What Makes a Good Sandbox?

The two of us recently finished Saint’s Row the Third, and beating it raised some questions. It definitely succeeds in what it set out to do– in terms of over-the-top thrills, explosions, crude humor, and general zaniness it’s basically unmatched among any release of the past year, and the gameplay is tight and fun. But there was a sense of disappointment. Compared to its predecessor the game world felt smaller and less varied, and the game’s emphasis on climactic set pieces and giving the player shiny toys to play with led to a lack of focus (zombie fighting? laser guns? flying aircraft carriers? Wasn’t this series supposed to be about gangbangers?). It’s as fun as Saint’s Row 2, but said fun comes mostly from the missions this time around instead of the sandbox elements.

That’s the genesis of what we want to try and pick at this week.  What makes a good sandbox, and how can games built around sandbox mechanics use this?

[When we say “sandbox” in this context we mostly mean the kind of games that used to be called “GTA Clones”– ones that put the player in a (usually urban) environment and focus on freeform play– rather than open-world RPGS (like Skyrim) or Metroidvanias]


This should be what makes a sandbox what it is. We say “should” because even the best sandbox games can fall apart on this front. It’s easy to give the players a world to play in, but it’s harder to leave them with that freedom once they’re supposed to be engaging in the story and pre-designed missions.

The bank robbery mission is as awesome as a game version of Michael Mann’s Heat, but also about as linear and carefully orchestrated.

Grand Theft Auto IV, despite its stellar quality, has serious issues in this regard. Liberty City is an amazing, living environment and you have incredible freedom in wandering around, breathing in the life of the city, getting hot-water hotdogs off the street, and shooting pigeons in their face. But this isn’t present in the missions: you drive to the mission point and go through a fairly-linear shooting mission. Some of them are great (GTAIV is one of this blog’s absolute favorite games), but it is a frustration that one of the most organic and immersive worlds in gaming becomes a shooter when the player decides to engage with the game’s central story.

The worst offenders are several of the car/motorcycle chase missions, in which the target vehicle can’t be destroyed or stopped until it reaches a pre-determined point on the map– moments when a game that makes the player feel an incredible sense of agency and freedom suddenly feels artificial.

A sandbox that really, really gets this right, however, is Just Cause 2. It’s an almost polar opposite of GTA IV— colorful, frenetic, with shallow characters and a world that rarely feels like more than a big set of sandcastles for you to knock over. But it also does an absolutely amazing job of making the player feel like a complete uncontrollable wildcard. This is in part due to the player’s  incredible mobility– with a Zelda-style hookshot, the ability to surf on top of moving vehicles, and an infinite supply of parachutes, the player can rocket around the game’s wide-open spaces and becomes impossible to pin down. It’s also due to fairly smart mission design. Even

You can seriously go from booting the game up to riding a passenger plane in 30 seconds and four button presses.

the game’s more linear missions end up feeling fairly chaotic and keeping the player on their toes (such as one where you grapple from the bumpers of a convoy of vehicles, shooting off police pursuers and defusing the bombs strapped to the cars), whereas the game’s main objectives boil down to “destabilizing” the local dictatorship by running around causing chaos.

Just Cause 2 is, in all fairness, not nearly as good of a game as Grand Theft Auto IV. It’s pure, cheesy fun, not a powerfully-written crime drama about the evil of the American dream. But as a sandbox it absolutely excels– a sandbox game will, by its very form, be about chaos, and the game’s decision to resist corralling the player and give them truly extreme levels of mobility and frenetic, loosely-structured missions make it the rare sandbox where you feel as free in the missions as you do when exploring the world.

Things to Do

A sandbox isn’t a sandbox without the sand— not just an open world, but things to do in it. There are  two cases of sandbox games from recent years that both failed in this regard: Mafia II and L.A. Noire. We’re almost certainly going to talk about L.A. Noire in a later column devoted solely to its inspired and muddled attempts to do bold new things, so instead, Mafia II.

Get used to this view. You will see a lot of it.

It was Goodfellas done as a competent third-person shooter, with over-long driving missions in between the shooting sessions. Your options outside of the main story were limited to: stealing cars and driving them to a dock or junkyard, buying clothes, and robbing stores. You could pick fights with cops or shoot civilians, but the ability to rampage and cause trouble felt almost perfunctory (the fact that the civilians walking the streets rarely did anything but walk along the sidewalk didn’t make the world feel particularly deep, either). It was a sandbox game about the Mafia that punished you for speeding. To stretch the sandbox metaphor: Mafia II didn’t have any sand. It didn’t have any toys. It wasn’t a box. It was the parking lot outside an arcade where you pushed shopping carts around to earn the money to go inside and play the fun shooter games.

A game that makes the decision to include an open world– and that asks the player to drive across this world –needs to justify it either by providing diversions or enriching the atmosphere, and Mafia II didn’t. Exploring its pseudo-New-York doesn’t flesh out the game’s themes or story (unlike Liberty City, it’s not a satiric take or particularly different from the real New York, and the game could have easily put up a “New York, 1943” title card at the beginning and achieved the same effect). Instead, the inclusion of the sandbox simply paired every mission with an equal– or longer –period of driving.

On the other hand, an open world made almost entirely of “stuff to do” can be found in the hyper-stylized WWII sandbox The Saboteur. The game’s premise basically promised nothing but a parade of chaos diversions: “you play an angry and often-drunk ex-IRA racecar driver. You are in occupied Paris. Here’s a sack of bombs– every time you blow up Nazis, you get more money to buy more bombs.” The game’s world is absolutely riddled with watchtowers, zeppelins, SS officers, and anti-aircraft turrets, all of which can be permanently destroyed. It also gives the player multiple approaches, letting you steal Nazi uniforms to infiltrate ares, clamber across rooftops, or just throw C4 and rockets around wildly. There’s a real, tangible, reward to this too– you can scout out the area of an upcoming mission, destroy the sniper perches and watchtowers ahead of time, and clear out roadblocks along your escape route.

The only problem with the art design is that it makes Nazi occupation look absolutely beautiful.

It’s also a world that responds to you doing diversions– “liberated” zones (freed by doing major side missions) have less Nazis and more hiding places, whereas areas that haven’t been inspired to start le Resistance are crawling with potential enemies. Most impressively– and in a great choice that made The Saboteur a cult classic despite its serious issues,” the areas under tight Nazi control are bathed in a bleak high-contrast black-and-white, with only blood, fire, mission objectives, and the red of the swastika still in color, whereas freeing them bathes the areas in vibrant, hypersaturated colors (think a game that alternates between the visual styles of Sin City and a spaghetti Western). It fills the game world with things to do (more than any sane player will ever finish), and makes the world  visually  stunning to boot (the prettiest parts being the blood and explosions caused by indulging in the side activities). If nothing else, it contains an optional side mission in which you assassinate an SS officer during his wedding, which is officiated by Steve Blum. Every game should have side missions where Steve Blum asks you to “in the name of all that is holy, blow his fucking head off.”

A Living World

The best sandboxes– see GTAIV above– aren’t just big, open, and varied. They also feel like a world that the player inhabits, instead of just playing in. Whereas most games solely react to the player’s actions, a sandbox requires a world that believably lives and breathes. The player can’t simply interact with the world– the world itself has to interact with the player and  seem to operate autonomously.

Want to start a giant, bloody fight with an army of mascots? Only when the game wants you to.

This may summarize our biggest frustration with Saint’s Row The Third. The second game was full of weird interactions and bizarre patterns: you could start a war with the pimps by punching one in the face, hijack an ambulance and respond to emergency calls, or just listen to passers-by talk about what was going on in the quests (a brilliant one: “I think the story of the Saints would make a great anime!”).  In SR3, though, everyone on the sidewalk is walking from one place to the other. They’ll occasionally comment on something crazy you do. You can’t tear  fire hydrants out of the ground, the enemy gangs won’t fight each other. You’ll see plenty of crazy things, but even the men in hot dog suits riding scooters are just silently riding them in predetermined paths.

The game delivers spectacle aplenty, and the main story and its side missions have plenty of wild, crazy moments. But the real joy of the sandbox as a genre is that it allows the player to create their own spectacle by playing around with the world’s own rhythms and life, and SR3 doesn’t offer too much in that regard. The reason that rampaging wildly in GTAIV and other crime games is so fun is because it makes the player feel like a madman wreaking havoc in a real, deep world, but SR3’s relative lifelessness turns the world from a plaything to a set.

Red Dead Redemption, on the other hand, is an absolute triumph at creating this kind of world. It’s surprising that there haven’t been more Western sanboxes– the only one that comes to mind is Gun, which was decent if nowhere near the same quality as RDR –given that the genres are both so strongly dependent on setting and that the Old West is as sprawling, morally gray, and beautiful a setting as you could hope for. This is a fact Red Dead realizes: one of the game’s biggest draws (besides the usual high quality of writing and characters we’ve come to expect from Rockstar) is the way that it really does make the player feel like a  Western  hero. And it does this, in large part, by making the world feel real and alive.

Part of the success in this department is the incorporation of random encounters and events– things that were too small to be side

It’s also the best cougar-knife-fighting game on the market.

missions, but that the player can run into and either ignore or intervene in. The way these encounters are designed fleshes out the world and gives a real sense of freedom: the game doesn’t simply give you the mission to stop an execution, but when you’re riding through Mexico and see a group of soldiers by the side of the road about to shoot someone it’s hard to resist intervening. Some of them repeat too often– one would think the shopkeep in Armadillo might invest in a gun after the fifth time he’s robbed –but on your travels through the (intensely beautiful, wonderfully varied) world, there are plenty of moments where it’s easy to sit back and watch the world run without your interference.

There’s also many, many even smaller and more detailed ways that the game drives you to interact with the world. There’s the option to hunt– in which you make that world a little less alive –a train that runs throughout the world and which the player can ride alongside for its entire route, wild horses to be lassoed and broken, bandit dens to eliminate, and a whole host of big and small adventures to have. Whereas Saint’s Row feels like an over-the-top gangster story, Red Dead Redemption feels like the entire genre of the Western in a big and vibrant way, folding elements and scenes from  Sergio Leone, The Great Silence, Dead Man, The Searchers, Blood Meridian, the myth f Jesse James, and other landmarks of the genre. Making the game feel so alive and rich  transforms it from the tragic story of John Marston to the tragic story of the West itself.