Friday, April 1, 2011

Let's Talk About - Playing in the Sandbox

I've been thinking a lot lately about the artificial restrictions we place upon ourselves when playing sandbox games.  Some people heavily employ mods while others insist on vanilla.  Yet others use whatever the game offers while some insist on "realism".  Some people are stuck in their ways no matter what the situation, while other gamers change their personal rules over time or change from game to game. Below is a introduction of sorts to the origins of this post, and then at the bottom I have my own personal rules listed. 

By Way of Introduction  - While conversing with a friend's husband (we'll call him Steven) not too long ago, the subject of TES IV: Oblivion came up.  Most people are well aware of how frustrating I found Oblivion to be.  I don't exactly make a secret of it.  It goes too far to say that the game was “bad”, but it certainly wasn't the sequel I had been hoping for.  For every positive improvement the game had made upon Morrowind, namely the inclusion of horses and a vastly superior combat system, there were another five or six things about it that I couldn't stand.  Of all the flaws Oblivion had though, its auto-level feature was quite possibly the worst.  I had no problems in the normal world, but the moment I set foot inside the Oblivion Gates it seemed like the difficulty had been ramped up a good four or five times what it normally was.  My character was outclassed and unprepared.  Common sense tells you to reload and level-up before trying again, but because of the leveling feature the daedra gained levels with my character so no matter what I did, I felt out classed.  A lot of my problems were the result of what I felt to be unbalanced game mechanics, but admittedly a great deal of my issues probably resulted from the restrictions I place upon myself in the Elder Scrolls world.  Either way, my frustration eventually got the best of me.  I gave up the main quest, got bored with the normal world, and then permanently uninstalled it from my computer.  It was promptly replaced by its predecessor, and has since (except for about 15 hours around Christmas) remained in its uninstalled state.  
I didn't think a whole lot more about my Oblivion experience until Steven and I began to talk.  If I recall correctly, Steven had built his Oblivion character with power gaming in mind.  He completely outfitted his avatar in heavy armor while still at a very low level, used potions to augment other skills, and then plowed his way through the Oblivion Gates.  While in Oblivion he drank a potion to decrease the weight of his pack, and then hauled as much high level loot as possible out though the Gate before it closed so that he could sell it later for profit.  At the time I jokingly accused him of cheating.  That wasn't how he was supposed to play the game!  Sure he beat the main quest when I did not, but according to my own personal rules I felt that he had cheated.  He should have designed a more balanced character and then only hauled as much loot as he could physically carry without artificial aids.  Steven argued that he did nothing the game didn't allow him to do and I jokingly told him that just because the game allows you to do it doesn't mean you should do it.  Steven reminded me that I am a kleptomaniac in Morrowind.  He wondered how that made me honest while what he did was "cheating".  I responded that being a klepto was acceptable because I only took as much as I could carry without extra help and only used skills that I had acquired though normal leveling up.  As a result I came by my stolen goods honestly.  Yes I am well aware that my argument was both petty and paper thin.  Don't worry, Steven and his wife (well call her Karen) didn't hesitate to point that fact out. 
A few weeks later, this conversation still has me thinking.  The inherently wonderful thing about sandbox games is the freedom they offer.  If you can dream it, then you can do it … with some limitations of course.  Unlike games that spell everything out for you, true sandbox games grant the player much greater freedom in establishing their character's values, morality, motivations, and methodology.  Despite my amusingly petty "argument" with Steven, I honestly believe that there is no real “wrong” way to play sandbox games.  As long as the game grants your character the latitude to do it, it can be done.  With this in mind I have chosen to lay out the rules and guidelines which determine how I play.  First, however, I should probably clarify my definition of “sandbox.”
By Way of Definition – True sandbox games, as Zero Punctuation’s Yahtzee often mentions, are hard to find.  Marketing oneself as a “sandbox” game looks good on paper, but few products genuinely provide the freedom they promise their consumers.  Instead what developers should be marketing themselves as is “non-linear.”  I am well aware that in the grand scheme of things sandbox = open world = non-linear.  I however do not necessarily see them as being equal.  Among those who choose to differentiate between "sandbox" and "non-linear", I'm certain that the definition changes from person to person as to what they mean.  For me the difference between them is this:

Sandbox Games - These genuinely offer the good old TES model of go anywhere and do anything.  These games don't constrict your movements to a particular location on the map unless it has a very good reason.  They opt for and actual "great wide somewhere" instead of the appearance of said "somewhere" that you can't actually reach due to numerous invisible walls. Even more importantly you as the player choose where you will go, when you will go there, and what you will do when you arrive.  Restrictions of course apply, but that is the general gist.

Non-linear Games - These on the other hand often restrict you to a particular location until a specific level is passed, but within that area though you can still choose the order in which you do things.  The end result is that you are often given the appearance of freedom, but this "freedom" is tempered by story restrictions and game mechanics.

Examples - Off the top of my head I would classify TES series and the Fallout series as true sandbox games.  Given your ability to move in and out of situations and locations at will, I would also consider DA:O to be a sandbox game as well.  With some reservations I also throw Fable: The Lost Chapters into this category.  Fable has a number of restrictions, but you still have free movement throughout the world, options to purchase property, the possibility of (a meaningless) marriage, etc.  I hesitate to throw Fable into the sandbox category because the game is great at giving the appearance of freedom while simultaneously restricting what you can do.  That said, the first game at least probably still belongs here.  

A perfect example of non-linear play is CDProjeckt RED’s The Witcher.  The Witcher restricts Geralt’s movements to particular locations.  You cannot backtrack once the story progresses, but Geralt can go most anywhere within the area you are playing .  Within each area Geralt has a main quest and a number of side quests to complete.  He gets to choose which side quests (if any) he accepts, which order these side quests are finished in, and the time in which he completes the main story line.  He isn't afforded total freedom like characters in TES are given, but Geralt certainly has much more freedom then characters from traditional point-n-click adventure games possess. 

Here is where I start to get myself in trouble because there are a number of games I do not know how to classify.  For example, KOTOR I&II are more non-linear in my eyes but have sandbox elements.  The KOTOR series grants you freedom of movement, and you can travel in between worlds as you see fit.  This hints at "sandbox."  Once on those worlds, however, there is really only one main story with a few paltry side quests.  Almost all your actions are tied to a very specific central tale and some worlds trap you (unable to leave until that leg of the story is complete) once you land.  This screams "non-linear" to me.  I'm inclined to classify it as a non-linear game, but you make the call on that. 
By Means of ExplanationRules within a sandbox world, as in RL, are important to have.  the presence of rules does two things for.  Firstly, they provide a sense of familiarity to any game I play.  The setting and characters may be different, but similar guidelines across game titles makes it easier to immerse myself and connect with a new character.  Secondly, it is easy to get lost in all the possibilities that sandbox worlds offer.  This is even more true if the game developers released a tool set and encourage an active modding community.  A set of personal guidelines keeps me from trying to do too much.  Attempting to do too much can make it very easy to lose focus.  Since much of the storytelling in some of these games is up to the player, losing focus can very quickly equal loss of interest.  The rules I personally abide by fall into the three categories below.

Mod Usage – Some people insist that vanilla game play is the only way to go.  I do not fall into this category, but I don't necessarily agree with modding a game beyond recognition either.  Therefore mods installed must fit one of three questions.

1) Does this mod fix a problem in the vanilla game? In Dragon Age: Origins it really bugged me that characters unable to pick a lock simply gave up.  They could be outfitted with the heaviest 2H Axe in the land, yet if they ran across a lock they couldn't pick (and thus a chest they couldn't loot) they simply threw up their hands and moved on.  This is counter intuitive to me.  If I were carrying a 2H Axe, I'd break the lock open.  Thankfully xatmos from Dragon Age Nexus also found this to be a problem and created the mod "Lock Bash" to fix it.  With that problem solved I could continue on with my game.  Another example of this is the famous Morrowind Comes Alive mod which adds much needed ambiance to Vvardenfell.  With 1000+ new NPCs, random encounters, new faces, etc this mod is pretty much essential.  Half the time I expect that Bethesda made their Vvardenfell towns so sparse because they expected someone to come along and make a mod like MCA.

2) Is this mod a home/residence ?  I like to have a home base with all of my characters that they can come back to and call their own amidst all the wandering the do.  The kind of home installed depends on the character's back story, but this is almost always one of the first things I install when available.

3) Is this mod a texture pack/hair pack? I rarely like the default faces, colors, or hair styles that games come with.  If the house mod is the first thing I do, then installing hair and face packs are the next thing I do.

4) Does this mod enhance the RP experience? I am speaking particularly of crafting, cooking, and hunger mods, but anything else that makes the experience more life like goes here.  If it facilitates my ability to enter the avatar's head space then it is generally acceptable.
Character Actions - All characters are created to fit their personalities and back story.  This can result in both balanced or unbalanced characters, but no matter what they are not designed to power game.  Unless it is necessary for the role-play experience I do not use unnecessary potions.  (Health and mana potions are practically de rigueur by this point and do not count.)  If something is too heavy to carry then my character does not carry it. They do not drink a potion or cast a spell to make their pack lighter or artificially make a task easier.  The openly real exception is if I'm playing a mystical character or an alchemist.  It would be silly to not let an alchemist use the potions he created or let a mystic cast spells he earns his living off of.  In addition, if my character needs a skill then he/she will level-up naturally and not pay instructors for the skill.  My characters will live in a house suitable to their social level and not simply stay somewhere huge because it's nifty.  If they are very rich or are a high ranking official then they can own a larger house.  Otherwise, they have a home suitable to their status.  Given their traveling ways it is acceptable for them to own a couple of smaller cottages in various parts of the world for them to stay at.  The only real exception to this rule is the Morrowind mod for the ginormous home Ravenloft.  My last character justified living there since she was a mage and the home existed in an alternate dimension ... accessible only via a teleportation ring.  Also, she *found* the ring laying about so technically she came by it honestly.
Short Cuts - Teleportation.  *sigh* This is a tricky one.  I try to use conventional transportation means (i.e. Oblivion = horse [stolen, borrowed, or purchased] and Morrowind = running ... very, very slow running).  I do not use the built in teleportation system in games (i.e. Oblivion) unless there is a need for great haste or the character is a mage/magical being.  In Morrowind I will also only download a teleportation crystal mod for mage characters and other magical beings.  Everyone else uses public transport or foot travel.  The only exception here is swimming.  I loathe swimming in TES games and will allow teleportation to islands that cannot be accessed via boats.  Levitation potions are also an option here.  Teleportation from custom homes is condoned since it is a feature of the house that my character (hypothetically) bought.  This is not usually a major issue since homes with teleportation chanbers generally only connect to the major cities.  The only home I've ever had with a truly detailed transport map was Ravenloft, and since it exists on an alternate plane a detailed transport map is to be expected.
Well, I think that pretty much wraps things up for tonight.  This ended up far longer then I had expected, but it was interesting to put down.  I'll see you all late Sunday night/early Monday morning with the next to last entry of Perra's story.

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