Yes, a Video Game's Sandbox Can Kill its Narrative

By Rich Shivener in Unraveling Yarns
Monday, August 1, 2011 at 3:00 pm
Do you really know Niko Bellic?
Of course the question of gameplay versus narrative is still relevant, and it will remain so for many years to come, especially as more games feature narratives unraveled and knit together by open-world gameplay. These are often billed as "sandbox" games, which is a gameplay style that allows the player to freely explore a game's world, completing side-quests, advancing subplots, killing random people, or engaging in various other activities that aren't oriented directly towards beating the game. Or as Steve Berlin of Gamasutra posits in "The History and Theory of Sandbox Gameplay"

"The concept of sandbox-style gameplay, as we know, suggests more-or-less undirected free-play. The metaphor is a child playing in a sandbox: the child produces a world from sand, the most basic of material. This in contrast to a game where the upper-level content is presented fully formed and ordered."

Game commentators like Berlin have tackled the aforementioned question, considering such titles as Grand Theft Auto IV, Assassin's Creed and Red Dead Redemption. My piece is a follow-up to such commentary, which has legitimate concerns about sandbox elements negating a game's narrative. Narrative struggles in the sandbox if that sandbox is too big and malleable.

From an optimist's point of view, L.A. Noire makes a case for a narrative complemented by a scaled-down sandbox, or a world with fewer distractions. Some argue that it's not a sandbox at all.
For a moment, I'll consider some existing commentary. In June, writer Ka Lan Leung of the Urban Shogun blog filed a brief yet thought-provoking piece titled "Sandbox Games - The Death of the Narrative?". The writer's piece considers the sandbox elements and narrative of GTA IV.

"While engaging in a casual conversation amongst friends, I stepped across a dilemma. I have always been drawn to videogames for the strong narrative and storytelling, possibly originating from my early experiences with video games playing games like Final Fantasy VII and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. I was shocked to find that even though they had owned GTA IV for a couple of years, that they had yet to complete it. They‚d even managed to stay grounded in the first island but incidentally somehow they knew all the ins and outs of the Liberty City map."

Leung is critical of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas's map, remarking that "the map was so large and incoherent that the game loses its focus. Instead of embroiling in CJ's tale of tragedy we were side-tracked with more menial missions like trucking and traveling across the huge map.

"The liberty city map in GTA IV is much smaller in comparison to the vast San Andreas map," he adds, "but this limitation actually prevents distractions and provides a canvas to portray the more serious tone that was implemented to Niko Bellic's tale."

The keyword in Leung's piece is "distraction," something recent games have championed, including GTA IV. It, too, has diversions worth pointing out. Niko Bellic can get drunk, beat up hookers and gun down unsuspecting denizens of Liberty City. He can do this for hours, never returning to the objectives that advance his narrative, one of prevailing in America.

Once an owner of GTA IV, I'm guilty of diverting from Niko's narrative by sending the main character on paths of unwarranted death and destruction. Sure, I had a blast, but I reached the narrative's end in, oh, 200 hours, rather than 100 hours, as projected by Rockstar Games.

Simply put, it's no question that sandbox-style games can create more playing hours than others. Again, I turn to Berlin: 

"The necessary framework guides the presentation of the sandbox elements as the world develops and unfolds. This is often expressed as a reward system, which can involve new areas to explore and new stuff to do, more difficult gameplay structures to navigate, more story unfolding, more missions becoming available, and so on. It can be based on exploring the space of the game (exploring Liberty City for example), and it can be based on watching the game-world develop over time."

Contrary to the sandbox that is Liberty City, Los Angeles of L.A. Noire has less exploring opportunities. Playing as Cole Phelps, the police officer central to the narrative, you simply aren't capable of shooting the random Joe. You can't run down piles of pedestrians with ease. You can't set fire to a building.

Yes, you can explore, but malleable objects and deadly excursions are almost nonexistent. The limited gameplay here allows us to focus on the narrative, a "twisted character study," to cite fellow Joystick Division writer James Hawkins. (Read his piece on L.A. Noire here.)

But I would be remiss if I didn't cite possible downsides of such gameplay. Kirk Hamilton of Kill Screen articulated these well in a review of L.A. Noire, pointing out the city's lifeless reactions to his diversions: 

"Soon I had run more than a mile, down alleyways and across parking lots, past cars and buses and trains, through side streets and straight up Hollywood Boulevard. Cars always stopped just short of striking me; police officers made no note of my passing. I could not draw my gun, I could not use the phone, I could not even speak. I could only run."

With that mind, we're faced with some questions: Should future sandbox-style (open world) games be modeled after GTA IV or L.A. Noire? Better yet, what is the future of the sandbox?

I turn to Henry Jenkin's blog for more questions: "Are we going to get bigger worlds with shallower dynamics or smaller worlds with deeper dynamics? Or maybe there doesn't have to be a trade off. I still don't believe sandbox games, stealth or otherwise, have to sacrifice depth for size."

Or size for narrative. L.A. Noire demonstrates narrative thriving in a sandbox-y environment, but the trade-off needs further investigation. In other words, the case isn't close.

Unraveling Yarns is a weekly column that explores video games as narrative delivery devices. James Hawkins and Rich Shivener rotate week-to-week to discuss their opinions on some of gaming's most challenging and nuanced stories from all generations. Follow James on Twitter @JamesHawk1ns. Follow Rich on Twitter @RichShiv.

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