Seize the Sandbox

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  • Open-world videogames are often referred to as “sandbox” games. Minecraft is the most ubiquitous example, and given its pixelated aesthetic, appears to be literally crafted from granules of sand. This comparison serves to describe an unstructured, leash-free pit of player-determined fun and creativity. Yet every time I think of the phrase “sandbox,” I picture soiled toys with the glitter of plastic sheen scrubbed off, dog shit buried in a giant litter box, a cracked wooden frame spilling time all over the yard.

    But to be fair, I also think of the crippling anxiety of a blank page, and this is what’s kept me from Minecraft all this time. Guidance always served me better than floundering, which is why I struggled with proofs in geometry, but loved twisting the words found in my favorite books through creative writing. I didn’t want to craft my own tale in the game, I wanted to live vicariously through a meticulously arranged narrative.

    So when Dragon Quest Builders landed, I didn’t expect much. But as a longtime fan of the series, there was an obligation to at least flail through the encyclopedia of disparate recipes and Akira Toriyama monsters. But what I quickly found was more than a sandbox, but still just a playground—a guided tour of biomes, technological advancements, and a cute (if somewhat thin) tale of revolution by following the rules in order to learn how to break the rules.

    In an opening chapter that unfolds eerily close to Breath of the Wild, you are resurrected underground as an underwear-clad hero whose time to fix some colossal disasters has finally arrived. But Link is not an architect, and as you wind your way through Dragon Quest Builders, you are regularly reminded that you are a builder, not a warrior. This is why you can’t grind your way into stronger attacks, but must build better weapons, believing that a mighty warrior will stomp in to finish the job you started sooner or later. In the meantime, you’ve got a few towns to restore block by block, each one slightly different than the others.

    This was a hiking trail with robust signage rather than a skydive into the desert, and I ate it up. Builders holds your hand the entire way, but at the same time, gives you a lot of room to range around. You’ll find a few secrets, but eventually the magical barriers slide into place, preventing boundless exploration. There’s personal space and unlimited days off, but the task list always brings you back to business.

    The same can be said for No Man’s Sky, the simple joys of which I’ve written on before. Post-“Next” update, the song remains the same but the colors are brighter, the timing tighter, the planets a few shades more distinct from each other. And buttressing it all is a multi-hour set of tasks that teaches you everything worthwhile, from expanding your scavenging capabilities to building the land rovers that really let you settle into a few quintillion planetoids.

    Some people don’t like being told what to do, and that’s what Builders’ “Terra Incognita” and No Man’s Sky’s “Creative Mode” are for. But after dumping dozens of hours into the gruntwork of both, I couldn’t muster interest in these no holds barred, basically limitless construction zones. I’m not a city-planner, I’m a space mason. I’m given a blueprint and I clock in with my podcasts and my recent LP purchases and I putz away from task to task.

    The appeal of the sandbox is clear, and there are obviously some very talented and self-driven people building computers within computers, 1:1 replicas of the USS Enterprise, and fully-functional and self-sustaining cities. I bow to these titans of self-driven digital industry. But when it comes to open-world videogame entertainment, I am the worker bee, a follower of trails. This isn’t busywork to me, I am not merely meditating by controller proxy and am prone to occasional fits of base-development creativity. The open-world videogame is a lie, and I’ve decided that cancerous accumulation is not my desire. Rather, I simply appreciate a well-laid plan, with the agency to improvise if desired or necessary, but with a relaxing and predictable outcome all the same.

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