When considering game ‘worlds’ two terms are used frequently and albeit loosely: ‘Open’ and ‘Linear’. ‘Open’ worlds are as;
‘Instead of pushing the player toward a physical ending, separated by encounters and obstacles, the of the level is based on the player performing a certain number of tasks, earning a number of points, or simply finding a way out using the environment.’
And then ‘linear’ worlds as:
‘Linear levels are bread and butter of many action games. The player starts on one end of the level and finishes at the other. Along the way he is forced to interact with the level – to shoot some aliens or solve a puzzle’
Playing a sandbox game, or at least one that is branded as ‘open’, can initially be a very freeing experience. Suddenly, the linear constraints of conventional video games are removed allowing for a new level of empowerment. The ‘world’ is open to the player from the start and (usually) is completely malleable. Instead of an emphasis on progression, Sandbox games focus on exploration and player selected tasks. These worlds are usually seamless or procedurally generated, making for truly unique experiences and worlds.
Instead of an emphasis on progression. This statement seems to conflict with the very notion of telling a story or a exploring a narrative (Narrative being the arrangement of story material to in order to generate a specific response) because the focus in a ‘sandbox’ is no longer on reaching specific goals, and consequentially, story beats.
So how do you tell a story in a ‘sandbox’ game?
Ludology vs Narratology
As mentioned above, ‘sandbox’ games will struggle to tell a story because the fundamental factors of what make a ‘sandbox’ clash with the fundamental factors of what make a story. Because of this, ‘sandbox’ games have, instead of telling stories, focused on building worlds where stories can happen. This, for better or for worse, leads this blog to a debate close to the chest of games design.
A division exists in the study of games and game fiction. That of ‘Ludology vs Narratology’. Narratologists would argue that games should be read as forms of traditional narrative and therefore should be studied this way. Ludologists say otherwise, believing that game fiction stands in its own right. That games should be studied through their systems and how they function as games.
This debate has interesting implications for the study of narrative in games and coming from a screenwriting background, I admit that I approach most of my analysis with a leaning towards traditional narrative criticism. However, I cannot help but recognise the remarkable aspects of video game narrative. For one, the fact that the player is a participator in the narrative and not just a spectator or reader must surely warrant a new angle of study.
Plenty of games are rightly labelled as ‘Sandbox’ but provide some semblance of narratology, such as in the Grand Theft Auto franchise, where a linear storyline exists around the ‘ludic’ elements. True ‘Sandbox’ games, however, use purely ‘ludic’ elements to allow stories to happen.
As for my opinion on this debate, I believe that the symbiosis of Ludology and Narratology offers more to game design than the division does and I also believe one insanely popular title supports my hypothesis.
Minecraft: Ludology and Narratology
Minecraft is a brilliant example of a ‘sandbox’ game that is ‘ludic’. Without any dialogue, any characters (other than the player) or any (obvious) narrative, you feel like you’re on a journey. Lets take a common spelunking trip in the world of Minecraft;
At first you will have a world in equilibrium, then will come the call to adventure as you seek to gain more power, you will cross the threshold into the caves of your world where you will face danger, tests and enemies. You may well die, only to be reborn and return with new knowledge. Eventually you will seize your reward, a diamond or three. The road back to equilibrium is often the hardest, the forces in the caves seem to have grown stronger as they present a last ditch attempt to stop you. Finally you will emerge, having got what you set out to find but also a changed person from the experience.
Sounds like most character based drama, doesn’t it? Thats because it is… and it isn’t.
The hero’s journey is essentially a pattern of narrative identified in a wide range of different mediums. Devised by Joseph Campbell’s ‘Monomyth’ and ‘The Hero With A Thousand Faces’, this pattern has heavily inspired film makers and story tellers, most notably George Lucas and the ‘Star Wars’ simple yet effective narrative arc. In some regards, the same pattern can be identified in Minecraft’s gameplay. Perhaps there is some credit to the narratologists claim.
Although it isn’t overt, Minecraft does feature progression. It features a tiered system of items all the way from wood to diamond. In later versions they introduced achievements and eventually an ending to the game. With all these features that wouldn’t go amiss in a narrative, Minecraft is still a ‘ludic’ experience.
As much time as you would spend under ground in your own little heroes journey, you’ll also spend above ground, creating your own narrative through the gameplay elements on offer. You’ll build your dream mountain side chalet, you’ll bring along friends, you’ll laugh and joke about the brilliantly clunky combat.
In addition, the world itself is brimming with character. The enemies, specifically the green, exploding creeper that has gone on to become an icon for a generation of those who build, destroy and build again, are full of charm. The animals, added to the game over time, stand as a good testament to Ludology as they behave in the gloriously stupid ways that only video game programming can generate. Their demeanours are perfectly reflected In their model designs, and the addition of texture packs unlock new dimensions on these already quirky creatures.
The only issue levelled at Minecraft as far as narrative is concerned would be the lack of identification. Now, there are two emotional mountains that I typically climb when I start new world in Minecraft, Mojangs’ insanely successful indie sandbox game. First of all, I am overwhelmed with a sense of wonderment. I know this world, playfully rendered and completely malleable has so much to offer to me as a prospective builder, collector or socialite. I know this world is massive, infinite even, and with it’s procedural generation of terrain I am confident that whatever world I find myself in now will never be the same as the next. With this, however, comes the second emotional mountain: Lethargy. In such a massive world with limitless potential to excite and intrigue the imagination, my projects and intentions may remain in limbo, lost somewhere between wonderment and lethargy. Just like the game itself, there are two truth’s in that statement, firstly, that Minecraft, as a game, is only limited by it’s users imagination. Secondly, and perhaps much more embarrassingly, that my imagination may not be all it’s shaped up to be.
This lethargy mentioned above is something that may be experienced with most ‘Sandbox’ games. Whereas I may be able to sit down and play a game with a clear narrative from start to finish, I find myself burning out on titles like Minecraft. I can attribute this only to a lack of agency (The idea that your actions matter or have an effect) The more you invest into the world and the more you change it the more you realise that your actions are meaningless in this world.
On level, perhaps a shift of perspective is needed when considering ‘sandbox’ games. With the lack of any narrative, any dialogue or any tangible emotional identification, it becomes obvious that Minecraft never wanted you to identify with it, it simply wanted you to have fun and some things will never change. Least of all the pleasure of creation.
Image credit: Mojang
Byrne, E. (2005). ‘Game Level Design.’, 1-58450-369-6