Sandbox play in video games is a tricky thing. While many players embrace the freedom it brings, others lament the lack of structure. As it happens, one of my most favourite memories of sandbox play comes from Super Mario RPG, which allowed players to jump back and forth between zones in lieu of progressing the story. Looking back on it now, it seems a completely inappropriate choice, especially when Super Mario 64, which actually gives the player a lot more freedom, was released in the same year. But for an 11 year-old with a vivid imagination, I loved Super Mario RPG. As I roamed freely around the game’s unique towns and villages, I would pretend I was on vacation, always looking for the next shop to visit or the next hotel to stay in.
I think one of the features which distinguished this game from other RPGs at the time is that its overworld was free from enemies. Players of Super Mario RPG accessed the different zones of the game using a simple map. This made exploration of the game a lot easier, since you didn’t have to worry about being ‘caught’ by enemies in the overworld.
Looking back on it now, I realize that Super Mario RPG still had many constraints, and that it doesn’t necessarily encompass ‘sandbox play.’ Nevertheless, I don’t think I’ve ever felt that sense of freedom as I did in my early days playing Super Mario RPG. Sadly, since that time, I feel my play style has become much more goal-oriented. Even in World of Warcraft, which gives the player a lot of freedom, I feel as if I am always focused on completing a specific achievement or goal. I worry that I’ve lost the ability to simply sit back, and enjoy the scenery in a game.
I suppose this attitude has also bled into my everyday life. I love working hard and feeling satisfied after completing a task, just as I enjoy completing achievements in the virtual world. But the wonder of these early ‘sandbox’ experiences, when I got my first taste of almost uninhibited gameplay, is something I won’t soon forget.