Going to the beach is awesome. Going out with friends and family, building sandcastles, and generally getting sunburned because you thought “Nah, I’m good, I don’t need that much sun lotion….” is pretty awesome on the whole. Sandboxes on the other hand, not so much…
The idea of a sandbox is to, in a sense, recreate the beach without going to the beach. It’s a little bit amusing, but you wouldn’t want to spend the whole day in one. There’s always leaves, it’s extra damp and muddy at the bottom, but not in the “I just dug down far enough that sea-water is seeping through way, but more in the “I found out where all the water went after it rained” way. Not to mention there’s always the cat/dog/bird/other kid/miscellaneous animal living in there, using it as a bathroom, or worse, both.
I mainly bring this up because, as we all know, there’s the genre in gaming know as the “sandbox” type game. The name usually implies control over your world and how it works, with your actions changing and shaping it as you play. Minecraft is a great example of what a sandbox game is/should be. I know; the graphics leave something to be desired, it doesn’t have beautiful high-res rendered in Unreal, Source or any other high-quality game engine and Runescape’s graphics put it to shame at the moment; but, it does do one thing for the player: it allows them to do and make anything, and I mean anything they want. Do you want a castle connecting to a mine with a moat and a bridge? You’ve got it! Want to make an ALU? You can do it! Wanna make a building shaped like famous places? Sure! We can do that! What about building fully-detailed reproductive organs? Well, you might be kind of alone in that desire, and as much as you may want to brag, it will never be perfectly to scale (it’s like a bad fishing story…).
Unfortunately, this concept of an “open-world sandbox” has been over-abused. We now have more and more games that are saying “Hey! Listen! In our new game we have a wonderful, living, open-world sandbox for you to explore in our game, so please buy it!”, only to later find out that the game could stand completely on its own without the “feature” and that, in fact, it’s amazingly superfluous. For example, probably two of the best games that came out this past year of 2011: Batman: Arkham City and L.A. Noire. Both have solid story-lines, good acting, great production values and have been critically acclaimed as great games, and yet, both have this awkwardly tacked-on open-world mechanic that seems to be there more for show than anything else. In L.A. Noire, unless you want to spend five minutes of driving just to get from one neighborhood to the next, possibly responding to the street crime that always seems to pop up in the exact opposite direction of your next mission objective and near to absolutely nothing interesting, you let your partner drive everywhere.
Even though Minecraft is a good example of an excellent sandbox game, allowing you to create huge edifices and buildings in general, but, it hasn’t yet transcended the barrier of full freedom of movement and creation. Modders have gotten closer than anyone else with modified game modes with possibilities of magic, vehicles, cities, quests, bosses, more creatures and more advanced items and weapons. For example, one server can have a city that has an understandable and functional economy, a survival world, a hardcore world and most impressively, a ship battle area with submarines, ships and airplanes that are all fully functional and sink/crash when destroyed by tnt cannons or anti-aircraft guns. Other servers have magic and spells that allow you to teleport, make and shoot fire and ice arrows and conquer castles and kingdoms. Heck, there are even a few zombie survival servers out there, and all of this created by players that took the basic tools and functions of the creation of Markus Pearsson and made their own games and modes.
The true sandbox shouldn’t really be called a sandbox. When we get to the point where we have a game that allows and gives us the tools to do, well, anything, it should really be called a beach game, the better, more fun and more awesome big brother that sandboxes want to be. And yet, we as players would all of a sudden transcend the state of merely being players to being, in essence, the developers of our own games, dictating our own experiences and stories. As with all change, there would be plenty of people against the change, there will still be a demand and need for traditional gaming because we want the experience that a particular creator can deliver. Many developers would protest such a change in how games are made and produced, but with this relatively new media platform of gaming, we as players and the developers of tomorrow need to work to keep games as a diverse and flexible medium.