Sandcastle Magic: Redefining “Sandbox” Games

By Nick Olsen

An eight-year-old child strolls out onto the warm sand, plastic bucket and shovel in hand, sees the waves rolling onto the beach and instinctively knows that the possibilities for creation are endless. The child starts with dry sand before realizing that a little water helps the sand stick together, more like the blocks they’re used to back in the playroom. A little too much water and the sand becomes less stable, acting too much like mud. Eventually the child discovers the perfect ratio and begins construction on the grandest sandcastle imaginable. Yes, compared to professional sand sculptors, their creations are rudimentary at best, but the child’s imagination is at work dreaming up possibilities beyond what their unpracticed skills can actually produce. Given enough time surely the child’s skills would eventually match their creativity.

Brick by brick, the sandcastle grows. Small canals are dug to let the ocean water rush in and out, thus preventing destruction. Soon smaller castles begin to appear by the sides of the canals forming a crude sand city. Sticks act as pretend boats navigating the city canals and visiting Kings, Queens, friends and family in the sand city. Eventually, otherworldly monsters invade as the town’s residents struggle to defend the lives and property so carefully created, but alas, the monsters prevail leaving the sand city and castle in ruins. Conflicting feelings of loss and satisfaction battle for supremacy in the child’s mind as it surveys the remains of the once great city. But soon night falls, the tide rises and the ruins are washed into the sea. In the morning, the cycle begins again. Perhaps with the same child; perhaps not.

The Child Reborn

SimCity sandbox

SimCity brings city planning to a whole new level.

Inside of every video game developer resides the same child on the beach, crafting endless worlds and sharing them with game players. Each construction, each story, each character is the product of the active imagination of the developers who created it. While some games, most notably the various Sim franchises (SimCity, The Sims), have given creative freedoms to the player, a recent deluge of “sandbox” games have tapped into the unlimited creativity dynamic. Games such as Terraria and Minecraft have, to varying degrees, provided the player the ability to create the entire world around them in whatever fashion suits them.

While these games share common elements with a variety of other open world games such as the Grand Theft Auto series, they divert drastically by providing manipulable environments, tool/weapon/armor crafting, etc. Rather than just devaluing the necessity of quest lines to create an “explore as you want” environment, these games put the creative impetus upon the player to craft their surroundings, characters and accessories, often through the harvesting of raw materials. In a way, the developers of these games have invited the players into the creative experience of game and level design, and players have embraced it wholeheartedly.

Thinking Inside the (sand)Box

Red Dead Redemption

Red Dead Redemption, while an amazing game is not truly a sandbox.

More and more developers have begun incorporating the sandbox mentality into their games. Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption is a perfect example of a developer allowing players to eschew quest lines in favor of roaming the western landscapes as freely as they wished. Bethesda has taken this idea a step farther by using elements of crafting in both its Fallout games and The Elder Scrolls games, allowing players to create custom weapons, armor and accessories. Recently, they even allowed players to craft their own homes in Skyrim with the “Hearthfire” downloadable content (DLC). Combined with the open world nature of these games, players get a sense of a sandbox game experience on a small scale. Similar to Bethesda’s approach to crafting, Ubisoft Montreal successfully incorporated a system of weapon and accessory modification in their open-world adventure Far Cry 3.

In reality, none of these games offer a true sandbox experience equal to that of Re-Logic’s Terraria or Mojang’s Minecraft, which offer players a full fledged blank slate environment to craft their world within, similar to MaxisSimCity. But these games go beyond a city-building simulation as they also require players to create all of the weapons, armor, accessories and items used throughout the game from raw materials harvested from the world. This is the video game equivalent of the child on the beach using their creativity and imagination to craft an entire world from the materials at hand.

The Rising Tide

This year alone more than a handful of open-world games have already, or are scheduled to, hit store shelves, including major title releases Grand Theft Auto V, The Elder Scrolls Online, Saints Row IV, Watch Dogs and so on. But are these games really sandboxes? Traditionally, games which featured non-linear game designs were classified as such. Accepted definitions of sandbox games echo this mentality. Giant Bomb, for example, defines sandbox games as:

Elements Of A Sandbox Game

Free Modes

A sandbox style game is any game were [sic] you can choose to not further the main storyline at will. Most popular of this topic would be the Grand Theft Auto series, but games such as SaGa, Legend of Mana, Shenmue,Monster Hunter, Fallout 3, The Elder Scrolls, Assassin’s Creed, Xenoblade, Dark Souls, and even technically Burnout Paradise, are examples of this concept as well.

Open World

Just as important as doing what ever [sic] you want is doing what ever [sic] you want in a open world. Sandbox games tend to have level designs such as cities or open geography for one to roam with very little restrictions such as invisible walls. A game like Project Gotham Racing may have city streets to drive in, but games such as Need for Speed: Most Wanted allow you to drive around said city as one sees fit.

Games such as Metroid or Shadow Complex are not Sandbox games even though they allow you to explore, because the only way to progress through the game (outside of game-breaking exploits) is by taking a specific path, collecting items and fighting bosses in an order predetermined by the developers.

With the recent addition of games such as Terraria, Minecraft and The Sims (which give the player complete creative freedom over every element of the gameplay), does the singular inclusion of an open-world justify the sandbox categorization any longer? As game design evolves to an open-world standard it’s time to evolve our definitions along with it.

Calling it Like it is

Terraria sandbox

Terraria allows the player to craft items to their heart’s content.

The reality is that there are too many true sandbox games to go on lumping in those which only contain single or minimal sandbox elements. Beyond Terraria and Minecraft, the sandbox game library contains a number of entries including Blockscape, Mythruna, StarForge, Masterspace etc., with a growing catalog still in development. Combining this catalog with The Sims franchise provides enough gravitas to warrant the split from the games traditionally included. Combined, The Sims, Minecraft and Terraria have sold nearly 175 million copies.

As the video game industry grows out of it’s infancy, developers, publishers, critics, consumers and industry insiders should strive to evolve the terminology they use to accurately reflect advancements within the industry. Many younger industries, such as search engine advertising, social media, etc., have rapidly defined new terminologies to accurately describe their processes, measurements and results – so too should the video game industry follow suit.

Doing so advances the industry lexicon and reduces confusion both within and outside of video game circles. By reducing the number of “catch all” phrases, the video game industry can speak more definitively on all matters while advancing the legitimacy of the genre and helping to overcome the “video games are for children” stigma which has been unfairly applied. Of course it will take more than moving beyond the faulty application of the term sandbox, but this simple step can and should serve as a stepping stone to propel a greater industry push for accuracy.

It’s time to ditch the all-encompassing sandbox phrase and substitute it for a more refined version which actually reflects the true, endlessly creative nature of these games. Imagine telling the child on the beach that they had complete freedom to make the world of their choosing, and then only letting them create with a small portion of their creativity; sure the child may still have an enjoyable time, but surely they would have had a better time without the imposed limitations. By using the term sandbox to encompass games which only reflect the open-world nature of true sandbox games, the industry is misrepresenting the true nature of their products, and leading gamers into countless unfulfilled “what if” scenarios. True sandbox game like Terraria, Minecraft, The Sims and their contemporaries have earned the right to accurate classification.