The “Sandbox Paradox”

Writing stories for video games is hard. I mean, could you imagine being an Author and trying to write a novel if your main character was being controlled by someone else? What would you do if your hero just decided not to fight the villain? Even worse, what would you do if they decided to join forces with the villain?

Most game stories are not interactive, and by that, I mean that the player cannot influence the direction of the story. This makes sense, because with the exception of choose-your-own-adventures, it’s impossible to write a complete interactive story beforehand. Games simply don’t have the time or money to write an epic game story for every possible choice that a player could ever make during the course of the game.

And so here we get to the “Sandbox Paradox”. You can think of it as an attempt to balance two ideals at once:

Freedom: Ensure the player’s freedom of choice (make meaningful decisions to change the plot), without lowering the quality of the story. The extreme end of this spectrum is a “sandbox”, where players can do whatever they want. This gives unlimited freedom to the players, but often with terrible consequences on story.

Authorial Intent: Conversely, how to inject authored story content into the game without restricting the player’s freedom to change the plot? The extreme end of this spectrum is a “themepark”, where you’re railroaded through a great, but extremely linear story. This gives unlimited authorial control over the story, but zero player impact.

In 2011, a game called the Stanley Parable was released. It follows the life of an unimportant office worker named Stanley, who hears the voice of a “Narrator” narrating his every action. This Narrator is in complete control over the fabricated world in which Stanley lives. The Narrator even gets angry whenever Stanley deviates from the “correct” story which had been planned so carefully for him.

For the Narrator, the “Sandbox Paradox” is the problem of adapting the story to player actions that would normally break the story as written by the author before the game started

Many awesome game developers and academic researchers have proposed ideas for solving this problem, but we still have a long way to go. In my mind, solving the Sandbox Paradox is one of the most important goals to unlock the potential of games. My research is dedicated to solving this paradox.

In the coming months, I’m going to highlight previous attempts to solve the Stanley Paradox. These are the ways people use that involve writing 100% of the story before the game ships:

And here’s the ways that involve creating new story as you play:

  • Emergent Gameplay
  • World Simulation
  • User-Generated

And here’s my current approach:

  • The ODIN Project


1 thought on “The “Sandbox Paradox”

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