The True Joy of Sandbox Games Is Breaking Them Leave a comment

I’m nervous about Starfield. I’ve enjoyed Bethesda’s other open-world RPGs, but I’m not super into postapocalypses, and Skyrim’s fantasy world didn’t engage me much. But I love space. Games set in space are my jam. So I’ve been wanting a game like Starfield since before Bethesda announced it. But after playing Tears of the Kingdom (among others), I’m worried Starfield will be missing the one thing that elevates the best games in the genre: the developer-intended ability to absolutely break the game.

To be clear, I don’t mean mods, console commands, or cheat codes. As much as I’m in favor of all those things, I’m talking about when a game presents puzzles and challenges with a few expected ways to solve the problem but also gives players the tools to sidestep or break those challenges. Like, say, by building a Lynel-killing aerial laser array.

No matter what, Starfield, like so many Bethesda games before it, will be modified beyond recognition by enterprising players. I have no doubt that someone, somewhere, is already planning a mod that will let you turn your spaceship into Thomas the Tank Engine. However, the nature of mods is that, by necessity, they erase the rules of the game rather than break them.

(Un)intended Consequences

Take Skyrim, for example. Skyrim was never designed to allow the player to fly. In fact, many quests and dungeon challenges would break if you could even jump a little too high. So flying isn’t allowed in the base version of Skyrim, although you can add it with mods. A lot of mods.

And sure, adding a flying mod could be fun. But there’s a sense of satisfaction that’s missing. You didn’t outsmart the game. You didn’t discover something new about how the rules of the game work. You just changed the rules. It’s the difference between beating your opponent in a game of chess versus throwing the chess board into the ocean.

Compare this to flying in Tears of the Kingdom. The game is built around gliding and, to some extent, flying. But the game also puts some limits in place to prevent you from just flying everywhere instead of doing puzzles the intended way. Balloons and wings will eventually blink green and despawn if you use them for too long. Even with plenty of battery power and Zonai devices, you can fly only so far before the game cuts you off.

Unless, of course, you build a hoverbike. With just two fans and a steering stick, you can build a device that’s easy to control, can lift off from just about anywhere, and can fly for much, much longer than any vehicle made with balloons or wings can. Moreover, once you unlock the Autobuild ability, you can re-create the hoverbike from new parts or even spend some spare Zonaite to build one out of nothing.

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