Monday, June 1, 2015

I'm an adult and I'm in a sandbox

I'm not sure if I can call myself a hardcore gamer. As far as games go, I'm actually pretty casual; I like the enjoyment of the games, and the most hardcore part about that enjoyment is that I am a competitive person by nature. I lose interest quickly if the game becomes too easy and start to consider it a waste of time.

But sandboxes. Sandbox games, man! No person in their right mind can resist the sandbox games, child or adult. The aspect of sandbox got me into Minecraft all those years ago, and now I find myself back in its world with Creli, my partner in science and my little helper with Sona's helmet as you all know.

It's hard to explain the attraction of having unlimited possibilities. For myself, I am certain that me being a control freak explains more than a fair deal of the appeal. I get dropped in Minecraft, in the middle of a world with resources, and I feel a very dire need to control things around me. I need to build a house to use as my headquarters and I need to make use of everything I gather - so far making use of Dirt has been my greatest challenge, as there seems to be a never-ending amount of it.

But it doesn't end there, does it? I want to light the world, or at least my own "territory", during night time. I want to build fences for sheep and gather flowers in one place and make a garden. I want to make something out of everything I have, and for me this usually leads into having a never-ending supply of wooden planks of every sort. After all, can't have those pesky forests blocking my vision and hiding creepers, skeletons and zombies in their shadow!

(Also the thought of being the Mistress of Hell appeals to me.)

I think this is a very specific need which defines the human nature. To categorize things, to make use of things, to see the possibilities and choices given to you. This urge is what has allowed us to evolve as far as we have: we have learned to make use of the things around us, and we have learned to see the possibilities of the world around us.

Many people say that they like to also explore the mechanics of the game, to see and list all the things they can do within the limits of the game - to know what is mechanically possible. For me, these are curious things and all, but in the end they are merely an end to my means, which are to hold control over the world around me.

Now, to bring a completely different example on the table, another sandbox-style game I am very into is Dwarf Fortress. The game which forces you to think losing is fun and teaches you to sacrifice virgins to the gods of RNGsus to pray for a better fortune and that none of your dwarves accidentally dig the new tunnel into a pool of water or molten lava.

One of my most successful fortresses was obliterated by a fucking FISH. That's DF for you.
In Minecraft you adventure on your own and all the actions you make are yours alone. In Dwarf Fortress you instruct a group of dwarves to build their city and to make it prosper, effectively micromanaging your dwarven community. You need to keep them happy by luxuries such as jewellery, food - I usually have cats for this purpose - and mead.

However, even if you do everything according to the book, something might happen. Your hunter dwarf dies on a hunting trip, leaving behind two children and a wife, wife goes into berserk mode and kills a couple of dwarves in her incoherent rage before she is slaughtered. These dwarves had wives and husbands who are now stricken by sorrow or potentially fly into the fits of rage themselves, ending up killing more dwarves.

The situation I described above is far from rare in Dwarf Fortress. It's known as "tantrum spiral", and it's one of the most common ways for your Fortress to fail. Recovering from a tantrum spiral is challenging as the dwarves left behind are usually too stricken by sorrow or otherwise upset that they won't accept your orders. So, it's all in the hands of the gods of the RNGsus.

One of the musings of every Dwarf Fortress player is "losing is fun". This is not only derived from the fact that losing in Dwarf Fortress is frequent, almost inevitable, but also from what losing means. If you make a fool-proof fortress, you may have a successful dwarven society for some time, but is it fun to do everything by the book? Wouldn't you rather take the risk of trying out something peculiar, even if it will lead to an imminent failure?

For a control freak like me the response should be obvious, and I must admit that I do use a healthy amount of "safe" measures in my own game. I have guards and barracks in my Fortress to kill berserk dwarves as soon as they spawn, and I try to have a breeding patch of cats to ensure I will always have food available, no matter what.

It might be worth noticing that Dwarf Fortress offers other kind of gaming modes than the sandbox, most notable competition for the Fortress mode being "Adventurer". The Adventurer mode is in effect just like any kind of adventure RPG would be, going around the world, killing monsters and gathering resources. Maybe that's why it doesn't tickle my fancy. The Fortress mode is what sets Dwarf Fortress apart from the other games it shares a genre with, and I like that particular side of it. The Adventurer mode is just another brick in the wall.

All the open world games - Zelda, WoW, Eve Online, Elder Scrolls to mention a few examples - are sandboxes to an extent. What sets Dwarf Fortress apart from the others is the diligent praying to the aforementioned gods, and what sets Minecraft apart from others is how it offers way less limits than the other kind of games. I can't modify the landscape in WoW even if I do have a spade, I can just pick the flowers and they will respawn.

It's this landscape modification which sets sandbox games apart from open world games for me, and it's the thing that turns us grown adults into children again.

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