The open-world or ‘sandbox’ sub-genre exploded in the mid-2000s when technological developments made it economically viable. We saw the rise of Grand Theft Auto, the resurgence of Fallout, and the malaria-infested, bullet-biting fun of Far Cry 2. While the everything-has-to-be-open-world disease seems to be in remission, we’re still seeing a fair number of titles coming out, some of them of a very high standard - including a beautiful entry in the Zelda franchise this year. Whether the lasting appeal of the sub-genre is due to its potential as a more-refined expression of an ideal product of the medium, or whether it’s simply because the looser restrictions allow for games that can provide a variety of experiences - and thus appeal to a larger demographic - I can’t say. But it’s clear that sandbox games are here to stay.
We felt hints of the potential power of open-world games long before Oblivion took the stage, and I don’t think it’s too hipster of me to suggest that I was sandboxing before it was cool. Friends would come over with their computers and, driven by our own boredom (as well as Snoken’s cinematic masterpiece, Mine'), we’d manipulate gameplay systems to make our own fun.
Boredom was the core factor in driving this behavior. Listen to any psychologist or philosopher, and they’ll tell you that boredom can be an important thing to be exposed to. A long time ago and in a bedroom far, far away, I was a teenager with 56k internet and no job. I also lived in a country that, while beautiful and peaceful, was, in those days, thousands of miles away from all official game servers. These factors conspired to keep me away from regular online play, either through my unfortunate reliance on game piracy or due to the persistent 800ms ping. And out of this great suffering came beauty.
Battlefield 1942 was where it began for us. Today, when online play isn't available, most will settle for bots. But in the olden days when Battlefield 1942 was the hottest new thing the bots were abysmal. They could be challenging, but they didn’t carry any semblance of life. They didn’t seem to coordinate, use tactics, or feel fear. It was unsatisfying, and so we avoided it. For our group of plucky 13-year-olds, the fun and satisfaction came from treating 1942 like a stunt simulator, from using the existing sandbox-style elements to create a virtual playground. We’d jump in fighter planes, chase each other under bridges, try to land in weird and unexpected places, and figure out how to park a jeep in a landing craft.
As simple and un-curated as the experience sounds, it wasn’t very different to the games we were used to playing during break times at school. We were using our imagination and setting one another challenging goals. The only difference was that in-game we could pull dangerous stunts without our parents shouting at us.
Battlefield 2 came along a couple of years later, and while we had all upgraded to broadband internet and had grown out of doing make-believe in the playground, the seed of sandboxing had been planted. BF2, with its refined gameplay systems, advanced physics, and larger, more intricate maps, came with far more opportunities to make our own fun. Around this time one of us discovered and played ‘Mine’ by Snoken (seriously, watch it) on a massive 17inch CRT, and we had all the inspiration we needed.
We discovered that if we set the game up properly we could move things around with C4. The logic of the game is set up in such a way that when friendly fire is disabled, explosives set by teammates will push friendly players and vehicles away, without any real hit-point damage. Cue hours of loading the rear bumpers of jeeps with dynamite and using mounds of dirt as ramps to launch these multi-ton vehicles into the air. Soon, we refined our process, and instead of using one large, single explosion, we staggered the detonations, using careful timing to keep the jeep airborne for as long as possible, sometimes even aiming at specific targets.
The jets in BF2 offered a world of fun as well, especially when combined with the game’s beautifully detailed levels. Some of the more exciting challenges we’d set one another had us flying under ground-level oil pipes, leaping out of our jets and guiding our fragile human bodies through gaps in bridges, or even swapping jets with one another mid-air.
This last challenge was made possible by the arcade-style vehicle entry and exit system that the game employs. Some other titles like GTA or Star Citizen actually show the player’s character getting into the driver’s seat of vehicles. This necessarily slows the process down, and requires both that the player be very close to the appropriate door and that the player be more or less stationary relative to the vehicle. In Battlefield, if players are within a few feet of any part of their vehicle, they’ll immediately ‘pop’ into it when they press the use key. This is true regardless of how fast the player and vehicle are travelling in relation to one another. While one would expect to be smushed if they tried to get into a jet travelling towards them at 200mph in real life, it’s perfectly possible in BF2 - and opens up a world of stunt opportunities.
A particularly challenging thing to do in BF2, and one that I was reminded of recently during my emergency atmospheric descent EVA in Kerbal Space Program, was flying a jet as high as it would go then jumping out and trying to catch it. The way the free-fall movement was programmed in BF2 meant that if one looks at the horizon while falling, they’ll move horizontally at unrealistically high speeds. By following the jet’s icon on the map, it’s possible to find it, get in, and fly off before it hits the ground. There’s something incredibly cinematic about seeing your jet fall beside you, both of you apparently weightless for a minute or two.
What I like about these challenges is that they were tailored to us as individuals. These were certainly not as clean or polished experiences as they would have been were they designed carefully with prior intent - there were definitely moments of frustration, and times when we’d have to redo preparatory work because the existing game systems were working against us. But when the player is setting the goal, and the goal itself is coming from an imagined experience that the player wants to have, the player is far more in control of how the experience is delivered, and how much challenge is involved. I’d argue that this has the potential to invoke far deeper investment in the task at hand, and perhaps give the player a much more satisfying experience.
It feels strange to write about these activities now. When I initially looked back, it seemed like we were just messing around. In truth we were! But we were also developing our understanding of what gameplay was at that point in time, and what it could have been. We wanted sandboxes to play in and, given a lack of sandboxes, we made our own on the foundations of existing games. We learned how to be creative, we learned how to cobble together unexpected functionalities from already-designed systems, and we learned how to make things go ‘boom’ without actually going ‘boom’. And that’s an important life skill.