October 30, 2009

Sea of Sand

I'm going to talk about a troubling game trend today... I'm certainly not as bothered by it as SOME, but is it getting a little out of control. I am speaking of the sandbox game genre. Perhaps it's not even right to call it a genre anymore... it's a label of sorts that can be applied to anything. Then again, with all the genre bending going on (FPSRPGs, First Person Platformers, Action/Adventure/TPS...) I suppose it's as qualified to be a genre as anything. So I'll stick with calling it a genre, one that has become overpopulated.

I enjoy sandbox games a great deal. Grand Theft Auto, Prototype, Saint's Row, Spiderman 2, Red Faction Guerilla... it's a genre that can be applied to other genres, and with great effectiveness. It's a simple fact of reality that you can, in fact, wander around the world and do different things. It's a way to make games more immersive, and more interesting. It's a concept that actually been around for a long time- pretty much every RPG has a "sandbox" environment, more or less- but now it's really taking over. And you know? Maybe not as much as some people, but I think we're overdoing it. There are places where free roaming is either not fun or not in line with the story. Frequently, sandbox games will let you wander away in the middle of a task- at the end of a mission, you've cornered the bad guy, and now you need to actually fight him in the middle of his stronghold... only you don't, because you've wandered off to blow up some cars and punch random people. It impedes the experience.

Grand Theft Auto IV, even with its flaws (though they are few), is the perfect example of sandbox done right. Everything that happens, every mission, every job, is a self-contained event that adds to the overall plot. When you stop in the middle of a job, it's because you HAVE to- you're waiting for a response from a contact, or for your car to come out of the shop, or whatever. The pauses in action are always logical. Contrast this with, say, Prototype, where there is a mission where you pump toxic gas underground to draw out a monster, and fight to defend the pump... and just as the monster is about to show, the mission ends, so that you can go rip some chick in half and dropkick a tank or whatever before you choose to let the fight start. It's a very rough continuity break.

And then, of course, are games where the sandbox style has no place. If there was ever a sandbox Resident Evil, I think I would cry. Likewise, if a Mario Kart game ever had an overworld, and you had to drive to your next race, and jack a kart, I would be furious. There is a time and a place... and we're starting to go too far. Control yerselves, developers. If nothing else, mess with your game so that it fits. Don't think you can add freeroaming gameplay without changing the structure of your game.

Genres, as set as they are, are starting to blur. Developers are taking the best parts of other genres, and infusing their own games with them. This is absolutely a good thing. But we need to give this limits, or else you end up with abominations like Dirge of Cerberus.

No comments:

Post a Comment