With the way people talk about open world ‘sandbox’ games, you’d think the designers had taken the afternoon off and forgotten to design half the game, under the guise of creating an ‘unguided experience’. They’re written about as if players were left to their own devices, free to do whatever they want without constraint, free to do whatever they want any old time.
In truth there are only a handful of games that actually do that.
And that’s largely because the concept of freedom in videogames is furphy. In most cases freedom is nothing more than a contrived concept in games, referring to the player’s relatively self-defined passage through its scripted content, rather than a blank canvas upon which to draw their experience. The change in development costs and price and consumer expectation has necessitated that the structure of the modern games change to present an entirely new value proposition, one that embraces longer play times, and at the very least creates the illusion of value for money. Relative to the games of yore, sure, these games are free as a bird. But in actuality it’s nothing more than smoke and mirrors.
But Freedom hey, it sounds good, doesn’t it? A nice little thing to put on the back of the box, a selling point for the press to mention off the cuff in their videos, and more importantly great YouTube fodder for the screechy millionaires playing games for people’s entertainment. But it’s imagined, because what they’re really selling is a nonlinearity of progression, a way in which you choose to play through the game’s milestones and objectives. Take Far Cry 4, which offers a map full to brim of activities to complete at your own pace, in your own way. The open world tricks us into thinking we have real choice, but as far as mechanics go, most open world games – like Far Cry 4 – restrict how you finish their missions by putting rules in place that govern fail states. Sure, these new games may make old school level-based games look like Guantanamo Bay, but while the progression boundaries are bigger they’re still there, and complete with barbed wire to keep players fenced in.
So when was the last game that truly allowed you to pissfart around in its world, throwing you a playground to almost literally do what you please? A game so special that its scale and scope are only limited by your own concept of enjoyment and entertainment. A game that doesn’t limit you to set pieces or mission types and instead trusts you to create your own fun with the game’s core mechanics. A game that is, almost literally, an electric playground.
A game like Burnout Paradise.
It’s an anomaly really, a game where the designers threw the keys at you and practically said “here’s a car mate, ‘ave a go”. And off you went. It was a game so rich in the things that make games ‘feel’ right, that it didn’t feel the need to put in place a series of rigid rules and regulations to keep people boxed into a curated experience, rather almost encouraged them to be creative in the way they played the game. Sure the world had its boundaries, and if you were so inclined there were inbuilt objectives to pursue, but the faith the designers had in the game they had made showed. It was a game design risk to let players have the freedom to have fun the way they wanted to. But it was a risk that paid off because both online and off, Burnout Paradise was something incredibly special indeed, and a triumph of brilliant game design. Both for what it did do, and what it didn’t.
In Burnout Paradise Criterion Games’ best and brightest created the model for freedom in games, and one that games like Minecraft while disparate in their core concept and design, have learnt from. By having faith in the core mechanics of the game, by understanding just what made their game so incredibly enjoyable, Criterion Games were redefining player freedom in video games by trading solely on the ‘fun factor’ proposition they offered player. And as it turns out those stocks were the bluest of blue chip.