How Much Freedom is Too Much?

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  • Post category:Sandbox

The intrinsic nature of a sandbox game, whether MMO, RPG, or otherwise, is this sense of freedom and open-ended gameplay. What do you do this play session? Usually, that question would be left entirely up to you.

Having so much freedom of gameplay has been sticking in my mind lately because I’m playing a lot of sandbox games lately. Thinking about Skyrim and Subnautica as two of those games, I’m often overwhelmed.

Tonight in Subnautica I had goals… boy did I have goals. I wanted to find parts for my Cyclops ship, expand my base, try and figure out a way to be less bothered by hunger and thirst, and find more blueprints. After a couple of hours, I realized I only did half of one of those things. I logged off feeling overwhelmed and wishing someone would just say to me that the Cyclops blueprints are located at XYZ coordinates and then prescribe me a method of building a self-sustaining food/water supply.

By the time I’m done playing each session, I’m worn out. There’s a recovery period before I can go play again — usually 24 hours — and then I’m eager to log back in.

Skyrim is similar, except in reverse. I sometimes dread playing Skyrim because I know how much I have ahead of me to do. Skyrim is less about finding things and more about volume if things to do. That’s how I personally feel about the game, not that everyone will feel the same. So instead of being eager to jump in and succeed, I’m hesitant to dip my toe in. But once I do, I don’t want to stop playing.

There’s such a delicate balance. I think my initial question about how much freedom is too much is impossible to answer. I know I want freedom. Lots of it. I don’t want to log in and run from one “!” to the next. I don’t like there being a “best” way to play either. I just want to know that I can log in and do my thing, but I want that thing to be quantifiable, qualifiable, and comprehensible. When my goals are too ethereal, I get overwhelmed. When my goals are too prescribed, I get bored.

There’s an answer for each of us, and mine is really, really hard to define.

  • It’s more complicated than that because it also depends on a host of factors unrelated to the design of the game itself. How much freedom or guidance feels right at the time rests on how tired you are, how much mental energy you have to spare, how awake and alert you’re feeling. It’s affected in the immediate moment by your emotional state, your mood, your confidence and your anxiety. It’s affected in the medium and longer term by your age, your life choices, your controllable and uncontrollable circumstances.

    Are you playing to escape, to switch off, to relax, to express yourself, to create, to be thrilled? Are you snatching a moment from a too-busy life or filling another endless, empty day?

    There are games for any of those but no game can be the game for all of them, can it? We ask too much of individual games and their designers. We do have responsibility for our choices. If the game isn’t doing it it’s not necessarily the game’s fault – it could be ours.

  • This video highlights some things that where really awesome with WoW back in the day, and how the internet today might mean we will never again see such content ingame… 🙁