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Sandbox RPG: Video Gaming's High Art

The sandbox RPG is the ultimate expression (right now) in video gaming.

Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim has won a host of awards since it’s release on November 11th. Despite some bugginess (and some bug-inducing patches), Skyrim took home Spike’s Game of the Year Award, as well as X-Play’s Game of the Year award and a recent Game of the Year Award by the Kotaku community on their Speak Up forum (this last one by over twice the votes of its closest competition). It’s only been 2 months and Skyrim is sweeping the critical and fan-based accolades.

At its heart, Skyrim is a sandbox game. (Yes, I know it says RPG on the box. It’s that too.) But the premise behind Skyrim is, “Here is an incredibly rich fantasy world. Go do whatever the hell you want.” It was the same premise behind the previous iterations of The Elder Scrolls, including Morrowind and Oblivion (both of those won “Game of the Year” when they released as well). In fact, many sandbox games have risen in the ranks to become epic award-winners, blog-hype hipsters, and generally adored by gamers everywhere.  Minecraft, perhaps the ultimate expression of sandbox gaming, is another one that has garnered huge hype, awards, and the gaming community’s respect. Even the Grand Theft Auto (that sandbox-styled RPG that lets you screw and then kill prostitutes) has received similar attention, though with an added dash of notoriety. This begs the question, “Why do these types of games seem to garner such adoration and attention?”

Video games are, by design, an alternate reality. That said, the ultimate expression of that alternate reality is virtual reality, or the transposing of reality into a virtual construct. What can you do in reality? Anything you want! (Well, within the confines of the laws of physics and, sometimes, men.) For that reason I make the following, barely substantiated, outrageous claim: the sandbox game is the greatest form of video game commercially available, and the highest expression of the art form (if you’re one of those philosophical gamers).

From a design aspect (who we can safely call “the artist” in this scenario), to do a sandbox well is to plan for almost every eventuality, every possible outcome, every possible bug and exploit that might be perpetrated in a vast universe that you, yourself, have created. Align this with a RPG format with narrative, quest lines, and timeline and the level of complexity is exponentially increased. This all translates to “immersive” gameplay, or being able to enter the world and make it yours. When an RPG sandbox is done really well, as it has been in the Elder Scrolls series, that notion goes from “immersive” to “engrossing”.

There’s a reason that Dragon Age III is looking to Skyrim and Bethesda for its next model. There’s a reason why all of these games are winning awards, have huge community support, and are the “most-played”. Ready for my second barely-substantiated outrageous claim? (two in one post!) The shooter has long enjoyed the kind of massive communities and industry attention that action movies enjoys in the 80’s. The shooter is going to fade, and the rise of the sandbox RPG will be upon us. An older, more sophisticated community of gamers (with a slightly more frayed nervous system) is going to demand more substance that unlocking gun sights and taking one objective after another, and the answer will be games like Skyrim. As more developers catch on, we’re going to see a surge in RPG releases of all types (breaking out of the stereotypical fantasy mold). Imagine a game with the depth of Skyrim, but the main character is a crusader from the 12th century, or a secret agent in a modern city, or a WWII paratrooper? The possibilities are truly endless, and that is what gaming has always been all about.