Open World Sandboxes Have An Issue With Storytelling
Open world sandboxes are fairly unique among game genres. Most genres can be used to tell a coherent story, but sandboxes struggle incredibly with this task.
We all love sandboxes (Anybody else excited for Red Dead 2?), but I don’t believe that sandbox games are all that good at telling their stories. If you look at something like Grand Theft Auto 4, you’ll find a great game, with an interesting character in the form of Nico Bellic serving as the protagonist. The game was decently expansive, feeling like an actual city to walk around in, but it ignored one of the chief rules of great video game writing: gameplay and story are invariably linked.
In Resident Evil, you traverse areas filled with zombies while a plot that deals with zombies unfolds. In Call of Duty, you shoot the enemy soldiers while a story about military procedures and global political action is told. When it comes to the Grand Theft Auto series however, you speed around cities at high speeds, flipping hundred-thousand dollar cars through the streets of densely populated urban areas and stealing aircraft to crash into the ground for giggles, but then you get to the story to find a tale about fairly realistic revenge and redemption being played out.
“… the gameplay is almost always non-canon to the actual story.”
The problem with stories in sandboxes is that the gameplay is almost always non-canon to the actual story. No, Nico did not slaughter three hundred people in a hospital, walk out with an RPG and destroy the entire LCPD only to go to Roman’s crappy apartment to talk about their days in the red army. This is evidenced in games like Assassin’s Creed as well, where you, the player, will camp outside of a gate and slowly kill hundreds of guards on their patrols, but then a cutscene comes along and shows your protagonist held at bay by four guards while the villain monologues at you.
I suppose that you could make the argument that you have to meet the game’s story halfway on realism, but then why is the gameplay designed to be so fun and different to the story? I believe that this issue is a symptom of game stories being developed to be po-faced and serious. If you think about sandboxes that don’t have this problem, like Red Dead Redemption or Just Cause, you’ll find that the first has gameplay that is grounded and fits the story, whereas the second has a story and premise befitting of the silly violent gameplay.
I believe that we should reexamine just how we’ve been using the sandbox genre. We utilize it for stories like crime dramas when we should be using it for something more lighthearted. It’s like telling a serious story about a man’s grand world-spanning revenge tale with a puzzle platformer. It just doesn’t fit very well.
I think that lighthearted, or at least stylized, sandboxes would be a grand breath of fresh air, and I do believe that we’re getting there. These types of games would most certainly help us break away from our realistic white man revenge simulators and the mountains of punch the tree to survive games that have consumed PC gaming.