Plays well with others – Relationships in sandbox games

[This is my June entry to Corvus’ Blogs of the Round Table. This month’s topic is I Wanna Hold Your Hand, exploring the fact that it’s not the characters themselves that make for compelling stories, but character relationships.]

Sandbox games are all about open-ended gameplay. Relationships are all about narrative. One is linear, the other isn’t. And never the twain shall meet?

Sandbox games are great for creating immersive environments that a player can explore and interact with on his own terms. This way, the player has a greater sense of agency, of control, over the progress of the game. The problem, and the delight, with putting the player in charge though, is that he’ll often do things that are unexpected. And when it comes narrative, it’s really difficult to be able to predict every little thing each and every player could think up!

While interactive objects, large worlds and intricate physics can make a sandbox game fascinating for hours on end, stories become a lot more difficult to tell. Stories are the basis for forming relationships between characters in games. Two characters could interact in a sandbox game without a story, sure, but people still want to know “Who’s that? Why are they here? Where are we supposed to go from here?” So is it possible to bond with characters in sandbox games if the game provides very little context for the relationship?

What about The Sims? Here’s a game that’s all about relationships! You have so many actions at your disposal that are just for building (or breaking) bonds with other characters. It’s about romantic love and friendships, vicious cat fights and heart-wrenching affairs. But there’s no story to it. The characters interact with and react to each other, but there’s no plot involved, no pre-set path to follow. Even though these relationships are nothing more than a collection of numbers in a database, the players are compelled to make it into a story.

I’m not sure if this idea started in the player community or if it was done intentionally by Maxis, but players used their in-game photo albums to create storybooks, and these days players can make their own movies. They told all sorts of stories about the loves and loses their Sims experienced. Maxis encouraged this by making a section on their site dedicated to these stories and frequently runs themed storytelling contests. They create stories where none existed, the player has taken charge of the narrative in an open-ended game.

All of this because the sandbox nature of The Sims leaves so much open to interpretation. And what’s more intriguing and interesting than the salacious relationships their Sims are experiencing? It is possible to go through The Sims without interacting with people, but I can imagine a player would get bored after a few hours, once you’ve run out of ways of torturing the little guy.

As for games with a linear story that have a sandbox mode, like the GTA franchise, you aren’t required to explore relationships you can have with the other characters. However, by maintaining very Sim-like relationships with other characters by talking to them or hanging out you can gain special extras to help you along. These relationships add an extra level of depth to the games. While the NPCs’ AI is programmed to respond in a certain way to players, what’s most interesting are the players’ reactions to NPCs. This kind of interaction adds a whole ‘nother layer of depth to the games.

One of the guys I work with was telling me how, after reading this article, he asked his wife to try the game. She reacted much like the woman in the article, going around obeying the traffic laws. But when she accidentally ran over someone, she discovered a new depth to the game that most “hardcore” gamers couldn’t have imagined. She got out of the car and called 9-1-1, asking for an ambulance. The ambulance arrived and she got back into her car and followed it. Sure enough, the ambulance took the patient to the hospital! Most players use the sandbox time to run-and-gun their way around town. But some designer took the time to consider the kind of relationships that could develop between the player and the NPCs.

So what this boils down to is that while creating meaningful relationships in sandbox games is one heckuva challenge for designers, it has such an amazing payoff for players.