Sandbox Impressions

It’s been a pretty slow news week, and that is what fuels much of my content. As such, I’m going to give my impressions of one of the games I recently picked up. The game in question is Terarria.

Terarria isn’t a new game, and I have read other blogger’s commentary of it in the past. Most of you probably already know about the game, but it’s a new experience for me. Also, I’m playing the Playstation 3 version, so there could be some differences that I’m unaware of.

Terarria is a sandbox. Sandbox games come in many flavors, but the common theme is being able to do whatever you want. To many players, this is a welcome feature, because they crave exploration or simply don’t want to be told what to do. I have been playing video games since the 80s, and I am used to having goals. There’s an end to the level. There’s a boss to beat. There’s a mission to complete. These things drive me, either for the mere achievement, or because of the loot awarded upon completion. I am used to being told what to do, though I can’t say I always like it. The treadmill that is a quest/mission grind for experience/loot/levels does get old, especially when the formula is only tweaked ever-so-slightly with each new wave of games. This is not only true for single player games, but MMOs as well. I don’t care if I’m playing Skyrim by myself, or Everquest II with friends — killing ten rats is still killing ten rats. So finding a niche where these treadmills don’t exist is increasingly difficult, without avoiding certain genres altogether — genres that are typically my favorites. This means I will still play games with this treadmill, as long as they add features or do something to make me forget that I’m still performing the same actions I’ve been completing for over twenty years. But I’m getting beside myself.

I’ve never really played any sandbox games. In a sense I have, but none that were labeled as such. Skyrim is a sandbox in that you can choose to utilize the content as you see fit. Going further back, the original Everquest was also a sandbox in this respect. But these games are not sandboxes in the respect that you couldn’t affect the world around you, and there was still at least some direction, vague as it may be. Terraria is the new definition of sandbox, in that you can affect the world around you, and there really isn’t any direction aside from a short tutorial and an in-game guide. After starting a new game, a procedurally generated world is created and you are dropped right in the middle of it. The first goal of course is to build a shelter for the night, but after that, you can do as you will. Feel like digging as deep as you can? Go for it. Want to get started crafting? Have at it. Want to build a huge castle as testament to your greatness? Feel free. You get where I’m going with this. You can do whatever you want, and the game doesn’t penalize you for taking too long, or not really accomplishing anything. There is a certain joy in this that I haven’t experienced in a game in quite some time, that also makes me feel foolish for having written off Minecraft when it released years ago.

Ultimately, being goal-driven has kept me away from the genre, and that same characteristic has pushed me right into it. I avoided the sandbox because I didn’t know how to appreciate it. Then, the lack of originality with some of the larger publishers had me looking to the Indie developers, and those Indie developers helped me to see the charm of a world that I can manipulate. We have come full circle. Seeing this on an MMO scale would be even more impressive, and I think that’s what Landmark and EQNext are trying to accomplish. Still, even with it’s modest retro graphics and simple system, Terraria isn’t “massively” while still remaining massive.

I have taken my time to go through much of the crafting, building and harvesting/mining elements of the game, starting out by building a huge fortress as my home base. I did cheat a little and read some guides on the Terraria Wiki to give me some sort of focal point. I tell you what, this is one game that I’m thankful has trophies — despite having moved away from “achievement based gaming” (I used to be quite the trophy whore), this does help you get a feel for the things you can do. At first glance, Terraria feels like a pure building simulator, until you start realizing if you dig deep enough you’ll fall into underground caverns and find all manner of beasts. The trophy list will also tell you of bosses, certain armors and other goals that you can set for yourself. This helped the goal-oriented side of me really sink my teeth in. I really have taken a liking to the freedom. And even though many developers (particularly indies) are using the retro look to make us feel at home (at least those of us that are old enough to have played 8-bit era games), Terraria isn’t using it to cover up a poorly designed game. I have become a huge fan of perma-death, procedural generation, retro graphics and open-ended mechanics because these are all trends that are leading to something bigger. Originality. The reason we started playing games in the first place, because they did things we never thought they would do. I feel another post brewing on these topics coming soon.