You Gotta Know These Sandbox and Open-World Video Games
- SimCity (Maxis, 1989) The brainchild of designer Will Wright, the title SimCity is a 20th-century American-style city, with players as mayors who have to balance its budget, recover from disasters, and expand commercial, industrial, and residential zones; a green-haired official named Dr. Wright acts as adviser. SimCity foregrounds the gaming concept of “building an engine,” which denotes acquiring good elements that let the player place more such elements and increase the player’s power; in SimCity’s case, building sensible roads and well-placed civic buildings (like schools or power plants) attracts more residents and more tax revenue, unlocking better such buildings. No matter how well or poorly the city is managed, the city can be played for as long as desired with no set end, even if the town is totally bankrupt.
- The Sims (Maxis, 2000) Will Wright made The Sims himself as a “dollhouse-style” simulation game; it was titled The Sims to capitalize on SimCity’s name recognition. Players dictate the lives of people called Sims (telling them, for instance, when to sleep, what to eat, and whom to talk with) in a generic American suburb, with the goal of satisfying their daily human needs while juggling jobs and friendships. Careers are mostly offscreen; The Sims emphasizes domestic life, featuring vast house-building and silly furnishing options and a relationship system that can result in love, fights, jealousy—all spoken in a gibberish language called Simlish. Lauded for appealing to an untapped female market, The Sims spawned a huge franchise even more successful than SimCity.
- Minecraft (Mojang, 2011) Currently the best-selling video game of all time, Minecraft’s gameplay is simple: beginning with basic tools, players gather materials (from a world of countless crude, pixel-y Blocks) to craft shelters and structures and craft better tools. Critics often liken Minecraft to playing with a Lego set. There are several modes, with Survival Mode including enemies like Creepers, Endermen, and zombies, while Creative Mode minimizes threats and lets players fly. Across these modes, many Minecraft users have created extremely intricate structures, including detailed re-creations of fictional and real-world buildings and towns. For years, the default player avatar was a blue-shirted man named Steve, but a female avatar named Alex and other custom skins are also now accessible.
- No Man’s Sky (Hello Games, 2016) Hyped for years by director Sean Murray, No Man’s Sky promised galaxies filled with quintillions of procedurally generated planets to explore, all with a multiplayer ability to explore and settle these worlds with friends. However, at launch, reviewers found its early gameplay repetitive and noted no multiplayer mode, with several other aspects oversold or not in place and servers unable to handle the load of active play. These elements (as well as silence from Murray and his team in the weeks after the debut) led to record refund requests and a steep decline in active players. Despite numerous updates that fixed and implemented many promised aspects that prompted a significant critical reassessment in ensuing years, No Man’s Sky is still mostly remembered for its extreme backlash and deeply disappointing debut.
- Animal Crossing: New Horizons (Nintendo, 2020) All Animal Crossing games task players with inviting talking animals (from a roster of hundreds) to live in a cute, tiny town; in New Horizons, the town is on a desert island. With an internal game clock tied to real-life date and time, players chop wood, plant flowers, go fishing, and sell fruit to improve the town, but there is no true end or time limit; the game instead emphasizes item collection so players can customize their island to their own satisfaction. Developing the island unlocks a bigger house (provided by the raccoon-like loan shark Tom Nook) and prompts Saturday-night concerts from pop star dog K. K. Slider, but there are no penalties for slow play. New Horizons was fortuitously released in March 2020 amidst COVID lockdown orders, leading many fans to play for hours and visit friends’ islands as a form of escapism.
- Hitman: Codename 47 (IO Interactive, 2000) In the first installment in the Hitman franchise, players control a bald, barcoded clone known only as Agent 47, employed as an assassin by the shadowy International Contract Association. Gameplay emphasizes stealth, patience, and discretion, and while each level contains physical boundaries, they contain myriad avenues for creativity: missions may be accomplished by any means in countless locations (as direct as strangling a victim or as indirect as having them die in an “accident”). Hitman makes use of very sophisticated AI to manage NPCs (non-player characters), who may witness crimes, discover bodies, and try to kill Agent 47 if the player is sloppy. Hitman was only a middling success; later releases (including a 2016 series reboot) garnered much more acclaim.
- Grand Theft Auto III (Rockstar Games, 2001) Grand Theft Auto III was a landmark in video gaming. In one respect, its open-world environment (a New York City spoof called Liberty City) is an unprecedentedly adult playground filled with endless opportunities for mayhem that can be explored at a player’s leisure when not involved in guided missions, which involve the city’s criminal underworld; this detail was augmented by in-game radio stations that play in vehicles. In another respect, GTA III was demonized by parent groups for being racy and hyper-violent—for instance, mini-games called Rampages have players commit mass murder with little consequence. Despite such controversy, GTA III is regarded as one of the greatest games of all time, and it inspired many so-called “GTA clones,” such as Watch Dogs and Saints Row.
- Assassin’s Creed (Ubisoft, 2007) Another open-world game with an emphasis on stealth, Assassin’s Creed follows Desmond Miles, a bartender who is kidnapped by the Knights Templar and subjected to a machine that puts Desmond in the mind of one of his ancestors, an Assassin during the Third Crusade. Players must maintain a low profile while exploring versions of Acre, Damascus, and Jerusalem with jumping and wall-scaling abilities heavily informed by the early-2000s parkour craze. Because Desmond is “reliving” the life of his ancestor Altair, any damage the player takes is presented as deviation from “Synchronization,” meaning if Desmond “dies,” the machine stops and restarts him at a previous checkpoint. Assassin’s Creed presents a variety of challenges in these open-world cities, ranging from pickpocketing to interrogations to murders.
- Fallout 3 (Bethesda Softworks, 2008) After the cult Fallout series was acquired by Bethesda Softworks, Bethesda retooled the mostly isometric third-person RPG series into an open-world first-person action-RPG with Fallout 3. Set in Washington, D.C. centuries after a nuclear apocalypse, the game follows a dweller of a Vault (one of hundreds of underground bunkers manufactured by the megacorporation Vault-Tec) who quests to reunite with his father. With tongue-in-cheek aesthetics drawn from the U.S. post-war era, the game includes a player interface called the Pip-Boy, a clunky wrist-mounted computer. Players have total freedom to explore the region’s ruins and uncover side-quests for unlimited time without progressing the main storyline, encountering recurring franchise factions like monstrous Super Mutants and the fascist Brotherhood of Steel.
- Red Dead Redemption (Rockstar Games, 2010) Using a similar format as fellow Rockstar property Grand Theft Auto, Red Dead Redemption was instantly hailed as a masterpiece on its release. Its open-world setting depicts the decline of the Wild West, with characters heavily drawn from Spaghetti westerns. The story concerns John Marston, an ex-outlaw whose family is held ransom by the government to force John to track down his old gang. A key component of the game is quickdraw duels, which are aided by “Dead Eye,” an ability that slows down time. In particular, the game is praised for its plot, its desolate yet beautiful visuals, and its music; in particular, the sequence in which players first reach Mexico, set to the song “Far Away,” is often held up as an example of video games as art.
This article was contributed by NAQT editor Danny Kristian Vopava.