Sandbox Games in a Locked-Down World

Freedom and Choice in Open World Video Games
This is what freedom looks like (Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla)

Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla is, ostensibly, a viking simulator—you play as Eivor, who, depending on your preference, is either a Violent, Terse Viking Man or a Violent, Terse Viking Woman. After an extended sequence in the ice-sharpened mountains of Norway, you’re dumped into pastoral England in the late 9th century, where you plunder countless monasteries, burn countless villages, and assassinate countless people, presumably because Eivor adheres to some sort of… creed? Why all this happens, and what her creed might be, is unclear. I’ve played several of Ubisoft’s enormous and enormously popular Assassin’s Creed games, but if you were to ask me about the tongue-tying mythology that presumably glues all of them together, I would respond with a dumb, glassy gaze.

What I can tell you, though, is that Valhalla came out last November, and it’s gotten me through the back half of the pandemic (if, uh, we are in the back half of it). Like many open-world games, Valhalla is supposedly about exploring, and for the past year and a half, exploration has been in short supply.

For all its sprawling spaces, though, Valhalla is actually about something else: its map. While the game’s England is gorgeous—with shafts of sunlight cutting through morning mist and evening haze, it feels like a Caspar David Friedrich landscape that Jackson Pollock has splattered with blood—the environment is largely there to hold things, like treasure chests and minigames and puzzles and crumbling castles that are just begging for a good besieging. While Valhalla looks like a viking simulator, it’s really a never-ending checklist of things to do, places to go, trinkets to collect, characters to kill. Hundreds of icons pockmark the ludicrously huge map, interspersed with uncountable constellations of golden, glimmering blobs, each representing treasure that’s there for the taking, usually after you’ve been made to do a bunch of other things. Zoom out far enough and the glittering map inspires a feeling like looking up at the night sky: There’s a lot of stuff out there, and, as you have a finite lifespan, you will never see all of it. You will never even see most of it. As in life, as in Valhalla: You are all but guaranteed to grow weary of this game long before you complete it.

Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla

Just as vaccines were starting to get injected into arms, I found myself escaping into another supersized make-believe world: Mass Effect Legendary Edition. This trilogy of science fiction roleplaying games first came out between 2007 and 2012, and for their reissue, the developers at BioWare prettied everything up with a slick coat of digital paint. Now it’s easier than ever to appreciate the games’ striking, Syd Mead-inspired visuals, as well as to be reminded of how nearly all video games age: poorly.

The first Mass Effect holds up better than most. You play as Shepard, the human commander—once again, gender is your call—of the Normandy, a sleek, Star Trek-y ship that’s full of talky, philosophical aliens who embark on a series of bombastic, Star Wars-y adventures. It’s a collage of sci-fi tropes that, thanks to ambitious world-building and deftly drawn characters, seems original and fresh; exploring the galaxy with the Normandy’s crew feels thrilling and weird, with an occasional dose of melancholy. Unlike Valhalla, which goes to great lengths to make you feel as if Eivor is steering the course of history, Mass Effect emphasizes Shepard’s smallness: As hardass as Shepard can be when negotiating with space terrorists, and as skilled as she is with a space rifle, players are constantly reminded that, compared to the histories and cultures of the galaxy’s other races, humanity’s existence is brief and forgettable, and that the game’s Lovecraftian Milky Way is older, larger, and scarier than we selfish, short-lived meatbags can comprehend. As is the case with many video games, a significant chunk of Mass Effect is a power fantasy (just as Eivor gains superhuman abilities in Valhalla, Shepard unlocks powers that, at the very least, place her in the upper echelon of selfish, short-lived meatbags), but hanging over it all is the Saganic truth that we are, and always will be, minuscule—that time and space stretch unimaginably far in every direction.

If Valhalla is about its map, the Mass Effect trilogy is about its dialogue wheel. Great swaths of all three games are spent in conversation—plying aliens with questions, compliments, and/or threats to get information that you need to progress or, more often, that you just want to learn. Mass Effect’s worlds and cultures are strange and novel, and Shepard’s personable companions are so unique and distinct that listening to them ramble about their made-up planets and civilizations can be more engaging than the games’ constant, frantic firefights. Just as Valhalla offers exploration during lockdown, Mass Effect provides something else that’s rare during a pandemic: The ability to casually chat with someone without feeling a lurking terror that one of you might cough.

Mass Effect Legendary Edition

But buried in Mass Effect’s conversations are plot hooks—comments and allusions that encourage you to visit this solar system or that nebula, to take on side missions for shadowy interplanetary unions or sketchy power brokers. And just like Valhalla, it isn’t long until all these ostensibly exciting digressions—opportunities for fun! opportunities for adventure!—grow heavy with the weight of obligation. “Sure,” these games say. “That forest or that planet over there might look like fun to explore, but hey, first, do this.” Complete one more fetch quest. Survive this skirmish. Reveal yet another swath of an ever-expanding map. Scour every polygon to collect an arbitrary number of digital tchotchkes so you can unlock an arcane ability that, almost certainly, you will never use.

The best gaming experiences make you forget that video games are built on this kind of mandatory makework; for all their illusions of choice, they are, ultimately, mechanical and procedural. The games that are the least transporting are those where this foundation is most evident—where there’s little pretense that playing a game largely consists of providing predictable responses to programmed prompts. The more pedestrian the prompt, the more apparent the game’s machinery; eighteen years after first playing it, I still remember the disappointment of realizing The Sims wasn’t about building elaborate mansions or figuring out clever ways to make little pretend people interact, but rather about spending hours staring at rows of slowly filling status bars to make sure those little pretend people ate often enough, worked often enough, shat often enough. The bars would eventually fill up, and you would tell them to eat or work or shit, and they would, and then the exhilarating cycle began anew.

These are the kind of things I resent having to devote time and energy to in real life—so when it comes to games, the further I can get from anything resembling chores or jobs, the better. Nintendo probably has the right idea: While Mario is technically employed—whenever someone at the Mushroom Kingdom Internal Revenue Service starts asking questions, he claims to be a plumber—he actually spends his time kicking turtles, eating whatever random mushrooms he finds, and trying to murder his friends with a go-kart.

Mass Effect Legendary Edition

In Valhalla and Mass Effect, the majority of side missions and fetch quests—the things that feel like work—aren’t awful. You can do them, and, like a lot of real-life jobs, it’s easy enough to space out in a hazy loop and dutifully cross chores off a list. But unlike the games’ larger narratives, these jobs are rarely satisfying and depressingly time-consuming. Valhalla’s save screen informs me that—despite the fact I never asked for this information, and definitely do not want it—I have, so far, played for 97 hours, 2 minutes, and 14 seconds.

When pandemic lockdowns briefly eased up, a similar feeling crept into real life: I got texts and emails from people I hadn’t heard from for a year or more, with invites to happy hours and barbecues and birthday parties and other things that, I realized, I hadn’t missed at all. Eager to see friends and families—eager to see anyone—people squirmed out of the woodwork, and it wasn’t long until catch-ups and get-togethers began to feel like fetch quests and checklists. Happy hours and barbecues and birthday parties seemed less like opportunities for fun and adventure and more like jobs that, it turned out, it had been nice to have a break from. If this was a video game, they were side quests one would be better off skipping.

For some, forging alliances with each of Valhalla’s pasty English kings—or pursuing every dialogue option with Mass Effect’s insectile Rachni queen—is deeply rewarding. But I’ve found the games’ strengths are not their gigantic size, but the smaller, more personal moments that one finds—and creates—within. There’s a swell of relief after finishing one of Valhalla’s daunting castle assaults. There’s satisfaction when one of the Normandy’s crew finally opens up about their past. And there’s pleasure in knowing you have an entire island or planet to explore—but instead of opening up your map or to-do list, deciding instead to meander through your rough-hewn longhouse, its firelit tables rich with food and laughter, or stand on the gleaming bridge of your spaceship, its hard-light controls thrumming with a warm amber glow despite the cold vacuum beyond the hull.

Each of these brief moments is more memorable than any of the long, sloggy hours spent following the games’ virtual guideposts. It turns out my Shepard doesn’t need to be pals with everyone on the Normandy—only those I think are the most interesting. My Eivor doesn’t need to soak every square kilometer of England with the gushing arterial spray of her dismembered enemies—it’ll suffice to soak most of them.

As we clumsily, desperately attempt to lurch back toward something resembling normal life, and as real-world social opportunities multiply, there’s been something of my Shepard and my Eivor in the choices I’ve made: I’ve been going places because I want to, not because I feel obligated to. I’ve been spending time with the few people I love, instead of the many I vaguely remember. Making each decision feels a bit like zooming out to see a giant, half-unexplored map, or like scrolling through an infinite list of unfinished quests—and then it feels like closing the map, or backing out of the quest log, and getting back to what I want to do, instead of trying to do everything.

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