Something of which gamers can always eagerly anticipate is a generous offering of end of the year releases. For me, that usually means one to three new games on my Christmas wishlist. I’m usually lucky enough to receive them because it’s all I ask for. This past holiday, those games were Fallout 4 and Rise of the Tomb Raider. Later, I also added Just Cause 3 with Xbox gift cards. A month later and I’ve put several hours into each of them and have already beaten ROTTR. Each of them mostly met my expectations, and even exceeded them in certain ways. However, this trio of games also forced me to finally acknowledge something that I’ve been feeling for a while now. It’s a feeling which, by its nature, has been growing within me for the last half-decade, maybe longer. I wish it wasn’t the case, but I think adulthood has taken from me my love of sandbox video games.
I should note that I’m now 26 years old. I can’t remember exactly what age I was when I started playing games, but it was somewhere in the proverbial ballpark of two decades ago. My first favorite game was Grand Theft Auto for PlayStation. What blew up into a record breaking and controversial phenomenon with Grand Theft Auto III was actually already special and especially offensive years prior. I loved existing in that open world, stealing whatever vehicle I saw, running down the many pedestrian-filled sidewalks, jumping from main mission to side mission. To go from the limitations of Mortal Kombat or Crash Bandicoot to something like GTA, a city so alive and expansive, was such a thrill for me at a young age.
Who has time for this?
That series, and its many copycats, were always among my most anticipated games year after year. From direct clones, like True Crime, to the sandboxes that came much later, like Assassin's Creed, I loved playing in a world that was overflowing with structured and unstructured things to do. Up to and including Grand Theft Auto IV, each addition to the series always claimed the distinction as my favorite game. GTA V is undoubtedly Rockstar’s most ambitious game that the studio has ever created, but it was never my favorite game upon release and I truly feel like that’s because I’m just too busy with, for lack of a better term, adult stuff. I have a son now. He’s three. I work full-time, my girlfriend goes to school and works too. When our schedules magically align and allow us free time all together, I usually choose not to play solo video games. Instead we’ll go hiking, cook dinner, do laundry, see a movie, whatever it may be. That means a lot of my gaming comes after hours as my family sleeps, and I, the lone night owl, try to make progress on my backlog.
A game like Fallout 4 sometimes feels infinite with what it allows you to do as a player. Few games create the sense of true exploration and discovery like a Bethesda RPG. I fully admit it deserves its many accolades on TA and abroad, but when I have two or three hours in the middle of the night to play a game, and that might be all I get for a few days or more, I find myself less interested in just scavenging the remains of the Old North Church and more interested in seeing what I consider to be something of more substance, something with which I can better measure progress. The same thing that drives us all to the sprawling open worlds like that in Fallout 4 can sometimes be what drives me away.
This is my nightmare.
I don’t want this to be my reality but, over the years, it has become this more and more. Last fall, I reviewed Mad Max and it was so filled with stuff that it felt overwhelming. My world map would never be cleansed of the countless mission markers and my gamer brain and real world responsibilities clashed as a result of this, as they have been more and more over recent years. Ubisoft games are often nightmare fuel for this very reason. Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry, Watch_Dogs – these are games with more to offer than I could ever actually spend time doing nowadays. Sure a lot of it can be ignored, thrown away as side quests or content-padding fluff, but I’ve been programmed as a gamer to want to complete those things and it’s hard to turn that off.
I have spent the last two weeks finding all of the collectibles in Rise of the Tomb Raider. Not once did I ever think it was fun. It just felt obligatory because it was all there on my map; I accomplished this same feat in its 2012 predecessor, so I was compelled to do it again. Sometimes I just can’t turn off that game-ified center of my brain and I don’t consider that an achievement. Sometimes I’ll combat this stuff fatigue off by favoring and replaying an old favorite over experiencing something new that feels too expansive. Most recently I did this when I used my gaming time to revisit Outlast rather than discover new stuff in Fallout 4.
Part of me will always want to see and do everything, but realistically, I just can't find the time.
Nowadays, these sandboxes rarely creep into my list of favorite games. I look for stories, first and foremost, and sandboxes simply aren’t as conducive to a tight, well told story. Remedy Studios felt that way back when they decided a decade ago to scale back Alan Wake from an open world to a more linearly fashioned game. The end result became my second favorite game of all-time, behind another similarly structured game. A better story can be had in a linear video game where character and plot progression make me feel like I’ve accomplished something with my limited free time, much more than uncovering hidden packages in Los Santos or doing apparently never-ending quests for the Brotherhood of Steel.
Game developers are often under orders to over-serve gamers with content and to provide replay value. Multiplayer has filled that need for many titles, but completely single-player games like Just Cause 3 and Rise of the Tomb Raider have to find other ways to keep us playing, to do what they can to stop us from removing their discs from our consoles. Without all of this extra content, they fear that we may not buy their pricy games. These often multi-million dollar investments could be dead on arrival because of a perceived dearth of stuff. I’ve understood that feeling, and felt it myself, but I find I’m feeling it less as my actual time to play shrinks as I get older. The feeling of “what should I do next?” is often a headache for me now, whereas it used to be representative of my favorite style of game. I no longer need 60 hours of content, even though sometimes I still think I want it. For me, a great 8-12 hour story-focused game is often just as valuable, if not more so, than a sandbox title that boasts 100+ hours of content.
It's hard to tell a well paced story when you give the player so much freedom. Sometimes less is more.
Adult stuff sucks. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to go mattress shopping and make grocery lists. I want to dive head first into games like GTA, like Fallout. I want to search for their easter eggs, finish all the side missions, do everything these games have to offer. A lot of enjoyment is had in living in those imaginary worlds created by these artists. I still sense that and appreciate it, but I simply don’t have the time or patience to do that for dozens of hours anymore. As I type this, my family is again sleeping. When I’m done, I’ll head to my bedroom, put on my headphones, turn on the Xbox, and pick up where I left off in post-nuclear war Boston. I’ll have probably six to ten active quests available right as I begin, plus an entire southwest section of the map into which I really haven’t even ventured yet. Of course I could even skip all of that and just walk for a while and discover more of the game’s many secrets. Twenty, ten, even five years ago, I would’ve loved nothing more. Now I just wish it could get to the point, because that laundry isn’t going to fold itself.
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