Sandboxes

I recently finished playing Red Dead Redemption. Note that I didn’t say “finished”, I said “finished playing”. What’s the difference? Because one implies completion while the other does not, and I fall into the latter category. I kept playing through it for a while, but eventually I gave up and returned it (I’ve been using GameFly, Grand Rental Station, thus all the games). Why did I stop, you might ask? Answer: because I was so freaking bored. I realized that I was really only playing to see the ending, and that the last several hours were actually rather dull. Even the peak of the first area, the raid on the fort, was something of a mundane activity after doing so…much…busy…work to get what was needed.

I played Redemption because people have been calling it a fantastic game with a wonderful plot. However, I beg to disagree. The plot really is mediocre for most of the game, with the interesting characters being straightfacedly cliche. The problem lies with most missions revolving around “Spend ten minutes autopiloting to the mission spot then blow away ten blokes in five seconds”. This forces the game to come up with more and more reasons for you to go to place A and shoot at Red Dot B through L, which begins to wear rather thin. I lost count of how many times a mission would start with “Mount up, Mr. Marsden, we have to kill (guy)/been betrayed/rescue kidnap victim”. And if I have to hear Marsden talk about how he can’t stop killing/whore around/ whatever because of his ever-absent wife then I’m going to snap. I could murder half of Mexico, become an ultimate outlaw, and I bet the guy would stay as faithful as ever, simply because he never shuts up about the woman. While this might have been a good way to develop the character, he always mentions her in exactly the same, static way. That’s not good exposition, kids.

This is less of the fault of the writers (okay, partially) and more the problem with sandbox games. Grand Theft Auto 4 had the same issue for me, where the developers made this grand old world to run around in and figured that they would show it off as much as they could. Thus, every mission was 80% mindless travel time and 20% fun. It made me dread taking missions because I knew that I’d spend half an hour listening to the radio as I drove to the X on my radar. I suppose that it helps with “immersion” and gives the world a feeling of hugeness, but it does wear very thin when it happens a thousand and one times over again.

The problem with “immersion” in the Rockstar Duo in question lies in two parts: the travel is boring and the game is unrealistic. The first issue is something of a subtle thing, it’s difficult to make repeatedly traveling to places “fun”. However, you can at least make it somewhat enjoyable. Two games that exhibit good design in that area are InFamous and Prototype, which are arguably the same game. Both had interesting travel mechanisms (super jumping), a feature that would probably be out of place in a western, but there was also an element of danger in travel that spiced it up. That’s the key to exciting travel: danger. You must have random pockets of conflict, or at least signs that you’re moving through something bigger than yourself, a la the army-infected conflict of Prototype. If you feel like there isn’t any danger, then you’re probably not going to enjoy your movement. I knew that the “match the speed of your companion” (which I heard as “autopilot”) function was a bad sign, and I was right. Far too much wandering around barren deserts for me. At least put some cows up! Wandering bandits, a few ranchers looking for wayward cows, I don’t care. Fallout had more populated areas than this, and it was post-nuclear!

The second problem lies in the realism. Yes, I know that no game is going to be truly realistic, real people can’t heal bullet wounds with hamburgers. However, if you’re going to go for the “drive everywhere yourself” approach then you can’t approach “real” half-cocked. However, games like GTA4 where it’s perfectly acceptable to plow into a crowd with your car and get away scot free as long as no cops are directly watching  is a game for dicking around in. However, it still insists on “realism” when it comes to driving everywhere? (taxis don’t count) They need to pick one or the other. As an example for good design look at the recently released Mafia II, the game has you dying after three bullets on normal and moving boxes around to give your character motivation to join the mafia. It’s trying to make the game immersive in a way that actually works for the mindset: you have to go all the way. Otherwise, you really need to throw some way to move faster around the world map.

I can appreciate the sandbox mindset, I can. Running down one corridor gets really boring after a while, especially if the game’s building crews have suspiciously modular design and decor styles. Plus, games that fake big landscapes with invisible walls or very restricting walkways (looking at you, Final Fantasy) are produced by jerks. However, one must not overlook tight environments, they are much better for set pieces and push the story along in a much better way. I think that is real problem that I have with sandboxes, I play games for the story, not for the dicking around. I’ve heard tales of people spending hours doing nothing but hunting animals in Red Dead, an activity I only had patience for when I was riding back and forth from the missions and came across a wandering deer. Perhaps sandboxes are not for me. Perhaps I should stick to games with more focus on story and tighter-packed gameplay than the “huge world” style. Perhaps I’m just insane.

But I must say this: I have the Halo problem with Red Dead, everyone loves it to soggy bits and I can’t see why. It was an ambitious game, I’ll give it that, but it simply didn’t follow through for me. Perhaps I’m missing the appeal of screwing around in the world, perhaps that’s why I never did the side quests in Prototype. However, I’m going to pretend that it’s because I’m such a literary-minded genius that I can’t stand to be playing without a proper story to drive my actions. Yeah, I’ll go with that. Now proceed to tell me how I have terrible taste, fans of the game.

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2 thoughts on “Sandboxes

  1. Not going to go on a rant but, *Deep inhale* how can you call a plot mediocre if you don’t even finish it? The story is called great because it has a giant plot twist that neither me nor my friends saw coming.

    • That was preceded by hours upon hours of boring gameplay and story. A story must be interesting throughout, with carefully-done exposition that (for a sandbox game) puts out a little more of the plot each time. But so much of the game is just the same holding pattern and mostly meaningless fetch/murder quests that drive the entire plot into a few missions, which is decidedly *not* good exposition. The twist at the end might have been grand but the investment of my time and effort to grind through the slog to get there was simply not worth it.

      Edit: I looked up the ending, you really didn’t see that coming? That was the last cliche to top the pile off, it was inevitable that it would come to pass. I’m a little pissed that I devoted so much time trying to get an ending that I guessed in the first hour… damn.

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