The Knowable and Unknowable Futures of Open World and Sandbox Games

Nowadays, an open world is almost a must, or what Michel Callon (1986) has called an obligatory point of passage, when it comes to designing an RPG. For example, Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Assassin’s Creed, and Fallout all possess a game world that can be explored at length.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, open worlds were mainly the domain of RPGs or action-adventure RPGs. Franchises like Ultima, The Legend of Zelda, Phantasy Star, Final Fantasy, Shining Force, The Elder Scrolls and Chrono Trigger were all known for their expansive worlds that players could explore. However, it’s important to remember that players were never completely free to explore these worlds. Often, the games had a direct and obvious narrative plot that players had to follow. While navigating the plot, new areas of the world opened up and revealed side quests or random encounters that often had no other purpose than to help players level up. In the early days, open worlds weren’t really open.

As the 1990s rolled on and the 2000s beckoned, opens worlds were still mostly present in RPGs or action-adventure RPGs. However, open worlds began to make their appearance beyond those genres. For example, the Jak and Daxter franchise brought open worlds to platformers. Once the most linear of game types due to their side-scrolling perspective, the worlds of platformers could now be explored: in Jak and Daxter, if you could see it, you could reach it.

However, it really took the hybridization of game design that exploded in the 2000s to push open worlds beyond RPGs. Where previously it was very easy to distinguish a shooter (Doom) from an RPG (Ultima) from a platformer (Super Mario Bros.), it has become increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to pigeon-hole most games into a single genre. Are Mass Effect and Grand Theft Auto RPGs? Action-adventure games? Cover shooters? In truth, they’re a little bit of all of those. In effect, open worlds have become the distinguishing feature of most hybrid games, so much so that “open world game” has become a category of its own.

A close cousin to the open world game is the sandbox game. Nowadays, “open world” and “sandbox” are used quasi-interchangeably. For example, on Wikipedia, “Sandbox (video games)” refers users back to the Wikipedia entry on open worlds. However, Wikipedia refers back to a Gamasutra article to note one key difference between the two:

In a true “sandbox”, the player has tools to modify the world themselves and create how they play.

Tools? Is that it? Are sandboxes reduced to games such as Minecraft, Garry’s Mod, or Starmade, however fun those games are? Is the lesson here that if you can build in it, then it’s a sandbox? That seems to be a dubious conclusion to come to, especially when the article referenced is a history of Elite. However, the conclusion isn’t exactly wrong.

Today, a sandbox largely means “building.” Minecraft, Garry’s Mod, and Starmade are all games in which you build things rather than follow a story. Similarly, SimCity and Kerbal Space Program focus on building things at the expense of a narrative plot. Granted, players can make their own stories while playing these games, as Gaines argued. But is this the choice we’re left with? Either play through a pre-designed story, be it linear or not, or have the players stumble upon their own?

If that’s the case, then it’s no surprise that games often fall into one genre or the other. The idea of an open world sandbox is daunting. Imagine yourself playing Final Fantasy VII if your only indication of a what to do is “Stop Shinra!” Where would you start? What would you do? Imagine if Minecraft had a plot. How would you follow it if you can basically break the narrative threads by the simple action of playing the game?

Or how do you prevent players from looking for the most optimized way of resolving the plot, thereby diminishing the replay value of your game, as happened with Scribblenauts where most puzzles can be solved with a helicopter, a rope, and Cthulhu? You’d be forgiven for finding yourself paralyzed and unable to act. This is one simple reason why few games are both open worlds and sandboxes. That doesn’t mean they aren’t enjoyable. It just means they attempt to fulfill a different gaming purpose.

However, the simultaneous conflation and separation of sandbox and open world that we see today didn’t always exist. Neither did the emphasis on building in the definition of a sandbox game. In fact, many early games were both open worlds and sandboxes that didn’t require you to build anything. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll restrict my examples to the world of video games and focus on three games: Starflight, Pirates!, and Darklands.

Starflight is a space exploration game that was first published in 1986. The game’s plot revolves around your attempt at preventing the catastrophic annihilation of what’s left of humanity. However, you don’t know that. You spend most of your time trading with other space races and cataloging planets that can support human life. However, you don’t know why you’re doing this other than it brings in money to keep your starship supplied.

Pirates! is a simulation game, and was one of Sid Meier’s early games published in 1987. The game’s plot revolves around saving your family from the clutches of the evil Baron Mendoza. However, you don’t know that. You’ll spend most of your time boarding ships and looting towns. However, you don’t know why you’re doing this other than it brings in money to keep your vessel afloat.

Darklands is… well to be honest, I’m not quite sure how to describe it. It floats halfway between an RPG and an historical simulation. It puts you in the role of a roaming group of adventurers in medieval Germany. The game’s plot revolves around… I’m not quite sure what. But there’s witches in there, and also dragons, and ultimately you get to meet Baphomet for sing-a-long, I suppose. All this helps with not knowing what the actual plot is. Most of the game will be spent traveling around Greater Germany and having adventures because it’s how you put a roof over your head and food in your belly.

So what do these three games have in common? First, they possess an open world that can be freely navigated. None of these games impose conditions on where or when certain areas of the map may or may not be explored. Second, they have an unknown linear plot. Most of your gameplay will be spent doing things unrelated to the actual plot line… because you don’t know it exists. Rather, it leaves you clues as to its existence and hopes you’ll stumble upon them. And if you don’t… well that’s okay too. Third, they rely on player-created stories. To be honest, I never actually completed the plot of any of these games because I was too busy creating my own. And by creating I don’t mean in a willful way: I simply went places and things happened.

My most memorable moment in Starflight wasn’t saving humanity. It was a chance meeting with a robotic race known as the Mechans that set me off on an unscripted quest to find the original homeworld of humanity. My most memorable moment in Pirates! wasn’t vanquishing the Mendoza. It was my ambition to wrest the city of Panama from its Spanish rulers. My most memorable moment in Darklands wasn’t the tea party with Baphomet. It was making sure that Raubritter von Deutschnamen never, ever threatened the city of Frankfurt again.

Now, French is my first language, and one of the quirks of French is that it occasionally has more than one word to describe something that the English language describes using a single word. In the social sciences, this is perhaps best exemplified by Michel Foucault’s studies of power. In French, Foucault (1977, 1978) uses two words for power: 1) puissance, which refers to the absolute, intrinsic power vested in a thing (often translated as capital-P Power); and 2) pouvoir, which refers to the more structural elements of power, ones that aren’t always easy to see because they appear to be normal (often translated as lowercase-P power).

A different pair of words is important to us here, and they have to do with temporality, with the future, with knowing what is to come. In Starflight, Pirates!, and Darklands, the fact that you know that there is a prescribed plot, but that you don’t know what it is, what is to come, is what makes these three games so compelling. And the French language does have two words to denote what is to come.

Jacques Derrida‘s distinction between the two is useful here. When talking about the future, Derrida argues that French speakers must choose between either 1) futur, which denotes a future that is knowable, predictable, foreseeable, and 2) avenir, which denotes a future that cannot be known, that is unexpected.

And there lies the core of the difficulty. Open world games belong to the realm of the futur, in the knowable future. You know that Shepard will face the Reapers. You know that the Dragonborn will square off against Alduin. Sandbox games, on the other hand, belong to the avenir, to the unknowable future. In Minecraft, you don’t know what awaits beyond the next cave. In Kerbal Space Program, you don’t know if you’ll be able to rescue your astronaut who is currently trapped in a large eccentric orbit around his home planet (sigh).

To be a sandbox and an open world, however, means to reside in both worlds. In Starflight, I know that destroying the Crystal Planet will save humanity, but I don’t know that humanity needs to be saved, or that there is a Crystal Planet. In Pirates!, I know that saving my family means beating Mendoza, but I don’t know that my family is in the Caribbean, or that it’s been kidnapped. In Darklands… well, I’ve never even seen dragons, but I know they’re there and so is Baphomet, but I don’t know where he is, or how he likes his tea, or why he’s so important all of a sudden.

Creating a game that is simultaneously knowable and unknowable is no small task. I don’t doubt that it can be done again, but somehow I’m skeptical that it will be. It seems to me that formal game design is busy either dividing open worlds and sandboxes into distinct objects, or conflating them so that they mean the exact same thing.

In the meanwhile, I’ll continue hoping for a remake of Darklands. I don’t know what it would be like, but I know it would be awesome.

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About Erik Bigras

Erik Bigras is an independent scholar. He studied as a PhD Candidate in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He graduated with a BA in Anthropology (2009) from the University of Prince Edward Island (Canada) where he focused on the creation of subjectivities through digital media. He's been playing video games since the mid-1980s, but expanded his gaming interest to table-top RPGs in the early 2010s.
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6 Responses to The Knowable and Unknowable Futures of Open World and Sandbox Games

  1. Darklands, oh the memories! We had a bugged save game that gave our party access to infinite amounts of money. For years afterwards we were still working off that original bugged save, though with a party that had changed multiple times over. Occasionally we’d go chasing a dragon or think about going after Baphomet, but we’d get drawn off by trying to defeat the Wild Hunt, or saving a local town from bandits and so forth.

    • Erik Bigras says:

      Oh, the bugs! The original release was probably one of the buggiest ones ever. However, version 483.07 (or version 7) happily corrects all of that.

      I’ve always loved the game’s party creation dynamics. It just reminds me so much of one of my favourite table-top RPGs, Twilight: 2000.

  2. Zomers says:

    I never knew Pirates! had a plot and I played that game for many hours. You mention Skyrim as openworld game because you know the Dragonborn will face Alduin and I agree. However it might be possible to play it as a sandbox game as well. When I was about 9 years old I discovered Morrowind and because I knew little English I basically just wandered around and created my own story. It was years later that I could read the quests and learned that I had to defeat Dagoth Ur.

    • Erik Bigras says:

      I think language barriers are a good example of what I was talking about. You were able to play it as a sandbox because you didn’t know what the game expected from you. It didn’t make it any less fun, because there’s honestly funner things to do in Morrowind than defeating Dagoth Ur.

      I didn’t raise this point, but it’s important to remember that video games in general, and those that flirt with Authorship like Skyrim and Morrowind do in particular, are very much depending on a particular social context to be “understood” (even if that understanding takes multiple forms), and language plays a big part in this. For example, each time I read a text translated into my native French and see the verb aimer I have to wonder if the original author meant “to love” or “to like,” because the French language doesn’t differentiate between those two states.

      Nowadays, we’re seeing more and more games with alternate voice tracks or subtitles that are available in multiple languages. I don’t remember if that was the case for Morrowind, but from what you’re saying, it seems that multi-language options weren’t available (at least on consoles).

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