Digging out the Sandbox with an Axe

sandboxWhen Grand Theft Auto III broke onto the scene in 2001, it changed the way that games were played. Its much-heralded “sandbox” approach allowed the player to do anything and, much to the FCC’s concern, everything possible within the gaming world in order to make that dollar. In fact, GamePro, who in 2007 named it the most influential game of all time, sums up its power in the world of gaming:

“After GTA III, everything from Tony Hawk to fighting games, shooters and even the Simpsons franchise went back to the drawing board. No other game in the last 20 years has had more impact than Grand Theft Auto III.”

Hyperbole? Perhaps. But the ripple effect that GTA III had on games was undeniable. It was one of the premier titles for PS2 and it was the number one reason why I purchased the system in late 2001.

big daddySix years later, however, the sandbox model seems to be on the downturn. Last year’s titles like Bioshock, and Call of Duty 4 thrived on the linearity of a single story line, one that the player could not deviate from through the course of the game. Even something like Portal riffs pretty cleverly on this theme. Valve’s masterpiece lays out a set of rigid circumstances, allows you to do seemingly anything to attempt to solve the puzzle, before forcing you to exit through a single door at the end of the level.

For me though, Rock Band represents the most paradigmatic shift in the way games are played. In fact, more so than just moving the sandbox model to the side, Rock Band completely extracts said box from the in game world.

Come back to the example of GTA. The fun in Liberty City stems from performing the most ridiculous acts possible in pursuit of power within the city. Think you can do something? Well do it – by moving your character, putting that character in a Yakuza Stinger and driving it into some unsuspecting Rastafarians.

What is going on within the world of Rock Band is really pretty bland. Rather, the fun is derived from smashing the drums, melting your friend’s face with a solo, or swinging the mic crazily over your head. It is a physical interaction totally external to what we would traditionally associate with being “part of the video game.”

In Rock Band, performing the most ridiculous stunt possible is limited by your biology. You
can’t move your fingers fast enough, you can’t hit the bass pedal accurately enough, or you
can’t jump kick high enough when you’re singing Iron Maiden.

Rock Band improves on something the Wii has been trying to do but never fully grasped, namely take the game out of the tv and into the living room. The sandbox no longer exists in the polygons of Liberty City but rather the stage you create in your home.

***

Here’s an article about “The Future of Sandbox Games” over at Henry Jenkins’ blog (Jenkins is a prof at MIT). After an intro, the post leads into Matthew Weise’s article. Among other interesting ideas, Weise makes the awesome point that Mario 64, for him is the first “sandbox game.” Agree? Disagree?

Can you believe that its been over six years since GTA III was released? You read that right: SIX years. Here are the Trailers for: GTA III, Vice City, San Andreas.

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