Linear Or Sandbox Game — Why Not Both?


The sentiment I’m starting to sense is that a lot of people are speaking out against the sort of resurgence of open-world games we’ve seen in this new console generation. I believe I already covered how I think we’re just getting too many bad open-world games, but I think another problem is how right now it seems like we have to choose between open-world or super-linear. There used to be a middle-ground that mostly isn’t there anymore.

I think most of the most hyped games of 2015 are open-world: The Witcher 3, Batman: Arkham KnightMad MaxJust Cause 3, and even the old traditional franchise Metal Gear has gone open-world. Maybe Metal Gear was just the last straw for some people who think too many developers are relying on open-world as a selling point. Maybe they’re right. I’ve already pointed out how some games are just open-world in order to add a bunch of filler so some people won’t trade them in to GameStop within two days.

In my post about Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag I laid out how I think there are basically two good reasons to make a game open-world: 1) Making a sandbox where the player can do whatever they want like Grand Theft Auto or Minecraft, and 2) making a world full of secrets for players to discover like Zelda or most role-playing games. Games in the second category however need very carefully-designed worlds with good level design. A lot of open-world games these days start out as the first category, then fill the map with icons to “discover” in order to pretend they’re also the second category. You could actually hold up Witcher 3 and this year’s Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain as examples of number two and number one respectively. Witcher 3 features a well laid-out world where real thought was put into the player’s exploration and sense of discovery (if you turn off the map icons). In my opinion Phantom Pain provides a good stealth action sandbox with exciting emergent gameplay.

I get that some people however prefer linear games with more tightly-structured design. I don’t like it when people proclaim that linear games are uniformly better or worse than open-world games, but I can understand if someone always prefers a linear game to an open-world one. My issue is I just don’t like most linear games being made in this day and age. Since Call of Duty 4 came out most linear shooters have been essentially roller coasters so tightly scripted that a huge amount of player agency feels missing. We at least have well-made open-world games coming out to day, but in my opinion fewer well-made linear games.

On this subject I’ve heard a lot of people say they actually liked Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes better than Phantom Pain because they felt the single semi-sandbox location in Ground Zeroes had more attention put into its design than any part of the open-world in Phantom Pain. There have been suggestions that Phantom Pain should have just been a series of levels similar to Camp Omega in Ground Zeroes strung together, which brings me to what that would have been and perhaps what this industry needs more of: The original Crysis.

Released around the same time as Call of Duty 4, the first Crysis game was sort of the last leap in evolution of “objective-based level design” which I’ve already lamented the absence of in a previous post. Now I’m bringing up a new reason it may be needed now more than ever. It’s essentially a middle ground between carefully-designed linear games and liberating sandbox games.

Crysis is a game comprised of a linear chain of carefully-designed levels. Possibly its greatest asset is its level design, but each of those levels in itself is designed to be a small sandbox where players can figure out their own solutions to problems. The player’s tools and the way enemies behave in this game give rise to a lot of emergent gameplay that can be toyed with, which is the main reason people play sandbox games. Predecessors like ThiefDeus Ex, and even GoldenEye 007 on the N64 had the same philosophy of design. In many ways Camp Omega feels like it could have been a Crysis level. Call it the mini-sandbox if you will.

There are even several missions and areas in Phantom Pain that basically feel like boxed-in levels but are still large enough to provide a proper sandbox on a small scale. At times the game’s main campaign feels like it’s drifting somewhere between Crysis and a proper evolution of Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. I still like the game Phantom Pain became, but perhaps this route would have satisfied some people more.

Unfortunately we have very few games today even looking in this direction. We pretty much just have the new Deus Ex games and Dishonored. Probably also the new Hitman game. Other than that everything is either totally open-world or a Call of Duty-style roller coaster. We have a few games that tried to hit that middle-ground like the Crysis sequels, but they typically end up steering too far to the linear direction. There’s too much polarization in how people design these games now, where there used to be sort of a gradient between linear and open-ended games.


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2 thoughts on “Linear Or Sandbox Game — Why Not Both?

  1. volvocrusher says:

    I thought this was going to be more about games like Jak 2 and 3 at first, which are sandbox games with many missions putting you into seperate, linear levels that feel like they came straight out of Crash Bandicoot. Which would be nice to see more of too, especially since Jak pulled it off very well

  2. Machocruz says:

    I’ve commented on this kind of thing before on here, but as far as I’m concerned, you can have a sandbox in a single room. Sandboxes are defined by the sand, not the size of the box. Manipulation of and creation with the sand and tools are what is important. Crysis allowed for a lot of creative destruction and ways to exploit design. (Games like Minecraft, Terraria, and Dwarf Fortress represent the idea of “playing with sand” to a literal extent). I’d say the majority of persistent open worlds don’t contain much sandbox value anyway, everything is nailed down, scripted, one solution for one problem. Sandbox is not a synonym for “open world” nor an antonym for “linear.” Personally I prefer the semi-open environments you describe. I can confirm that there are many people that think Camp Omega in GZ is the single best space in the MGSV saga, and that the game would have been better off being something like 3 large bases like that; basically MG2:SS on steroids.

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