As sometimes happens, this is the third version of this post. The first was unbearably shitty while the second suffered from a severe lack of factual accuracy. In retrospect I should have known that study was fake after it claimed a margin of error of only a tenth of a percent when reporting that 95% of people have three or more pounds of sand in their ears from time at the beach.
I was going to write about how the concept of a sandbox is a bit silly, since ultimately the sandboxiness is determined more by our own mentality as players than the actual design of the game, baring extremes such as Minecraft which is a complete sandbox and tic tac toe which contains severe penalties for playing outside the box, such as losing and getting beat up by an enraged second grade student who is stuck inside for recess because it's raining tornadoes.
I had been playing Elder Scrols: Oblivion for the past few days, by which I mean literally multiple contiguous 24 hour cycles, not a few hours a day over multiple days, and during this time my character got very good at jumping, picking locks, and senseless mass murder. Since I had barely any clue how the game worked or what I was doing, I ended up wandering a lot, exploring, and ruining any possibility that the developers would get me to play the game correctly. I felt like I was living in a glorious sandbox entirely in my head.
Then I read wikipedia, which is of course absolutely authoritative on the subjects of video games, cartoons, and advanced physics, due to being edited by obsessive nerds, which reported that Oblivion contains sandbox elements. Incidentally, I am nearly incapable of typing the word "elements" without replacing the s with an a before realizing that I do not mean to type "elementals." There was an unacceptably strong positive correlation between my perception and reality, a truly disturbing fact which could hinder my ability to blog in the future. Thankfully, my impression that WoW is a perfectly on-rails unbreakable rope with not a single frayed end was wrong, so my perception may still be suitably disconnected from reality. Turns out you can pick up story arcs halfway in, a fact which I should have known since I'd experienced it myself, but fortunately even my own experiences were not polluting my perceptions.
In related news, this was supposed to be a serious post but I've failed completely at message control. Maybe watching two hours of Colbert Report before writing doesn't help. Thankfully, no one in the media reads my blog, because otherwise this would turn into a Special Investigative Emergency Report Special about how TV is making us all illiterate.
As I wrote more I had a realization: my earlier realizations were wrong. Sure, a game can give us rails and it can give us a sprawling highway system with poor signage and no maps, but ultimately what I actually do depends on what I decide to do. I knew that there was some very important main story arc which did not require me to commit random acts of murder, theft, and mushroom picking, but I ignored it. In fact I put it off for so long that it has become pretty damn hard to complete since my skills make no sense and I probably could have gotten some better items somewhere along the way, meanwhile the automatically leveling enemies have developed the ability to two-shot the NPCs that I think are supposed to be helping me.
It was my choice that made the game into a sandbox. Sure, it was a sandbox in the first place, but there were trails and rails in that sandbox, rails which I could have followed. But instead, by a combination of self-destructive stubbornness and incredible ignorance, I managed to stay in the sandbox.
It is player mentality which determines the sandboxiness of a game. Game design can push us toward rails or exploration, but ultimately we choose. Thinking back to Halo, there was this one spot where I'm pretty sure I wasn't supposed to be able to get that banshee (alien plane), but I did, and then I used to to shoot things in the wrong order, fly where I wasn't supposed to go, and generally pretend that I didn't have to follow the fascist rules set out by Bungie. Meanwhile in WoW my lack of awareness has caused countless deaths of alts, before I learned where I wasn't supposed to go, so then I prepared better before I went there, and am now able to count high enough to count the number of deaths.
So now I'm left with a mystery: How does a game developer encourage or discourage exploration and wandering behavior? Linear quest design will discourage it, while an open world will encourage it. Abundant information may discourage it, by making there be nothing to discover that isn't already known. Obsession with optimization will initially encourage it, as players seek every possible way, but once known and paired with abundant information, may discourage it.
In the end I can only conclude that we will explore the sandbox when we do not perceive a penalty for doing so greater than the enjoyment we derive from the exploration. From that incredibly generalized statement we can only reach one of two possibilities: either Blizzard really hates exploration, or people who like Cataclysm are really boring.
And that's this morning's semi-sarcastic random insult at possibly everyone.
15 minutes ago