There have been free roaming games for a long time, games with a so called “open world” where you can choose the order in which you explore and go at your own pace, but often they are still worlds that exist purely for the purpose of the progression of narrative or gameplay. The first memory I have of a game where the world was a game unto itself was Grant Theft Auto. In the original top down game, you had an objective and could follow the story, but most of my time was spent try playing around in city, finding fancy cars to sell at the docks or just drive around fast, or going the biggest crime I could before getting killed. It was the definition of a sandbox, an open area with few limits within it and the freedom to enjoy it in whatever way you can think of using the game’s mechanics.
GTA is perhaps one of the most influential game series of all time, so many games have looked to emulate the open living worlds that GTA has created, especially after GTA3 was a huge success. It was a promise of what games could do once they stepped into the 3D realm. At the heart of the game was this living city, with countless citizens, distinct districts, a crazy parody of the American dream. The missions and story were simply scenarios played out on the city streets using the game’s toolbox of weapon and vehicles. Many games, great and terrible, have copied this formula over the years. I am going to take a closer look at the design choices of a few, specifically the design choices that determine getting around
There are many factors that lead to a good or bad sandbox game, but here I will be looking at transport, picking out some examples of how it has been done well or not so well. Better from one place to another can be a big part of these games, how it is implemented can make traversal a tedious chore or a non-event. When done well, travelling can be a fun ride, a calm wind-down from action, or a change to build character and world fiction.
What is not on the list
Well anything where you have no reason not use the ever present fast travel feature. Oddly, even though this feature is present in so many games, I often find that manual travel is often the preferred method, it can depend on a lot more factors than just “which is quicker“. For example I found myself walking a lot more in Skyrim than I did in Oblivion, perhaps it was the fact that Cyrodil looked a bit too much like the UK Peak District country side I grew up in, or maybe the fact that so many more random encounters occurred in Skyrim. But basically I only included travel that had some interest to it by itself. I also have tried to avoid more linear open worlds (is that a contradiction?). for example, I included Arkham City for its open city streets you can explore, by Arkham Asylum was left out as you are mostly following corridors along set paths are much more restricted in the order you can explore areas
GTA (3 onwards) – cruising with the roof down and the stereo up
It should be tedious right? You just drive from one place to the other. Yet it is such an essential part of a GTA game. You can fast travel in GTA, but it is discouraged; you need to flag a taxi, then wait to be driven where you are going, or pay to skip the ride. Yet most of the time I find myself driving all the way across the map. It is just a fun part of the experience, you get to listen to the always entertaining radio, the songs are always well chosen, and then there are the hilarious adverts and presenter segments, you can even listen to talk radio if you like. Then there is the pick and mix car selection. GTA always have fun cars to choose from, and if you bust up your ride or see something you’d like better, it is easy to get out and rob something new. The whole appeal of GTA is the lack of consequence, most people would never dream of stealing a car, but in GTA we don’t think twice about beating up the driver of a car because it is a nicer colour than the one we have. The cities in GTA are a character all by themselves, it’d be a shame to fast travel and miss out on the billboards and random run-ins with the games’ citizens.
Assassin’s Creed – Parkour paradise
From horse power to man power. A lot of games owe a lot to Ubisoft’s long (free) running franchise. And Assassin’s Creed owes a lot to parkour. The philosophy of freerunning is to get from one point in a city to another in as straight a line as possible, in real life it takes years of practice, but in the world of Assassins and Templars, it is as easy as holding RT and up on the left analogue stick. Sure there are times when it glitches and gets stuck, but the freerunning engine lets you fluidly climb, vault and leapt across some of the most iconic and culturally significant cities in history. Some of the most fun you can have in AC is just getting to your next mission objective as fast as you can without touching the ground. Infact that is maybe why the beggars were so annoying in the first game. It’s was not so much “the floor is lava” as “the floor is full of gits that block your way and ask you for money”
Arkham City – I’m Batman
More than anything. I feel the design mantra of the Arkham games is to deliver on the Batman fantasy. There is nothing worse in a superhero game than being a powerful being, who is somehow killed by a lowly guard with a pistol. The Akham games understand this, enemies surround you, but you pound them into the snow without a care, toying with them even, because you are Batman. And how else would batman get around than zip lining up gothic skyscrapers and gliding around like a demon bat, surveying the land for the next unlucky villain to be pounced upon from on high. Akham Origins introduced the Batwing, but it was still more fun grapnel gliding across the map.
Morrowind – before there were walking simulators
There were times when travel in Morrowind seemed like a chore, fast travel would be so much – faster. So why was it engaging to walk everywhere and catch the fantasy equivalent of a bus? Well it’s the amazing world Bethesda built. Sure it is great in later games to be able to get a quest, warp straight to the location and get to business, bit what Morrowind did was ensure you get the most out of its world. Travel in ES3 requires interaction with the world and knowledge of it. The map included in the game is for more than just decorating your bedroom. You need it to plan your journeys. You got to know the silt strider locations and which guilds had a teleporter. You had to learn the location of temples and just were you needed to be to get the best out of intervention spells. And when you went somewhere new, you didn’t just walk a straight line to an objective marker, you asked around for directions and looked for signposts. Morrowind made you a part of its world and it is thanks to excluding fast travel.
Later games still have an element of hiking to new locations, but nothing like Morrowind. Skyrim added interest to walk by its use of random encounters, particularly with dragons. Even the most routing walk to the shops could be made into an epic battle. One of my most memorable moments in Skyrim was the first time I went to the Throat of the World. Half way up the path I was chatting to a pilgrim when we finished talking, he turned abruptly, and drew is dagger. Suddenly a dragon rose into view right before us. My pilgrim friend and I fought off the dragon as his hovered off the edge of the mountain. It was such a perfect and effective moment that the second time I played the game, I wondered where the dragon was, it wasn’t a set piece, just a random event on my journey.
Prototype/Crackdown/Saints Row IV – He can leap tall buildings
I grouped these together as they serve the same purpose of super hero fantasy fulfilment. Who wouldn’t want to get around the way Superman or Goku do? It make traversal so simple, there is no waiting for a load screen or for public transport to arrive, and you don’t need to find or buy a vehicle that will likely get lost, abandoned or blown up after five minutes. Just leap into the sky, run like lightning, scale a building or glide through the air. Quick easy and fulfilling, and it gives you a nice opportunity to get a birds-eye look at the city and easily detour for collectibles or whatever.
Driver San Francisco – Outer body experiences
This game truly must win points for originality. You can mentally leave your body, go floating around the city and find another host body to inhabit, so long as they are driving a car. Remember the Driver games where you could get out your car and shoot people, remember how bad those sections were. Much better that Driver SF concentrates squarely on the driving.
There is no disconnect between the game theme and its fast travel and its core mechanic. It is all one and the same. You can use the mind shift mechanic to skip into a nearby car or use it to skip all the way across the map. I am not the biggest driving game fan, but this one is just too much fun not to appreciate it. And if you don’t wanna use the mind shift, it is still a very well built driving simulator if you would rather cruise over the Golden Gate Bridge.
Honourable Mentions and Worst Offenders
Just Cause 2 (not played the new one, soprry) is a bit of both, so is Farcry 3 and 4. They have some great fun aspects, the grappling hook of Just cause 2 is a great tool, but is a bit to clunky to make traversal more than a chore, it is not helped buy the absurd size of the map. Even with a high powered jet, it can takes minutes to get anywhere. If not for the fun factor of zip lining about and the variety of location, Just Cause would not get a mention. Farcry’s wingsuit is good fun, but if you have ever lived somewhere hilly, then you will know that getting down is fine, it’s the getting up a hill that sucks.
Burnout Paradise is one I came close to including. Doing stunts and finding shortcuts is great fun, but at the end of the day, you are just commuting.
I don’t think it counts as a sandbox, but Dark Souls (the original) makes traversal engaging. You fight for every inch of newly discovered ground, and when you find a shortcut or unlock an elevator, it feels like a massive reward. Lordran is tough, but with persistence, you can conquer it.
Shadow of Colossus. I love this game. Riding across a desolate land on a horse guided by a magic sword, it is a great experience, but it is problematic. Just gets a little annoying since the sword points you places as the crow flies, but you often get lost when there is a big obstacle in your way like a mountain.
Finally. Can I make a plea, for less games like Rise of the Tomb Raider in terms of travelling? I do like this game and the one before it. But for a game about exploration, it makes exploring such torture. Invisible walls are an annoyance to many a gamer, but they are needed, you will only ever be able to make a game so big, so you will need boundaries. But then to have them in the middle of the map is inexcusable. Also you can really tell that they were running out of ways to bar off areas of the map as you progress. There are walls you can climb with a pickaxe if they are mottled and rough, but you cannot just scrabble up a tumbled down pile of debris, and then there are special walls of soft wood that are immune to pickaxe but can be climbed with special arrows capable of supporting an adult human’s weight. There are wooden barricades that can only be shot with bullets, and some that need fire, some that need to be pulled down with a rope arrow, then others that are a little tougher and need explosives. Then there are brambles that, so far as I could tell, were immune to any kind of fire, explosive or blade. This kind of segmenting of the game world is silly, breaks immersion and little better than having green doors unlock with the green key.