Coming Apart At The Seams: Sandbox Games

Anyone who plays sandbox games knows about their “seams.” Well, maybe not. I just made up that term. But you know what I’m talking about: the places where you run into the edges of the sandbox and are pretty much forced into the realization that you are just playing a game, and it doesn’t have to make sense.

And yes, I realize that in some ways, this is inevitable. In others, it seems unimaginative, and in yet others it seems downright sloppy. I’m going to take some examples of each of these from the two games I’ve been playing the most over the past few years: Skyrim and Elite: Dangerous.

As far as the inevitable “seams,” the best example is that of borders. Eventually, you have to run out of playing field. An example of a really well-done “seam” is found in ED: the edges of the galaxy. It works because it feels natural. They even show extragalactic features such as the LMC and the GMC and M31. Why can’t you go there? Because human technology just isn’t that good. Makes perfect sense in the game universe: this is about as close as you can get to a seamless border. Skyrim is a bit less competent, but that’s the nature of the beast. Eventually, you just get to a place where your character runs into an invisible wall. You can’t leave Skyrim. I have to admit I don’t know how you’d solve that.

On the border of “inevitable” and “unimaginative” are the times in Skyrim where you run into someone who you really want to kill and discover that they are simply unkillable, or at least, unkillable yet. This has been the bane of D&D-like RPGs since they were computerized: your hero character who is supposed to be able to take down a Dragon God, and yet, cannot kill a shopkeeper and take his stuff. I’m not sure exactly how you do solve that. In the case of shopkeepers or very important plot-specific characters, especially in a magic-heavy environment, I wonder why it hasn’t occurred to the writers not to, for example, create 1) a giant alarm-spell that calls guards instantly to a scene of unjustifiable attack, coupled with 2) shopkeepers or nobles who always carry an emergency invisibility potion and sensibly use it an run the hell away when they’re attacked, leaving your character to 3) get dogpiled on by the guards, and 4) discover that they cam back as soon as you left out of boredom or being driven off by guards. Of course, once your character is up somewhere above 50th level, it still requires the game to explain why your character can’t essentially conquer the world single-handed since he is, after all, the person who is supposed to stop the Dragon God who wants to conquer the world single-handed. So there’s still a seam there (more on this later).

In the downright unimaginative corner comes a certain feature of ED that really annoyed me. Some systems in ED are permit-locked. The game won’t allow you to plot a hyperspace jump to them until you’ve accomplished something. A bit more on this in the next section.
Now, if you like thinking your way around problems like I do, you notice something: a shop in ED  really has two FTL drives. The hyperspace jump is the “fast” drive. It will take you anywhere from 8-40 light years in about ten seconds. But you get around each system using a “slow” FTL drive or “frameshift drive.” And when I say slow, it’s still really fast. Given time, it can build to speeds in excess of Star Trek‘s Warp 10. So you can’t JUMP to a permit-locked system, but given the time and patience, you could certainly just GO there…
Except you can’t. If you try, you discover that the star you have been heading for, which is a gigantic ball of hydrogen fusion and attendant planets when you jump there, is a mere point of light when you finish your hours-long flight. Sigh.
It occurred to me that a way around this would be to take a page from Zork: interstellar space is a dark place, and if you try to fly directly between stars, the odds are almost certain that You Will Be Eaten By A Space Grue. (For a really great classic SF story that uses this concept, read Cordwainer Smith’s “The Game Of Rat And Dragon.” It’s wonderful.)

And then you get to the truly sloppy stuff: Remember the permit-locks I mentioned earlier? Well, that makes perfect sense when it’s, say, the Empire saying that you can’t visit their capital system without a permit. It makes somewhat LESS sense, when its hundreds of stars out in the middle of nowhere and no one knows who has issued the permit or why. And yet there are several such regions in the galaxy. It’s pretty obvious this is the game designers saying DON’T GO THERE. SIGNED, GOD, but it looks pretty bad. Honestly, it would be better to do something like marking them all “No pilot has ever jumped to these stars and returned.” and making it an instakill if you do, with legends of the disappeared pilots in game.

So, those are my thoughts. I’d be interested to hear yours.

2 thoughts on “Coming Apart At The Seams: Sandbox Games

  1. Seriously, regarding Skyrim. If they didn’t want you to make early attempts on Ancano’s life, they ought at least to have given Urag different reading material.

    (But what’s really unforgivable is your complete inability to use Ulfric’s dossier in the Civil War plot.)

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