Grand Theft Auto III was released on October 22, 2001—a date that may have changed gaming in a multitude of manners.
Eschewing the classic bird’s eye camera angle, Grand Theft Auto III employed the third person view—one that allowed for maximum levels of detail in a digital imagining of a fictionalized city.
Clearly, while genre-establishing predecessors could be named for Grand Theft Auto III, the aforementioned game’s release date can be used as a timeline marking for the widespread popularizing of free-roaming sandboxes.
But, it wasn’t until recently—especially in the horizon-visible Eighth Generation of Consoles—that the sandbox adventure game rose to prominent levels of popularity.
With games like Batman: Arkham Origins, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, and Grand Theft Auto V—and upcoming titles like: Watch Dogs, The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt, and many others—the sandbox genre looks poised to dominate the Eighth Generation of consoles.
Batman: Arkham Origins released to mixed reviews earlier in October. And, Carolyn Petit of Gamespot wrote that, “ the most noteworthy difference between Arkham Origins and its predecessors is a significantly larger open world.”
However, Petit stated in the same article that there is little substance to the world’s sheer vastness—stating the world is “bigger just for the sake of being bigger.”
Keeping Petit’s critique of Batman: Arkham Origins in mind, the following questions must be asked: Are some sandboxes focusing on the wrong aspect of what makes a great game? This, of course, isn’t to imply that the ambition of making a massively scaled sandbox defaults a game as bad. Many of the previously listed titles are games that either are—or promise to be—praiseworthy games. Rather, the invoked question is meant to ask if this trend of making large-scale games will impact some releases negatively—similar to how the desire to make games as cinematic as possible negatively impacted Role Playing Games on the Seventh Generation of consoles.
First, Assassin’s Creed III must be addressed—an open-world game that was larger than any of its serial predecessors. In fact, Alex Hutchinson—the creative director for Assassin’s Creed III- stated in an interview before the game’s release that, “ (Assassin’s Creed III) is huge, both in physical size, play time, and in the new amount of gameplay we packed in. We stripped out a lot of mechanics and systems from previous games but I think we’re still pushing maximum possible scope.”
Later in the same VG 24/7 article, the author wrote that the world of Assassin’s Creed III was set to be “1.5 times larger than Rome in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood.”
Enter the issue; Assassin’s Creed III wasn’t as well received as Assassin’s Creed II– garnering a lower score on Metacritic and other sites. Specifically, the stripped-down gameplay and the overly linear story telling undermined what made the previous Assassin’s Creed games memorable. Moreover, the side quests that were included did little to enhance the game. From almanac collecting to the Assassin contracts, there was little in the game that took advantage of its sheer size. Save for the sailing quests, many of the side missions felt like space filler to try and cast a façade of depth over an otherwise grain-deprived sandbox.
In addition, the overall trend of the media must be addressed. Cultivating this trend toward massive sandboxes, gaming companies are releasing information about how much bigger their newest game is than either the previous game in the series or a competitor’s. Notably, Erik Kain wrote in Forbes that the Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt was “bigger than Skyrim” and “35 times larger than the Witcher 2”. While The Witcher 3 promises to be a great game, this trend of world expansion coupled with the disappointing reception of Batman: Arkham Origins could eventually see devolution into a competition to see who can make the largest world.
This is seen again in a pre-release article for Grand Theft Auto V on IGN, where a map of the world was shown—boasting that the size of the aforementioned game was “bigger than GTA: San Andreas, Red Dead Redemption, and GTA IV combined”. While Grand Theft Auto V’s size is mind boggling, its intrinsic quality could still be intact if the map were smaller; the characters, diversity of missions, and Rockstar’s general ability to give substance to the map is what made the latest GTA release such a success.
In essence, big open worlds can be a treat to explore and could enhance a game’s quality infinitely. However, while size can matter, it isn’t always an absolute necessity in order to make a classic or memorable gaming experience. If purpose is not given to these open world sandboxes and the entire genre devolves into a contest to see who can make the largest map, the world of sandboxes could end up becoming rather underwhelming.