Alex Kane’s creator-owned, independent comic, Asphodel: A Mythic Space Opera, is currently raising funds on Kickstarter. Alex is the managing editor of The Critical Press, a publisher of books on film and culture, as well as an executive producer of the Star Wars documentary The Prequels Strike Back. He also serves as a first reader for Uncanny Magazine and works full-time as a freelance copyeditor. A graduate of the 2013 Clarion West Writers Workshop, his fiction has appeared in more than a dozen venues, including the Exigencies anthology from Curbside Splendor’s Dark House imprint, edited by Richard Thomas. His reviews and criticism have been published in Foundation, The New York Review of Science Fiction, SF Signal, and Omni, among other places. He lives in west-central Illinois.
by Alex Kane
From what I can gather, “the Sandbox” is a term referring to the core gameplay elements that make up a player’s experience within the simulated world of a videogame; googling around for a catchall definition, I found screenshots of player objects interacting with NPCs in open, primitive environments in which the graphics are clearly only meant for an audience of in-house testers. But it also refers to a new, growing genre of games that put an extreme emphasis on sandbox-style mechanics over prescribed narrative.
Playing games growing up, this kind of language wasn’t something I heard—even the first major 3-D game environments, like the ones in Nintendo’s Super Mario 64 and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, while full of expansive landscapes well worth exploring, still possessed a sense of linearity. Like the simpler side-scrolling and top-down gameplay that laid the groundwork for contemporary videogames, there persisted for decades a feeling that every game ran on a set of rails, and that in order to successfully complete or master said title meant sticking to the path—staying on those rails.
Not so with the most popular games of 2015, for the most part, and I suspect this is a trend that won’t be going away anytime soon. When I began to write creatively as a child, and especially as a teenager, I was always acutely aware that games were going to be a profound influence on both my imagination and my understanding of the craft of storytelling.
At age thirteen, penning my first so-called novel, I saw this as a kind of failure—something to be embarrassed about. But the truth is, the writers who came before my peers and I were no doubt raised on Lego and G.I. Joe action figures (and, in the notable case of Ernest Cline and other writers his age, early games like those for the Atari 2600 and the arcade); I’ve little doubt the ones who begin publishing in ten or fifteen years will cite everything from Minecraft to MMORPGs like World of Warcraft as influences on their work.
Scott Lynch and his contemporaries have professed their love for—and occasional addiction to—these kinds of immersive computer games. Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham, whose novels in the Expanse series (beginning with Leviathan Wakes, under the pseudonym James S. A. Corey) are getting a big-budget SyFy Channel adaptation in December, have mentioned at every opportunity that the Corey novels began life as a setting for their tabletop role-playing campaign. I suppose this is the part where I confess I’ve logged 926 hours in Destiny: Like writing and most other hobbies, it’s a lot cheaper than therapy!
Our play defines us, in many ways. I will never escape the untold rainy afternoons I spent learning the ways of the Force in BioWare’s Knights of the Old Republic twelve years ago, or repelling Covenant dropships in the opening stages of Bungie’s groundbreaking FPS Halo 2. Nor would I want to.
Reflecting on the best games of my youth, one of the characteristics they all share is their use of cinematic storytelling—action-heavy, animated “cutscenes” and an improved use of plot elements, characterization, and dialogue. Many of them were a far cry from the NES classics my dad got me hooked on as a small child, and the games of today are still innovating. But I believe that my generation witnessed videogames growing up, whatever that ultimately means for the industry as a whole. At one point, I was saving up my lawn-mowing money to buy a GameCube and The Wind Waker; then, when I got my hands on a friend’s Xbox controller and a copy of Halo: Combat Evolved, I discovered my first real experience with the Sandbox.
That franchise’s first entry singlehandedly made Bungie, the game’s developer, into a household name among folks who buy and play games—and it no doubt saved Microsoft’s first unexpected foray into the world console gaming from certain doom, turning it instead into a massive domestic success.
Today, the collective landscape of children’s imaginations probably looks a lot different. I hesitate to use the term “retro,” because videogames are still such a young art form, but what else can you say about it? Nintendo’s coasting on the fumes of nostalgia alone, while many gamers have jumped ship from the console arena entirely.
It seems at least every month another triple-A title is released to resounding disappointment and frustration, its publisher having knowingly pressured developers into rushing out a broken or unfinished product to satisfying some calculated, hundred-million-dollar marketing scheme.
But the people who play games are smart, even if many of them have some serious growing up to do. (The events of the past year are sure to land a number of self-proclaimed GamerGaters in prison for their obscene acts of violence, privacy invasion, and online harassment, assuming there’s an ounce of justice left in the world.) Like most segments of mainstream consumer culture, the sheer volume of content and increased availability, made possible through digital downloads and democratized retail platforms like Steam, have allowed for an unprecedented number of independent creators and out-of-the-box game concepts to reach the market, however cutthroat and saturated it may be.
Who could’ve foreseen the near-universal acclaim that greeted Minecraft in the years following its low-profile beta release in 2009? And there’s something wonderfully bizarre about the fact that the most anticipated title of this year’s E3 (that is, the 2015 Electronic Entertainment Expo) is none other than No Man’s Sky, the PlayStation 4–exclusive indie spaceflight sandbox title I’m quite sure no one ever—ever—saw coming.
The hype for that game is palpable. Developer Hello Games, a small studio of about a dozen employees, boasts a “procedurally-generated open galaxy,” filled with countless planets, life-forms, and terrains wholly unique to each player’s instance, all of it calling out to be explored.
No one can be sure just how well a game this ambitious and decidedly off-the-rails will live up to players’ colossal expectations, but one thing’s absolutely certain: It will be amazing to see what kinds of experiences players make for themselves, and what kinds of stories they’ll choose to tell through third-party creative outlets like Twitch, YouTube, fan art, and fan fiction.
Mark my words—these kinds of games will shape the storytellers of tomorrow. I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard someone complain that there’s “nothing to do” in Minecraft, that BioWare games are “boring,” or that Bungie’s Destiny “doesn’t even have a story.”
That’s the magic of the Sandbox: the players—the ones who exercise their imaginations—are the story. And I look forward to seeing the worlds they make for us in the years to come.