“You can do anything!”
That’s the all-too-familiar claim whenever an open-world game comes to market, as the deluge of Minecraft-inspired gunk infesting Steam’s darkest corners can attest. It’s been the case ever since the rise of Grand Theft Auto and was probably being tossed around back in the days when Elite’s wireframe galaxy was blowing minds. The problem, of course, is that no game lets you do anything you want. Indeed, even games so lacking in direction that people question whether they qualify as games are mere illusions of freedom within set paramaters. What’s most vexing about the situation is that the vain quest to create a game where you can truly do anything is actually counter-productive.
For starters, there are plenty of very linear titles that are at least as worthy of your time as the sandiest sandbox. But even ignoring that, attempts to offer players boundless freedom bear a resemblance to all those people who cry out for realism in games; just as nobody wants to spend five hours watching their Skyrim character struggle into a suit of armour, a completely non-linear game would appeal only to an extreme niche.
Minecraft hooked a lot of people because it presented an open world that still had enough stimulus to let people come up with their own goals. Skyrim on the other hand features actual story and clear objectives, but the environment can still be traversed at your own pace. The pattern here is that a good sandbox provides freedom to a degree, but contextualises it so as to incentivise play. It’s easy to generate a level the size of a continent. What’s hard is making people want to explore your creation. Assassin’s Creed would be one example of a game where there’s tons of stuff to do, but little incentive to bother with much of it.
This goes beyond the sandbox scene and spills over into game design philosophy in general; though Dark Souls never tells you to peer around every corner, it breeds such behaviour in its players by presenting a considerable challenge and hiding useful goodies in out-of-the-way places. Compare that to your average Call of Duty sequel, where the levels can be fairly described as a series of thinly disguised corridors populated by chest-high walls. They might be some perfectly pretty corridors, but when the illusion of choice is so flimsy it’s hard to ignore the man behind the curtain.
A degree of freedom is great. Some games would fall apart without it. Just don’t get so obsessed with offering unlimited choice that nobody’ll stick around to make that choice.