Sandbox Gaming: Too much of something can be a bad thing

“We made a massive map full of interesting things and cool sites to see, how will we get our player to explore?”
“Make them collect 5 of something, over and over again”

This idea was once kept to the boundaries of your typical MMO. Go out see the world and kill x of every animal or being you can find until, eventually the killing for experience stop and the grind for gear began.

Unfortunately the more sandbox games get released the more of a cross over we begin to see.

Its been quite refreshing playing Uncharted 2 over the last month, a game thats driven by story content and the occasional killing spree in an ancient temple. I managed to sink about 8 to 10 hours into the game which for me is a good amount of time. The problem I find with open world games is you never know when to stop the fucking around collecting werewolf dicks and actually put sometime in the story.

Final Fantasy 15 has an interesting approach to the sandbox vs liner gameplay. They essentially split the game up into both categories. The first part of the game sees your driving around with your j-pop boyband – killing the odd monster, collecting the occasion special weapon and upgrading your car. From what I can see none of this seems to be getting your kingdom back its just helping you prepare for the final story.

However even Final Fantasy cannot escape the MMO trope and you soon find yourself killing monsters over and over again for loot and exp, and of course lets not forget collecting things. Earlier Final Fantasies like 7 and 9 had an open world feel to them but managed to avoid the unnecessary repetitive quest approach which seems to be plaguing new sandbox games. Even FF10 which was a much more linear game felt open enough to give you a sense of freedom.

I must admit i managed to spent at least 75 hours in Skyrim and again maybe about 50 hours in fallout 4. A game that in my opinion was incredibly weak. I also managed to spend the equivalent on Witcher 3, again a game i felt was weaker than it previous games simply because it was a sandbox game.

Too much of something can be a bad thing

In all these games i mainly focused on the main story quest and any secondary quest which i can find meaning in, like a little side story. In some cases i get bored of the game long before i even complete it. Too much of something can be a bad thing and this is probably my main issue with sandbox games.

After sinking 45 hours into Final Fantasy XV i managed to make it to chapter 13. At this point i was pretty bored with the game but having read that chapter 13 was just bad, i dragged myself through. Now i’m on the final 3 bosses and to be honest i really don’t give a fuck any more.

Uncharted left me wanting more, so once i completed 2 i moved on to 4 (i’ll go back to 3), however when i complete a sandbox game… well you can’t really, you just get fed up and do the last mission so you can say you sort of finished it.

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Mother 3: The first three-and-a-bit chapters

Earthbound was a pretty great, funny game about kids who save the world from aliens through courage and baseball bats. It has certainly left a lasting impression, as evidenced by the still prevalent boom in indie RPGs and Kickstarters citing it as an influence. I assumed that Mother 3 (a.k.a. Earthbound 2, never released outside of Japan) would be more of the same. I was wrong.

Maybe mild spoilers to follow.

If Earthbound was a game about hope, it’s sequel is a game about loss. Loss of old ways of life in the face of aggressive modernity and consumerism. More personally for the various characters you control, it’s about a family torn apart, simply for choosing the wrong night to walk home through a usually peaceful forest.

That the first chapter is called ‘Night of the Funeral’ should prepare you for the worst, yet by casting you as a father, whose whole family has gone missing in the woods, couples the inevitability with a mounting dread as the situation worsens. You know it’s going to end badly, but just how badly is left to play on your imagination as you plunge further into the forest in search of them.

However, games aren’t supposed to be all out depressing, and Mother 3 successfully counters all of its heavy themes with an all-round pleasantness. The world and it’s characters are so likeable, and so fully realised, and above all so creatively odd, that you want to keep going for their sake. It’s so damn charming. The save points are talking frogs! I just me one who was driving around town in a tiny sports car, but still willing to stop and let me save my game.

Also, I remember Earthbound’s battles being a bit dry. The designers probably thought this too, and decided to augment the whole thing with rhythm game aspects. It’s so fun, I wish all turn based RPGs would do the same.

Although I suspect bigger plots are afoot, the standout villain of Chapter 3, leading into Chapter 4 via a surprising, world-changing 3 year timeskip, is Fassad, a slimy overweight rich guy, determined to bring capitalism and conformity to the small town you live in, controlling peoples minds through total control of the media, and turning lifelong neighbours against one another if they won’t subscribe to his ideology of selfish enrichment at the expense of others.

Plus he’s all about torture.

Perhaps I inadvertently chose just the right game to finally get round to playing in 2017…

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Stardew Valley – The Adorable Way to Farm

So this has been a busy June/July for me – in the space of one month I went from working as a contractor, to being unemployed, to working as a fully permanent employee (take that old job! You jerks!). During my unemployment “holiday” (read: “being a no good jobless bum time”), I went to visit my friend and she showed me a game she was playing – Stardew Valley.

When she explained me to what Stardew Valley was about, the first thing that sprung to mind was Harvest Moon – and then immediately after that remembering how goddamn awful I was at playing it. I’m not talking about your fancy DS and what-have-you Harvest Moon, oh no! My memories are from my dusty Playstation, buying my copy and sitting in front of my tiny TV/VHS combo (if that doesn’t age me I don’t know what will) worrying about whether or not I will have enough decent crops to just scrape by and make any kind of profit. Seriously, I was the worst at that game and gave up pretty quickly.

Harvest Moon Back to Nature – Another historical gem in the list of “games I suck at”

My friend was quick to assure me that whilst the basic premise of Stardew Valley was pretty similar – you own a farm, you grow stuff on it and make it better, this game was way less pressure to actually be good at it. And she was right.

I don’t know if it’s because I’ve gotten older and therefore wiser (one would hope), or whether or not this game is actually designed to be easier, but I have played a full year (in-game *obviously*), and I’ve got to say I’m not actually doing that bad! I’ve managed to upgrade my farmhouse (I own my very own kitchen *smug*), got some farm animals that haven’t died or are even remotely close to death, and I even have completed a few quests (like going off to find the mayor’s underwear in the bedroom of one of his “friends”) So naturally my success has inspired me to stop being useless and finally get back into this writing malarky.

Stardew Valley is an indie farming simulation role-playing video game developed by ConcernedApe and published by Chucklefish Games. Released in February 2016, this labour of love by Eric Barone has taken the cute aesthetic of Harvest Moon, combined it with a soundtrack and adventure-feel/dungeon exploring similar to Terraria, and produced a game that is so relaxing and just pleasant to play. When I log on and see those pixel birds fly across the sky I get a warm fuzzy feeling.

I also know I will lose *hours* of my life, just playing through “one more day” or “just until the next season” – I’m not much of a gamer (as you all may remember), but I have found myself sitting in front of my computer screen at 4am forcing myself to log out and go to bed. I can’t help myself, it is that addictive (plus when I’m close to getting another heart with Abigail goddamn it I will stay awake to make it happen!)

stardew valley abigail love
My experience of Stardew Valley relationships (source:Tumbler lollibeepop)

There are so many different elements to this game, that it doesn’t matter if you suck at one – there *will* be something that you are good at to balance it out; farming, animals, fishing, foraging, dungeon crawling/adventuring – there is definitely something for everyone. I’ve been doing ok on pretty much everything (*humblebrag*), but if anything that shows you that this game is pretty playable on the scale of difficulty. There are plenty of people to wander round and befriend/woo (I’m looking at you Abigail, you beautiful purple-haired siren), and as long as you have the wiki open on a screen next to you it is so satisfyingly easy to see those hearts fill up. Before you know it you have the townsfolk saying hello to you in the town square, and you can feel a part of that happy little community.

The best way to sum up this game is to think about the goal/audience this game is aimed at. Is it aimed at full on players who play to win? Probably not. Is it aimed at providing an adorable, fuzzy, light-hearted experience for someone to dip into and escape the day-to-day? Absolutely. You play a person escaping the boredom of everyday life to look after a farm in this magical town, and I believe that this is true for the player in real life.

Buy this game, tend to your (surprisingly large) patch of farmland where you can make your own mayonnaise to tempt your future wife. I guarantee that like me you will find yourself coming back to reality at 4am wondering where the time went, but at the same time not regretting a single minute.

 

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Deconstructing Doom

DOOM is a hellish, beautiful mess of demons and half cut-up people; with big guns and “no fucks given attitude”. But where it excels at single player it falls flat on its multiplayer offerings.

….where it excels at single player it falls flat on its multiplayer offerings.

I picked up Doom early from CD keys for about £22. Normally I wont commit to a game unless it has been reviewed and deemed working on PC as most games these days come this the optional setting of being a fuck-up. You also get the option of being trapped in a console port which has no relevance to a mouse and keyboard set-up. However the developers creating Doom should know better. It started on PC and thats where it need to come from.

It turned out to be a wise investment and Doom has been an enjoyable experience

DOOMs single player is a a lovely romp through a beautifully deigned hell infested Mars colony. Its a game that gives you exactly what you expect – big guns and demon hell spawn to decimate with said big guns. The weaponry packs a punch and feels satisfying to use. Nothing beats a double barrelled shot gun, well except taking that shot gun and shoving down some hell spawns throat and pulling the trigger.

Personally I got bored of cover shooters and military sims after the first GoW and CoD 4(?), but they sold and left us with little to fill the void. With a phenixdown being thrown on UT and now DOOM I’m hoping for a re-birth or the arena shooter much to the hate of Yahtzee.

Also give us back our bestie game mode, the Death-match

However first ID need to rip-out whatever the fuck Certain Affinity did with the multiplayer and start again. First off remove the load out rubbish and make guns available in level. Maybe strip back the secondary fire to something less OP and finally randomise the power ups in the level so that players can’t just camp them. Also give us back our bestie game mode, the Death-match. The only thing I would keep is the level side of things. I see the value of a level in multiplayer if its used to match players of similar skill level.

If they can solve this I might spend some more time in the multiplayer game but at the moment I’m all Overwatch, all the time.

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DM Diary: Once more in to the mine

Our little Dungeons and Dragons group got together again this weekend for another action packed adventure. We are still pushing forward with The Mines of Phandelver and managed to flush out the Redbrand Bandit leaving the town safe for now against the local chavs. I like to think of Phandelver as a nicer Luton, you know since the murder rate is probably lower.

In this game we had some fun with animal masks and hand signalled role play. We have never taken DnD too seriously, after all we are here for fun not to read the rules in silence and sacrifice goats to the dice god.

After learning about the location of the Redbrand brothers hideout from the farmers son Carp, our adventurers took their pain-train over to the sleeping giants tap house to see if they could gather any more information from the regulars. This cause of action led to a fight between some lingering Redbrand. After a little scuffle and some head crushing the group learned more information about the local annoyance.

This scenario played out well, we stepped away from the grid system and acted out the scenario in our heads.

This scenario played out well, we stepped away from the grid system and acted out the scenario in our heads. It wasn’t completely void of a pen and paper, some loose diagrams where drawn about where everyone was but nothing to formal. This lead to the group engaging more with their imagination leading to a much more intresting encounter than your standard grid based battle.

With all this information the group decided to take the secret entrance into the hideout and see if they could convince the locals that they were the newest members of the Redbrand after stealing the clothes off the men they had just beaten.

dungeons-dragons-movie-reboot-guardians-galaxy

After a few encounters they where left having to convince 3 Redbrand they where part of the crew and the bard convinced them that he was the entertainment. The other members not in disguise had to convince them that they where in-fact the a band accompanying the bard – allot of charisma checks in coming.

This lead to a “The Voice” scenario and although they managed to convince WILLIAM that they were part of his cyber revolution things soon became unraveled. After a few failed charisma checks our merry group of singers became the butchers of Redbrand manor. Although the law abiding members of the group decided to spare some of the younger Redbrand members in exchange for information, this did not hold up with the more morally challenged and so some necks where left open after other members of the group had left.

Its become obvious now that the team is split on its morals and this will likely become a bigger theme later on when instead of it becoming something done out of sight the options will be laid bare in front of them.

The general theme of our encounters so far had been loose, based on what we all accepted as the situation and so ideas flowed and fights ended quickly. We did however act out the final fight with the mage running the Redbrand which unfortunately worked out to be less epic. None of my spell where particularly powerful and at no point did the party feel under any strain. It also didn’t help that I had 6 players rolling an action before a spell could be used. Future boss fights will need to be faster passed and make the party feel like they are in very real danger, unfortunately the end of this dungeon kinda failed.

Despite smashing our way through the Brotherhoods hideout we found ourselves at another pause. I managed to outline what the group has been up to and what the group needs to do in the future and hopefully will lead the game into a more linear experience in the next episode. This will require some skewing of the campaign content, although I will be taking away some sandbox aspect of the game and narrowing the options this is what was expressed to me by the players – more a straight line, than a squiggle.

This idea of narrowing the options is good for me as a DM. My main problems lye in remembering all the details of each individual encounter and with the option for the players to go anywhere or do anything my ability to be prepared for the encounter goes out the window. Unless I sit down and religiously read through the whole campaign until I know everything about everyone and I can channel Carp in away that makes the players believe that i am an adolescent troublemaker.

animals

So why is everyone wearing an animal mask?. Well in order to bring some more hilarity to a game full of infanticide I decided to bring in a new game mechanic.

Rules are as follows:

  • Role a natural 1 – Pick a mask to wear for 5 mins
  • Role a natural 20 – Pick someone to wear a mask for 5 mins

…..its just a giant shit storm of arm waving

When your in the mask you cannot speak instead you have to action out what you want your character to do through the timeless are of mime. This leads to all sort of fun and opens up a giant can of “WTF is going on”. If you manage to get more than one mask in play; well its just a giant shit storm of arm waving.

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