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Monday, July 22, 2024

The True Joy of Sandbox Games Is Breaking Them

I’m nervous about Starfield. I’ve enjoyed Bethesda’s other open-world RPGs, but I’m not super into postapocalypses, and Skyrim’s fantasy world didn’t engage me much. But I love space. Games set in space are my jam. So I’ve been wanting a game like Starfield since before Bethesda announced it. But after playing Tears of the Kingdom (among others), I’m worried Starfield will be missing the one thing that elevates the best games in the genre: the developer-intended ability to absolutely break the game.

To be clear, I don’t mean mods, console commands, or cheat codes. As much as I’m in favor of all those things, I’m talking about when a game presents puzzles and challenges with a few expected ways to solve the problem but also gives players the tools to sidestep or break those challenges. Like, say, by building a Lynel-killing aerial laser array.

No matter what, Starfield, like so many Bethesda games before it, will be modified beyond recognition by enterprising players. I have no doubt that someone, somewhere, is already planning a mod that will let you turn your spaceship into Thomas the Tank Engine. However, the nature of mods is that, by necessity, they erase the rules of the game rather than break them.

(Un)intended Consequences

Take Skyrim, for example. Skyrim was never designed to allow the player to fly. In fact, many quests and dungeon challenges would break if you could even jump a little too high. So flying isn’t allowed in the base version of Skyrim, although you can add it with mods. A lot of mods.

And sure, adding a flying mod could be fun. But there’s a sense of satisfaction that’s missing. You didn’t outsmart the game. You didn’t discover something new about how the rules of the game work. You just changed the rules. It’s the difference between beating your opponent in a game of chess versus throwing the chess board into the ocean.

Compare this to flying in Tears of the Kingdom. The game is built around gliding and, to some extent, flying. But the game also puts some limits in place to prevent you from just flying everywhere instead of doing puzzles the intended way. Balloons and wings will eventually blink green and despawn if you use them for too long. Even with plenty of battery power and Zonai devices, you can fly only so far before the game cuts you off.

Unless, of course, you build a hoverbike. With just two fans and a steering stick, you can build a device that’s easy to control, can lift off from just about anywhere, and can fly for much, much longer than any vehicle made with balloons or wings can. Moreover, once you unlock the Autobuild ability, you can re-create the hoverbike from new parts or even spend some spare Zonaite to build one out of nothing.

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This is, in a certain sense, game-breaking. I spent a couple dozen hours in Tears of the Kingdom wandering around, doing challenges the normal, expected way, but once I discovered I could make a hoverbike, it was game over for Hyrule’s enemies. I was flying from one sky island to the next like they were just a quick walk down the block. It almost felt like cheating. Surely, I thought, I’m getting away with something here. Nintendo didn’t want me to do this.

Except, it did. Nintendo anticipated—expected, even—that players would figure out ways to get around its limitations. I mean, they gave us tools to create roombas with laser beams on their head, for crying out loud. The developers were not surprised at all to learn that players figured out how to fly for longer than a hot-air balloon would allow.

To prove it, I only need to point to this one sky island. High above Lookout Landing is a lone sky island with nothing nearby. It’s impossible to get to with most common vehicle combinations. Balloons, wings, and even those floating metal blocks will all despawn long before you reach that island. But the hoverbike won’t. You’ll still need lots of battery charge to reach there, but that’s a solvable problem.

There’s nothing of note when you get up there, but you can reach that island. Nintendo clearly expects you to. If you try to go higher than this island, you’ll eventually be told you can’t go any farther. Which means that island is within the bounds Nintendo wants you to be able to travel. If it wasn’t, the skybox would’ve ended much sooner.

Nintendo understands that part of the fun of sandbox games is in figuring out what you can get away with. These games let you loose in a world and let you choose where you’re going to go, how you’re going to play. It’s frustrating, then, to continually hit walls that say, “Well, not like that. You can’t play like that.”

Bugs or Features

To ease my anticipation for Starfield, I’ve been replaying Bethesda’s recent sandbox games, Skyrim and Fallout 4. Both games were praised at their release, and they both hold up in their own way. But I found myself wondering whether I’ve just been spoiled too much by the freedom of more recent releases.

Fallout 4 particularly bugged me. I’m treading no new ground by pointing out that the factions in the game are comically oversimplified. You can choose to side with the Institute, a shadowy tech organization building synthetic human slaves, or pick one of three flavors of rebellion, all of which end with blowing up a nuclear reactor that sure as heck looks like nuking an entire city. The primary distinction between them being how much they’re casually racist to your companions while you plot to kill thousands of people.

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The combat and gameplay mechanics in Fallout 4 are also particularly limited, even compared to Skyrim. In the latter, you could mix and match any combination of swords and shields, bow and arrow, an assortment of magic powers, or dragon shouts. Fallout 4 has a range of guns, but that’s about it. There are some stealth mechanics, but killing one enemy usually leads to all the rest immediately charging at your character, whether they were anywhere nearby when you killed the first one or not.

The closest I came to that feeling of freedom was once I acquired an X-01 power armor and equipped it with a jet pack. The jet pack works only for a limited time and can go only so high, so it’s mostly useful for jumping over short walls, across small gaps, or up to a higher level. It sounds small, but it opens such a high degree of flexibility that the whole game suddenly feels new again halfway through.

It’s the kind of experience I wish I’d felt more of in the game. Skyrim had more elements like this. The Become Ethereal shout made it trivial to leap off cliffs, opening up whole new dimensions of traversal. The Slow Time ability can make a so-so archer feel like Legolas. To say nothing of the infamous Enchanting-Alchemy loop that, under the right circumstances, can let you create armor and weapons to kill dragons with a single shot.

That loop occupies a fascinating space in game design. It straddles the line between game-breaking mechanic and an exploit that might normally get patched out. It takes a lot of work to perform the complex ritual Skyrim requires to pull it off, but if you do, you’ll have items with truly absurd stats. Which actually kind of works? It feels fitting to the world of Skyrim, like you’ve tapped into an unnatural dark power.

It’s hard to say where the line is between a bug and a mechanic. Even Nintendo, which encourages a lot of player freedom, will patch out complicated item duplication glitches. There’s not much of a reason to remove a complicated glitch in a single-player game that lets you create infinite diamonds or whatever, but Nintendo still seems to think this isn’t the fun kind of game-breaking.

The Invisible Walls

But there has to be a balance. A huge part of the appeal of sandbox games is experimentation. Bethesda says Starfield will have over 1,000 planets to explore, and obviously a lot of that space will be filled with procedural content. But there’s only so far that this kind of content can take a game.

Both Skyrim and Fallout 4 featured Radiant Quests, a type of infinitely replayable quest that was pretty much the same batch of three or four objectives, but randomly assigned to different locations or NPCs. Or, to put it another way, “I’ve had word from a settlement asking for help.” At a certain point, these become rote and tedious.

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This kind of repetition gets harder to deal with when a game funnels you toward repetitive quests by pushing against you with invisible walls. I don’t mean the physical barriers of the game world, but rather the little ways that games tell you that you shouldn’t play the “wrong” way.

This can happen in soft ways, like when Fallout 4 lets you steal stuff, but your companions constantly voice their disapproval (or approval). In theory this is a fine concept. Your actions have consequences for the people close to you. But in practice, it erodes any sense of internal character. I’m a goody-two-shoes if I’m around Piper, but I’ve got sticky fingers if Cait’s around. If I like a character and want to explore their quests, all my actions are suddenly dictated by what they like.

It can also happen in more firm ways. During the Brotherhood of Steel questline, a doctor asks me a moral question. Would I be willing to kill people for the Brotherhood? Up to this point, I’ve been very standoffish with the group. Going along, but making it clear I’m not their stooge. But here, the only dialog options are variations of either “Yes, I’ll totally kill for you” or a sarcastic remark that the doctor interprets as a yes. This is not an Approved Defiance Moment, so the game doesn’t allow it.

I’m hopeful that Starfield will allow for more freedom and nuance than that. I’m eager to find out all the ways I can take over someone else’s spaceship or how I can talk my way out of situations. And at this point I’ve accepted I’ll sink hundreds of hours into this game no matter what form it takes.

But I know I’ll enjoy it that much more if it’s built to accommodate players that try to break it. The rules that devs tell players to follow and the rules they actually want us to follow don’t have to be the same thing. And if Tears of the Kingdom has taught me anything, it’s that figuring out new ways to break the game is more fun when I feel like I’m not supposed to get away with it.

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