I love sandbox games as much as the next guy, but lately i’ve been getting bored with them. It’s not that they’re bad, it’s just, pretty much all of them come across to me as “YOU GET TO BE CRIMINAL IN THIS GAME!”, each one with some minor differences in game play to help them standout from the others.
Are there better ways to make sandbox games that don’t have to be virtual Scarface worship?
Yes. There is.
The appeal of sandbox games is that the player gets to do whatever they want, whenever they like, progressing through the plot at their own pace. There’s no reason why that can only be used for crime games, just look at Red Dead Redemption for the most obvious example, but then look at Yakuza.
Was it still about law and crime? To a point yes, but the game’s never had crime as part of the game play, instead the games tell a story about a former hit man raising the orphaned daughter of his lover, each game bringing us more of his exploits. Later on we made some new friends in a laid-back loanshark who could kick a guy in the face six times before he could blink, a large, imposing escaped convict with a heart the size of a house, a malicious yet comedic yakuza with an eye-patch and a snakeskin jacket, and a bilingual detective who used bribes to take care of illegal immigrants.
The game doesn’t have you driving and shooting, rather, it has walking through the city, helping people through side quests, playing mini-games, while occasionally putting you in a street fight against street punks and gang bangers and having you kick the crap out of them like a character out of Street Fighter.
The style and formula worked so well for the series that they had spin-offs that took place in the Edo period, and in a zombie outbreak.
A perfect example of a sandbox game that doesn’t have to be about being a criminal.
Now let’s look a L.A. Noire, one of my favorite games, it had you doing interrogations and looking for clues rather the just walking up to guys and popping a cap in them, and i’d like to see more sandbox games like it. Have the player be a private detective with his own office, who does cases on his own time, now the player can do things in the game other then the cases themselves. Keep all the cases in a file on a desk in the player character’s office, have cases that advance the plot separate and let the player do them whenever he wants, meanwhile have randomly generated optional cases, using the in-game time to set deadlines for them, let the player solves the cases professionally, or have them solve them by using bribes, blackmail, and beating anwsers out of people and so on. Put it modern times so in addition to clue finding and interviews, players can also do some forensic stuff; using UV lights, collecting and comparing fluid samples, finding finger prints, taking crime photos, maybe even autospies.
Red Dead Redemption had us in the end of the old west, Bully sent us back to school, there are plenty of other settings and time periods that could make for an interesting sandbox game. Off the top my head? Massachusetts’ witch burnings? Yeah, have a sandbox game about the witch burnings, but with actual witches. Make the player a witch hunter, make them use a crossbow; it only has one shot before reload, so firing it demands accuracy and timing, later on have the player upgrade to a repeating crossbow that can shoot five or six bolts before reloading. Let the player fly on a witch’s broom, drink potions, maybe throw in some other supernatural creatures, the game will be titled “Salem”.
I’m just venting here, I don’t have a problem with being a criminal in a game, but i’d like to see sandbox games that give me more than simply asking “What kind of criminal am I going to be in this game?”