Sandboxes: Burying the RPG

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November 9, 2012 by Nino Moscardi

In recent years, a sad trend has arisen in which RPGs are frequently becoming more like the open sandbox by incorporating a discover-your-own narrative style of game play. Saying so would be no great instigation, but there are issues with this evolution that may cause fires of dissent between many gamers. These new-style RPGs may be comprised of expansive, well-designed, and immersive worlds, but they leave something profoundly lacking: a cohesive, compelling narrative.

The most obvious perpetrator is Bethesda’s newest Elder Scrolls installment, Skyrim. Every corner felt truly lived in, but rarely did I feel truly connected to the narrative (at least the main plot). The land of Skyrim may indeed be an absolutely immersive world inhabited by feuding factions: Stormcloaks and Imperials, a dark brotherhood of assassins, treacherous underground rings of thieves, and of course, dragons. And don’t get me wrong: Skyrim is an amazing game. Yet as captivated by this lore heavy world as I was, I could never be fully invested in the characters and development when there was just so much of it to explore. Many refer to this phenomenon as the paradox of choice, and its most evident in the ‘ending’ of the game.

Usually, when I finish a game with a cohesive narrative (especially an RPG), I’m rewarded with a memorable finale and all the emotion that comes along with it. I watched the characters develop from beginning to end, and experienced whatever trials, tribulations, and conclusions they reached along with them. To relive the memorable moments in the game, I would have to play the whole 30-50 hours of game from the beginning. The ending to the main quests in Skyrim left me with no more than a brief moment of pondering, and then it was right back to the exploration. The main quests served no more purpose than any of its numerous side quests. All of these story branches form a cohesive world that aims to pull the gamer in, letting them experience it on their own. Still, there is a deep sense of urgency missing from the play at your own pace experience that can only be illustrated by taking a look at some of the last generation’s games.

Xenogears wasn’t a great RPG because you could explore every nook and cranny. It was a great game because it had a compelling story that always kept you digging deeper to the core, which in essence was based in all sorts of philosophical, moral, and religious dilemmas that we face every day. Games like Dark Souls, though absolutely fantastic (and terrifying), never give me a deeper reason to continue playing (other than to see what else the world had to offer). Suikoden II had about as much freedom as any PlayStation generation console could deliver. It had a character recruitment device that always made the player double and triple checking to make sure they collected the gamut, but it always kept the story progression steady and the player interested in what will happen next. Meanwhile, games like Dragon’s Dogma, however, tells the player to entertain himself in this open world environment that has been created for you with only a loose, nonsensical plot. It’s almost as if your parents got tired of reading you a story every night, so they tell you to just play by yourself with your toys before bedtime.

Losing RPG elements might be viewed as part of the evolution of gaming, but there’s no reason why a game should have to sacrifice interesting, engaging narrative at the cost of a sandbox environment. As an afterthought,  many older generation RPGs were essentially the fundamentals of sandbox games with concrete and profound storytelling. The idea of having a world map meant that you could explore the whole world after the story made itself apparent as both an impetus for such exploration or simply impediment to narrative progression. I guess you could just call me a story junkie. Exploration is great, but without a clear motive and some intellectual probing, does it really make it worth the trip?

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