Sandbox vs Linear story telling

What is it that we are after these days? I enjoy a good story, one where my character can become a Legend, or at least shine. A sense of accomplishment is what all games have to offer us, since we would not be playing them otherwise. Recently though, the thought was crawling over my head that sometimes we do not care about story that much, and instead would prefer “Just to play”. The very reason we have all those different Multiplayer FPS games, and Strategy Games. If we do pick up a game, either to “play a story” or “just to kill time”, where does that put Sandbox games? It would be quick to assume that Sandbox games aim at allowing a player to wonder aimlessly on the map, completing numerous side quests, losing focus of the main campaign. Aren’t Linear games as interesting as Sandbox games? Let’s crack on it together.

Sand Castle

I wanted to make a joke about sandboxes. All I got was this sand castle.

What is a Sandbox?

Sandbox games have huge worlds, and allow the player to explore it. By adding numerous different locations the player can obtain side-quests, or explore a ruin or dungeon, when searching for treasure. There is no restriction to the size of the world, though some companies aim at providing bigger worlds than the competition. The problem with Sandbox games is that, if designed poorly, can bore quickly. The positive effects of such work can be found in a number of titles, such as Oblivion, Skyrim, the Fallout Series, Mount and Blade (to an extent) and S.T.A.L.K.E.R.

The main idea behind the Sandbox, is that it allows the player to complete the game in any way he wishes. He or she does not have to follow a set path, and instead chooses his own. The direct opposite of that is what I call “Linear Story Telling”.

What is Linear Story Telling?

Although absolute Linearity would call for huge restrictions, I would wish to broaden my category to games which might offer different approaches to solving a problem, but in essence there would not be that much deviation from the set path. For examples think of Metro 2033, the Half-Life series, and the Modern Warfare series. Unlike Sandbox games, Linear games do not allow the player to stray off the path to focus on other tasks. Your character is constantly involved in the main plot or mission.

The benefit of Linear story telling is that if you are a small designer you do not have invest time into creating a vast world, though a smaller world still has to be well designed and thought-out. After all, if you already took the minimalistic approach it would be sensible to do it properly.


“… how will I get down now?”

Sandbox vs Linear

In recent years there have been plenty of Sandbox games, as well as many Linear games. On one hand we have the GTA series, Saints Row series, Skyrim and many more titles which covered a wide spectrum of different eras and interests. On the other, think of Splinter Cell, Hitman, the Half-Life series, and Modern Warfare. Both areas had equally great titles, which does not make a quick decision easy. What do players prefer overall?

Among the players there has always been a discussion of Sandbox vs Linear Games. It was rarely a question of which one is better, but which one do you prefer? Even here, the answer was never obvious. Some games better compose themselves as Sandbox titles. Turning a game like Modern Warfare into a Sandbox could be possible, but would it be a satisfactory experience? In turn, you could try turning Skyrim into a Linear game, but then you could end up with something en par with Dark Messiah of Might and Magic.

In the end, there is no simple solution or answer to whether Sandbox games are more popular than Linear games, or is one “better” than the other. We can look at something else however. What makes a good Sandbox and a good Linear game?

This sandbox needs more castles…

The number one problem anybody can have with a sandbox game, is lack of content. You travel for half an hour in a vast land, and find absolutely nothing of interest. A good sandbox game will have plenty of content to provide you with. Side quests, stories, books, ruins to explore. The worst possible type of Sandbox, is one with just sand. We can understand how Skyrim became so popular. It is a massive sandbox with plenty of things added to it. You, as the player, never get bored when exploring Skyrim. In S.T.A.L.K.E.R. you always had your eyes in front of you, and your ears listening for an ambush, while searching for artifacts, or sneaking into a Military base.

Dungeons and Dragons

In a sandbox game a simple trip might call for a lot of careful planning!

Among one of the most annoying elements a sandbox could do, is adding invisible walls. The reason why you limit a sandbox has to be stated clearly in the story, or geographically represented. In Fallout: New Vegas the one thing which did annoy me was the inability to scale certain mountains. Fallout 3 did not have such limits, but the ones which New Vegas imposed created a headache when I wanted to take a handy shortcut. On the other hand, in Gothic 3 there were some very odd situations, when an entire Ork town would try to murder me, while I sat on top of a mountain, shooting down arrows, because the AI was unable to reach me.

Another problem is creating areas in which you do not do anything. Far Cry 2 suffered from that, creating a lot of middle areas which were perfect for sight-seeing, but not good for anything else. A lot of people could potentially agree that the first Assassin’s Creed suffered from the exact same thing. The cities you operated in were huge, and the distances you travelled vast, but there was nothing interesting to do there. Meanwhile Mafia 2 had a lively and wonderful city, of which you would see about 40-50%, unless you decided to explore it on your own.

Having covered Sandbox games let’s move on to Linear games.

Linear games are like books…

When you play a linear video game you will rarely have unlimited options. In Metro 2033 aside from buying at some areas new guns, health packs or filters you could also decide on the method of how you approach the enemy. In Linear games the story is the most important element, combined with gameplay elements and overall design. Metro 2033 is a journey in the Moscow underground. Almost like an epic tale you will meet heroes and dark legends, coming face to face with them, eventually saving humanity. In Modern Warfare 1 and 2 you will be switching between a number of perspectives, where both the action and story elements are intense.

Metro: Last Light

“… no worries, it’s only something falling toward us.”

Perhaps more so than Sandbox games, Linear games need a constant flow,whether it’s a horror-survival like Amnesia: The Dark Descent or intense action game like Gears of War. In Linear games the focus has to be put on the “Main Campaign”. An interesting world is useful, with exceptional visuals and characters, but you focus on a specific set of tasks. I mentioned Dark Messiah of Might and Magic earlier. It was a title which did not receive the best scores during its release, but I enjoyed it. In hindsight it felt a lot like an Oblivion style game, only with more action, less RPG elements, and a slightly tweaked combat system. The story flew forward in a constant stream, with a choice of possible endings. It could had been a sandbox, but the linear story was still interesting.

Among a vast majority of Linear games there is much less pressure put on any RPG elements, or special inventory HUDs. Often FPS games make better Linear games, while RPGs are suitable for a Sandbox. Then again, that is not always a rule, when we look at games like GTA or (in part) Mass Effect.

The sum of its parts

We could say, that sandbox games usually have more RPG elements, with skills and a slightly more complex inventory system. This is not a rule, as we can see with GTA or Prototype. Meanwhile, linear games appear to be usually FPS style games, with much less RPG elements and more action. Then, we ignore games like Hitman, where although you do not have purely action or RPG elements, each map and level is a “Mini-Sandbox”. The Hitman and Thief series made each level a sandbox of their own. You did not have to go through the front door, because you had a few different, and better solutions.

We can all conclude that both Sandbox and Linear games have their shining stars, and in the end, it is not the genre or type of game that is important. It is the design of the game. A good game can be a survival horror sandbox, or a linear adventure game. Well, there is always the individual taste, that no designer can take into account.

Alex “WriterX” Bielski

About The Author

Aleksander "WriterX" Bielski
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Student of Psychology, he was identified as a Nut-Job even before he started the course. Having done some small work as a Modder for a number of titles, and worked as a Game Designer part-time, Alex now writes in third person. As Co-Owner and Editor of he aims high, while being armed only with a sling. In the future, he hopes to become a fully qualified Newspaper Editor, and purchase Google.

4 Responses to Sandbox vs Linear story telling

  1. Grand Theft Auto is the best of both worlds, plenty of things to do, large maps and insuperable stories, how is GTA not in this article?

    Bad mistake.

    • WriterX says:

      I actually mention GTA! You must had missed it (it’s near the start of “Sandbox vs Linear”. Of course I do not mention a specific game from the GTA series, just the series as a whole.

  2. snowshift says:

    There’s yet another difference, games such as Skyrim and Fallout are not really open sandboxes, they are linear (or limited) narrative games that come to particular ends. That process is obscured by side quests, unimportant encounters. Games such as SimCity and Minecraft really are sandboxes. A reason I dislike very linear games is often the designers don’t have enough imagination, or they’ve designed for 12-year olds. Once I “get” what they’re doing, it becomes repetitious. Having a professional background in artificial intelligence, and degrees in history, my perspective is that games also differ in depth, sophistication. An elaborate, well-conceived game can be written as linear or sandbox. An example of a largely linear game that fails for me in this is “Witcher 2″. Even though the designers were attempting to be realistic, and invested huge effort in cut scenes, the problem is that was designed by people who have a very limited understanding of the real world. As an example, a wooden walkway elevated 5 meters has very detailed “natural” boards, but the walkway leaves 20cm gaps, with non-parallel boards. It would be dangerous to walk on, even in optimal conditions. And at night? In the rain? The guards would be on all fours. Also, there isn’t the slighest wear on the boards, whereas these heavily trafficed routes would be much cleaner toward the center. And that’s just an example regarding that sentry walk! The next criticism would be the height and placement. The designers might argue that their weak conceptions are “good enough”, since their target audience is as ignorant as they are, but not all the audience is, and at any rate, subconsciously many players will recognize that something is “wrong”.

    • WriterX says:

      I know exactly what you mean. I discussed recently the problems of faulty world design. Namely, things the Developers attempt to example, and by doing so they “destroy” the very thing that made their world special. The main example was that of “The Force” from Star Wars being a result of not only training but also a level of particles in your blood. It was no longer a “Magical Force” anybody could obtain, through the purity (or impurity) of their heart but something a chosen few could only obtain. That destroyed the “magic”. Sometimes you have to keep a closed eye to some things that are meant to be “realistic”, since in a Fantasy setting it’s hard for things to be realistic. On the other hand I am also a person who will nit pick. I do not like games that try to be taken seriously and then sort of “Forget” that they were meant to be serious. On that note, I did write a series named the “Deadly Designer Sins”, there I opted for the “Common Sense” approach to designing your world. Such as, the clothing and architecture would meet the demands and resources of the local area (as well as technology). A lot of the time we are stuck on the “Middle Eastern”, “European” and “Far Eastern” stereotypes of cultures. There is very little innovation.

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