its sole sea shanty.

I was shocked by how brazenly this game has you go into plantations and outright slaughter the overseers to free the salves. You walk right up to slave auctions and butcher the auctioneers in front of crowds of prospective buyers to free those slaves. Literally every five minutes you’ll encounter an escaped slave running away from an overseer you can casually cut apart on your way somewhere. You do all this with a machete, to the tune of what sounds like the music from Hotel Rwanda. Then you go out and raid slave ships on some Amistad-type business. It’s simple, and probably unecessarily violent, but man is it a fun combination of sandbox gameplay and an extremely serious theme for a video game to tackle. I just wish it didn’t have this pesky main quest full of tailing missions. I’m not playing another Creed game with tailing missions in it.

Similarly, Far Cry 3 is a pretty cool open-world exploration game with a loop involving stealth gunfights and surviving vicious animals. It’s just also chock full of uninteresting linear shooting missions. I’ve heard very similar things about Far Cry 4. This isn’t even a problem unique to Ubisoft. In my opinion Rockstar suffers from it too.

Other than the nigh-unplayable controls until now, my biggest gripe with all the previous GTA games I’ve tried is the structure of their main missions seems to be in conflict with the core sandbox loop. I have to not have the police chasing me in order to start a main mission, so I have to drive around to avoid them before coming back to where that mission starts… if I don’t screw up and attract the police again (I’ve already talked about how clumsy I am with GTA’s controls). Sometimes sandbox elements like police chases can ruin my attempts at main missions, and many GTA missions are probably more linear than they should be in a sandbox game. This is also a massive problem in Creed, particularly during tailing missions. Basically, in a lot of open-world games, the open-ended sandbox and linear main missions are like oil and water.

More importantly, linear main missions weren’t originally a part of the sandbox formula. It’s probably why just screwing around is still the main appeal of GTA. The Elite series follows the same philosophy, the 1984 original having been an early inspiration for GTA, just with space ships. To this day the series neglects to include any “main” story and simply asks players to sort of exist in its universe and do whatever they want within its systems. No Man’s Sky is pretty much going to be the same thing.

The Elder Scrolls games are RPGs and thus follow a different school of design with only superficial similarities to sandbox games, but they suffer a similar problem: a lot of people spend hundreds of hours playing them without touching their main quests. I recently read a post where someone described their attempt to play Skyrim as an ordinary alcoholic old man (with the alternate start mod) whose primary goal was to get wasted. They’d hang around bars and eventually resort to stealing in order to pay for beer, getting into bar fights and eventually getting chased out of at least one town by the guards. This shows how deep Bethesda’s systems are without needing a traditional campaign.

Of course, there are examples of missions that take better advantage of the fact that they’re occurring within a sandbox game. My favorite campaign for a Ubisoft open-world game is still Far Cry 2. Instead of making you do trails of specific actions, it just hands you a place and a goal, leaving everything in-between up to you. This allows for those mission to interact with the world’s emergent gameplay systems without breaking down. The main story even diverges based on player choices.

Looking forward, it’s going to be interesting how 2015’s open world games compare. The Witcher 3 is firmly in the RPG school of design, but if you want to count those their choice-based quest design is another good example of storylines taking advantage of sandbox gameplay. CDProjekt in particular is known for its quest writing and design. Judging by what we’re hearing about Witcher 3’s AI and some of its other systems, it seems like outside the main quest it’s mainly going to be about hunting monsters and managing the relationship between humans and wildlife.

Elite: Dangeous is coming out on consoles fairly soon and it’ll be interesting seeing console owners’ response to it ahead of No Man’s SkyNo Man’s Sky will have a main “objective,” but it seems like it will stand alone with no mission design whatsoever leading to it.

The game I’m most curious about in this regard is Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. It’s coming at the open-world idea from a Japanese perspective which is usually directly opposed to what sandbox games are about. Gameplay videos almost make it seem like it’s taking some of the positive qualities of Far Cry 2 into its mission design, but what will players actually do in the world outside those missions?

Anyway, pretty soon here I’m finally going to start Just Cause 2, so I’m probably going to be thinking about this further. If I find the time I might even run through Red Faction Guerrilla again.

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2 thoughts on “Do Sandbox Games Even Need Main Missions?

  1. Machocruz says:

    MGS games have already been far better sandboxes than a lot of games specifically labeled “sandbox.” In my estimation, the quality of a sandbox game isn’t the size or shape of the box, but the sand and toys within, i.e manipulable systems and objects, room to create and experiment. Sandbox =/= open world, necessarily, I remember people spending hours on the MGS2 demo coming up with ways to mess with the guards on the tanker. The guard AI was the sand. All the different uses for items were like the toys a child brings with them to affect the sand, the shovels and pails, etc.

    On the flip side, how is Witcher 3 going to let you play with physics, AI behavior, item/material interactions, etc? The other two games were static, nailed down. Not much room to mess around and see what results.

    I think all the games you mentioned could use better sand overall, not just their main missions. Less focus on large, persistent worlds, more on the content; on complex, interacting systems; on more items with multiple uses. I checked out some ‘Nanosuit Ninja’ Crysis videos, and the level to which you could play around with your various tools was impressive. I saw the player do a lot of things I never thought of, and it seemed like it allowed for more experimentation and interesting setups than the following Crysis games, or the FarCry games,despite the game’s world being split into chapters and the steady forward momentum. It’s the little things that matter: being able to attach C4 to various objects, and then manipulate those objects is a whole branch in itself. Being able to cloak and get the lay of the land before you put your plan in motion is a great boon to creative chaos. GTA and Saints Row missions lack the ability for you to set up the arena before the enemy arrives or is aware of you. Saints Row 2 and 3 had assassination missions where you could kind of control when and where the enemy AI arrives, but the interactions and items’ uses were limited in their scope.

    But with mainstream game development’s distaste for complexity, I’m afraid we are stuck with rigid “sand” for a while. Maybe independent development will reach a technical stage where budgets are large enough for complex interactions and emergent play in large environments, while low enough to not have to cater to the lowest levels of player competence.

    • RedSwirl says:

      I admit the definition of “Sandbox” game can me fluid and nebulous. What I was really talking about was the design tradition that came out of 80’s and early 90’s PC gaming, spawning titles like Elite and later GTA. They share a family tree of sorts.

      It seems what you want are more systemic games in general. Metal Gear definitely fits that description depending on how you look at it, including the original MSX games. The deeper, more intimate interlocking systems you describe however are more common to what some call “immersive simulators” like Deus Ex, Thief, System Shock, Dishonored, and even Elder Scrolls. Some say Ultima Underworld, a first person RPG that pre-dates the first DOOM, is still the ultimate game in this regard. What I hear in previews concerning Witcher 3’s AI systems suggest it’s going to be a little like that, but will still mostly focus on its story. It’ll probably feel less nailed down than Witcher 2.

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