Solving the Sandbox Paradox: Spectrum

Spectrum Stories are probably the single most popular method in modern games to solve the “Sandbox Paradox”. The basic rundown goes like this: during the entire course of the game, the player will be presented with many (sometimes hundreds) of opportunities to make choices. By far, the most common flavor is “spare bad guy” vs. “kill bad guy”. Sometimes a variant is “just kill everyone” vs. “be stealthy and try not to kill anybody”. Every time you make a choice, it nudges your standing on some greater spectrum.

Usually, this spectrum is a moral one (good vs. evil), and results in a different ending depending on how ‘good’ or ‘evil’ you were during the game. Occasionally, your current standing on the good vs. evil spectrum will also determine some of the powers or items you will have access to in the game.

“Spectrum Stories” are those in which many choices ‘accumulate’ over the course of a game to unlock a particular direction.

The Downside:

There aren’t any inherent downsides to using the spectrum itself, but current implementations leave a lot of room for improvement. The biggest complaint with accumulated choice stories is that the only place that your actions tend to have an impact is at the very end of the game. Thus, the player’s true impact on the story usually lacks any ‘bite’ until the very last cutscene. They also tend to trivialize moral choices by casting decisions as clearly good or evil.


2 thoughts on “Solving the Sandbox Paradox: Spectrum

  1. I’m enjoying this series; thanks for writing.

    Another downside is that many players purposely seek a middle way. It’s an effort to avoid extremes in one direction or the other. See, for example, the Gray Jedi meme, where players try to maintain complete neutrality. For every good action, they balance with a equally bad one. Often they say they are sidestepping easy choices, or trying to rebel against the game ultimately pushing them down one of two roads. I sometimes think its a conscious rejection of morality as a whole.

    The result is a blurring of the distinct outcomes that the game designer intended. The lack of distinct outcomes, in turn, can rob the narrative of a strong ending.

    • Good to know. I don’t play that way myself, and so I tend to forget that others do. Also, for some reason I just can’t bring myself to take the evil path, even for the sake of a fictional character.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s