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I have a hard time with GTA. I find the total freedom paralyzing. When given the opportunity to do anything, I tend to do nothing.
Tycho, Penny Arcade

"I've got a brass key, an amulet, two plasma couplers marked #1 and #17-b, a map of a cattery, a codephrase, piranha treats, the second half of a warning for 'Kevin,' and no idea."

OK! You just got a new game! It's huge, expansive, non-linear! You can do anything you want to, the world is completely open to you. So... what DO you want to do?

You suddenly find yourself paralyzed, you can't figure out where to go next. You wander aimlessly, sometimes for hours, until you're able to find a goal.

This is what happens when a player starts playing a Wide Open Sandbox or Metroidvania game and ends up getting stuck. First comes surprise, then consternation, confusion, desperate flailing around, despair, pointless murder sprees, and in the worst cases, death, quitting the game without having even left the starting town. This is particularly common when they start playing again after a long break.

Efforts to avoid this in sequels may be seen as overly-pampering and produce an Unpleasable Fanbase. Openness is not bad, some players prefer the risk of getting lost to be being railroaded. Compare Alt-Itis, which largely focuses on differing character abilities and options, and Sidetracked by the Gold Saucer, which may overlap. Contrast No Sidepaths No Exploration No Freedom.

Examples of Quicksand Box include:


Action Adventure

  • La-Mulana can be like this, even though the whole ruins aren't initially open to you. You do, however, have very little in the way of objectives when you first enter the ruins. Being that Lemeza is an archaeologist, exploration is one of the main themes of the game--puzzles and hints are everywhere. It's often not obvious what solving a particular puzzle does for you, and it's difficult at times to figure out just which puzzle will help you to conquer which obstacle. If you miss a certain early item, you might not even know when you've solved a puzzle, which could lead to a lot of frustrated wandering as you try to figure out what, if anything, you just accomplished.
  • The Legend of Zelda is prone to this. You're basically sent out with little idea what to do and especially where to go leading to some early deaths. ("It's dangerous to go alone! Take this!")
    • The Atari game Adventure was even more this. You have a general goal and no idea how to accomplish it or where anything is.
    • The Legend of Zelda Majoras Mask. Without a guide, and the time limit, it's hard to tell what you should do, and which ones you need to do.
  • Like its Metroidvania predecessors, An Untitled Story mostly revolves around finding the next Gravity Barrier and the new ability to bypass it. It has a plot, but it's never at the forefront.
  • The Void (aka Turgor) doesn't hold your hand, rarely tells you where to go, and when it does tell you what to do, it doesn't tell you in what order or how best to do so. It is very much a game of trial and error, and you can expect to die several times even before fighting a Brother through simple resource mismanagement.

Adventure Game

  • Most early Sierra adventure games. Particularly the games that used a text parser, which were infamous for dropping you in a room without so much as an introductory message, while the later point-and-click games had at least some sort of introduction giving you some clues. The original Police Quest was particularly infamous: at the start of the game, you're dressed in your police uniform in the main hall of the station. If you don't figure out that you need to attend your morning briefing within the first three minutes of the game, you'd get Have a Nice Death when you finally walked into the briefing room.
  • Zig-zagged in Maniac Mansion. When you enter the mansion...you don't have much of an indication on what you can do to beat the game, and can complete the various events to any particular ending in any order you like. However; the game does give you hints by the character descriptions and in-game such as the Meteor Police number.

Driving Game

MMORPGs

  • Second Life. When the question to "what can I do?" can more or less be answered by "anything", this is a big stumbling block for newbies. It also gets overwhelming when you look up tutorials on how to even build things from prims or how to make a script. And then there's the in world currency (mostly gotten with real money) where you can use it for almost "anything"... God help us if Second Life and Scribblenauts have a child.
  • Eve Online has been described as a sand box with land mines. There are few over arching quest and most of the content is player generated. Leaving many newbies completely at a loss for what to do next. Expect everyone else to repeatedly kill you while you decided what to do for yourself.
  • Star Wars Galaxies allowed players to level up several skills across 30+ professions, explore one of the largest MMO gaming worlds ever created, and fly (and fight) in space. Most of the planets allowed players to create and run cities, decorate them (and the planets) with various Storyteller objects, and decorate multiplayer ships.
  • Ever Quest was very much like this in the early days. The process of receiving quests was not at all intuitive, completing them even less so, and often the only guidelines a player had as to where he was supposed to be was the level of the roaming monsters.

Platform Game

  • This is a rather common trope with Metroidvania games; since many of them give you a very broad goal or just drops you into the game world without much of a hint.
  • Most games in the Metroid series suffer from this trope; it becomes very easy to become lost in the game world, even in the newer games which tend to be a bit more linear. Super Metroid is probably the most well-known for this, which, due to bugs, intentional design decisions and underestimating players' abilities, gives the player several different routes through the game, and many weapons and items are skippable with some ingenuity. Because there's no clear indication of what to do or where to go, putting the game down for even a day can either leave you with no idea how to progress, or stumbling in the right direction.
    • The Prime series try avoiding with an optional hint system that shows where the plot will advance.
    • Zero Mission has each Chozo statue set a rough waypoint to the "next" statue, unless you jump off the rails yourself -- if you go Sequence Breaking past the point that one of the statues wants to advise you about, it won't bother when you come back to it later. Since the game clock runs during these hint scenes, it's beneficial for speed runners to skip as many as possible.
  • Castlevania Circle of the Moon. The game starts off by dropping you into Dracula's Castle; and not telling the player where to go. The hints you get are few and far in between, and even then they just give you a broad goal.
    • Aria of Sorrow takes a step to avert this trope by having a screen where you can consult a character who gives you a hint on what you can probably do next.
  • Aquaria.

Puzzle Game

  • Riven, the sequel to Myst was intentionally designed this way to satisfy two kinds of gamers. The sightseer could get to four of the five CD discs in the set without difficulty, but only the insanely dedicated puzzle solver could get to the fifth disc. And if they weren't insane before, they certainly were after.
  • Scribblenauts. You can create anything to solve your problems... which leads some players to just lock up. Should you make a bridge to rescue the penguin, or a boat, or a submarine, and how do I get the penguin to come on board, and what do I make to deal with the shark, and... you get the idea. Some don't lock up, but after experimenting, rely on a standard set of useful items that they know will generally work (Jetpacks, Ice, Cthulhu, Ropes).

Real Time Strategy

Roguelike

  • Dwarf Fortress is possibly the only game to encompass geology, weather patterns, geopolitics, genetics, city building, tactical combat, individual psychology, item crafting and the effects of a punctured liver all in the same game setting. This is made worse by the fact that the author is continually adding new features to the game, making it much more complicated every year. This causes most prospective players to quit in the first week. Once you can make it past the learning stage, the game is immensely fun. By now, the only hope for a newcomer to learn the game is to start out with a version from back when it was still 2D.
    • It's possible to start on the newer versions, but you will need a Guide Dang It, by way of the wiki.
      • The wiki has become the the tutorial, with it even being mentioned in the game itself.

Role Playing Game

  • Mount and Blade is this trope turned Up to Eleven. You just get dumped into the world and basically told to make your own fun.
    • Its sequel, Warband, gives players the option to do a starting quest that has a small, simple storyline and conclusion, introducing them to some of the mechanics and the setting...at which point they are again dumped into the world and left to their devices.
    • While most user-made mods add only different weapons and textures, there are a precious few which add a storyline, or at least a long-term goal.
  • In Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura the book that tells you what subquests you currently have active doesn't tell you where you actually got the quests, so you can spend hours visiting every city in the game to find Raxinfraxin, the guy who wanted M'hurna's Emerald (or whatever), which you just found in some ruins. A similar problem exists in Baldur's Gate
  • Once the SaGa games went onto consoles, every single one suffered from this. Saga Frontier actually used And Now for Someone Completely Different to partially avert this - Lute and Blue had the most "open" quests (and Blue had "Learn magic" as a guidepost), while the other five playable characters had relatively linear stories. Depending on who you chose to play as, you had your pick of linearity.
  • Several games in the Ultima series are like this. Especially Ultima IV and Ultima V.
  • All three Fallout games give you an overarching goal and a suggestion of where to head first, then leave you to your own devices. It's possible to go the whole game without finding out about whole cities.
    • New Vegas even more so, you can spends dozens of hours without even going to the title city.
  • Metal Max and Metal Saga. You're dumped into an enormous world with no more guidance than "See those monsters on the wanted posters? Kill them", and the occasional mention of places you can go now.
  • Yume Nikki. The start menu says you're looking for "effects", but there's no explanation where to find them, no word of what they are, and no in-game reason for you to do anything. Plus you can wander for hours without finding anything and just wonder if the game is some LSD-induced Mind Screw.
  • Gothic III does this far more so than the previous games in the series. At the start you're dropped into an overrun town and must liberate it, but then other than some far distant goal of meeting up with an old friend somewhere and the vague notion that it'd probably be a good idea to liberate the rest of the country and see if the King is still holding up, no real direction is provided. Exactly what you do and how you do it are left up to the player to decide, with consequences for your actions learned the hard way.
  • The old PC DOS title Darklands hardly HAD a main plot, just random quests.
    • Technically, you're supposed to stop the apocalypse by defeating Baphomet, but that only entailed doing two quests to find the location of the final fortress then beating the fortress itself. There were no hints in game or in the manual that that was supposed to be your goal.
  • For the people who love to complete everything, Pokémon can be like this. Especially prevalent in the original Gold and Silver, where you were allowed to go to Mt. Silver, but since no one mention the boss at the summit, no one was in a rush to get there.
  • Final Fantasy XII: all the way. Once the Sandseas (and Giza Plains) are no longer guarded by the Imperials, you can go anywhere. Should you continue with the plot, however, you will be stuck in one place after the other. FF12 tends to vary between Wide Open Sandbox and Linear gameplay--but even the linear gameplay isn't all that linear. Obviously, this can become very stressful very easily, what with all the Level Grinding you have to do just to survive in dungeons and whatnot. In fact, should you grind for too long, it is likely you will completely forget what it is you were supposed to be doing, and 80% of the time, the game isn't helpful in reminding you.
    • It should be noted that more than half of the time, bringing up the map sub-menu will have either your next destination marked on the map, or your next objective displayed at the bottom of the map screen. Too bad you wouldn't really remember that unless you read the manual.
  • While the bulk of Final Fantasy XIII is in fact No Sidepaths No Exploration No Freedom, the one exception, Gran Pulse is this trope. You are dumped into a field, given a short tutorial about Cie'th Stone giving missions... and that's it. The next step to continue the story is a red X of in an unrevealed section of the map.
  • Probably the number one complaint about Final Fantasy I is how easy it is to get lost. You are given incredibly vague instructions of where to go such as "visit the sages at the crescent lake," which you can't SEE unless you have the airship, which by the way you have to be around this area to get a key item to obtain that anyway. Then, once you have the next Plot Coupon...you have no idea where to take it or what to do with it. There's even a point where you have to exit a dungeon and visit a strange man who lives in an unmarked cave to be told that you have to go back into that dungeon and use the item you got from it.
  • The second Golden Sun game has a more wide-open world because it is the whole rest of the world. However; there were players who wound up going the wrong way and getting themselves stuck (in Air's Rock) when they were supposed to have done another event first. With the ship you have to get to the other side of the world but are blocked by an obstacle in a canal and have to go elsewhere first, but there are obstacles there too. It can be refreshing to be allowed to do whatever you want but set the game down for too long and it will take awhile to figure out where you've already been if you pick it back up.
  • Morrowind: The island the game plays on is huge, it takes almost 45 minutes to walk from one end to the other. In the tutorial you learn in five minutes how to use the controls, than the game kicks you out of the door, hands you a couple of coins and basically says: "Here, this is the world. Have fun". You only get some hints of where to go for the next story mission, aside from that the game itself doesn't help you ONE bit. It's incredibly easy to get lost.
    • The world of Morrowind may be large compared to other, non-Elder Scrolls games, but according to one of the game's programmers, it's literally only about 0.01% of the area covered in the previous title in the series, Daggerfall -- and most of the locations in that game are randomly generated. Some fans of Daggerfall even complained that Morrowind was too restrictive...until Oblivion came about and they mysteriously forgot everything they hated about Morrowind.
      • Daggerfall was also like this. You are told to use quick-travel to Daggerfall and the game basically leaves you alone. Given how big the world is - its' very easy to get lost. If you follow Daggerfall's main quest, you explore maybe a dozen towns and dungeons. The rest of the 15,000 locations are optional. Morrowind's main quest brings you through most of the island.
  • Skyrim zig-zags it. There's nothing stopping you from exploring all of Skyrim, other than a "Go meet my sister in Riverwood" spoken by the person you help at the end of the tutorial dungeon.
  • The later Wizardry games, VII and 8 especially, have quite a bit of this. You're dumped onto an alien planet with only the broad outlines of what's going on and are expected to figure out what to do from there. If you import from the previous game, you might be immediately greeted with a questline to follow... that's probably far too hard for your level. Good luck figuring out where you're supposed to go and when - the plot of these games tends towards the labyrinthine...
  • Contrary to the Penny Arcade page image, Mass Effect 1 averts this problem for the most part. You go through a few training missions before getting the Normandy to freely fly around the universe, only to be restricted to one ship/planet/asteroid to explore within each star system. Story progression is rather straightforward, despite you being able to play a trio of core missions in whatever order you wish, and a clear goal in mind. In addition, all active missions are logged in the pause menu -- even separated to required and optional missions -- so you never have to wonder what you're supposed to be doing.
    • Mass Effect 2 has more missions to do and has a wider scope of freedom, but it's still linear, nonetheless.

Shoot'Em Up

  • Star Control II. Once you're finished with your initial business in the Sol system, you have a few broad goals, as opposed to specific objectives. The game focuses heavily on exploration, so it's largely up to the player to figure out good places to mine resources, who's on what side, and so on. It's a little overwhelming.
    • This is made particularly sadistic in that the game is actually on a time-limit... Take too long exploring and the resident Scary Dogmatic Aliens will start killing species off. However, it usually gives you some clue about where to go next for the main plot, even if it's as vague as "Hey, I heard there's an alien species that lives over that direction someplace." The main point of confusion is usually that it's up the player to keep track of his own quests; the game doesn't tell you what missions you've picked up or where to go to complete it, if they even told you where to go next at all. And it is easy to get distracted with mining and never get around to following up on the storyline.
  • Borderlands for the most part attempts to give you many different ways to locate your next target such as hint markers, objects, and a list of missions, however this won't aid you if any of the game's bugs kick in, such as the "Keep Your Insides Inside" glitch which will stall a player at a dead stop in the story, making it impossible to play online with people and progress.

Simulation Game

  • The Sim City series have no goal at all other than what the player sets for himself. "Build the highest population city you can" is a pretty popular one.
    • Though each game has a handful of scenarios with actual win/lose conditions.
    • Not to mention The Sims series. It can be summed up as "You die, you lose. Maybe. Start playing." TS3 did at least have a rolling tutorial that gave you the option of learning how to do things if you activate them with the tutorial section unread.
  • The Rollercoaster Tycoon series, although almost all of the stages do have objectives to fulfill. After you complete them, then it pretty much wanders off into this territory.
  • Animal Crossing series. "Plot? What plot?" After you earn and spend a couple million bells on pimping your house, don't count on there being anything to do outside the starting town.
  • Derek Smart's Universal Combat is this trope to its extreme. In an amazing example of why it's important that Sci Fi Writers Have No Sense Of Scale, this PC game gives the player a subluminal spacecraft and a whole galaxy to explore with, only allowing thankfully instant superluminal speed between individual solar systems. There is truly a massive universe out there. Too bad no one alive has the patience to see much of it.
  • Academagia - Welcome to Wizarding School. You have a bajillion stats, all of which currently suck, and you don't know what any of them mean. You have dozens of available actions, and you will quickly gain far more than you could ever use. Your only actual goal is figuring out what on earth they DO.
  • Many Life Sims require some scrambling around at first to keep your character alive, before your enhanced skills give you the free time to explore. Princess Maker and Cute Knight have the initial struggle to pay for food and housing. Cute Knight Kingdom removed a lot of this starting urgency, and thereby left some players with no idea of what to do.

Survival Horror

  • The Path was designed with this in mind. Fortunately it's a small sandbox.

Tabletop Games

  • A Game Master trying too hard to avoid Railroading his players may take things too far in the other direction if he's not careful; dropping the Player Characters into the game world and expecting them to make the plot happen without any sort of guidance or plot hook. Such games may end up with the characters spending all their time getting drunk at the tavern.

Wide Open Sandbox

  • The early X-Universe games hit this pretty hard; you're thrown in the universe with a mediocre/bad ship, with no real goals aside from short plots. X3: Terran Conflict (most recent) gives the players more clear goals and offers more plots to follow.
  • Just Cause 2. It's very easy to get lost, but the sheer amount of non-story related things makes it possible to have oodles of fun while completely ignoring the story.
  • Crackdown has been accused of this, since it basically just gives you a list of 21 criminals who need to die, and then kicks you into the city to fend for yourself. It's balanced by the fact that you learn how to play the game eventually, and that it's quite fun to wander around getting things. Except those goddamn Orbs!
  • Capcom's Dead Rising tries to avoid this with a strict timing for taking up missions, thus limiting the player's ability to roam blindly, but it also made some players frustrated at not figuring out which missions were more important, since missing a mission-time dooms the player to being unable to progress further with the story.
    • Plus the weapons can be a mess at first. Many weapons are practically useless at low levels, and even the best ones don't last long. Some enjoyed the freedom and experimentation, though.
  • The Space Stage in Spore conveys the sheer immensity of space very well. Possibly too well. Mods make the game even more fun (infinite Staff of Life, for one). Also, nothing beats watching a binary sunrise (Find a binary -two star- star system. Go to a non-dangerous, and preferably with a thin atmosphere, planet. Watch the suns rise.) Or, watch them set, preferably with the appropriate music.
  • Minecraft. You are thrown into enormous world and told "Do what you want. Try not to die". Some players find this difficult since there is so much to do, yet you have no idea. Unless you get crazy idea of building a lifesized U.S.S Enterprise... completely made of sand.
    • This was even worse before the game came with a list of achievements that encourage new players to learn the basics of mining, farming, construction, and combat.
    • Similarly, Terraria can be quite confusing for newcomers, throwing them in a wild world with a NPC that only gives few pointers.
  • Terraria is a bit less intimidating, since you start with basic versions of three main tools (Axe, Pick, Sword). Even if you do decide to wander, Terraria is 2D and has a much smaller game world (that's not saying much, since Minecraft's total surface area is approximately eight times the surface area of Earth), making it much harder to get hopelessly lost.
  • Similar to the above, Garry's Mod provides the player with access to every asset from just about every modern Valve game the player may have installed, tools with which to put said assets together in just about any way imaginable, and a default map entitled "Flatgrass." Knock yourself out. Various addons increase the amount of tools and assets available by an order of magnitude.
  • "Falling Sand Game". Or "Conway's Game of Life", for added cruelty to unsuspecting player.

Real Life

  • Capcom's famed Keiji Inafune suggested that the effect of this Trope, combined with the Japanese desire to be guided, explains the relative lack of success that Wide Open Sandbox titles have had in Japan. There was mention of Western attitudes towards free-roaming gameplay being similar to going deer hunting and bagging a bear instead. [1]. Apparently the sandbox isn't so bad if you can make it look like the gamer's favorite anime. Or least favorite. Nothing like the scent of dead Pikachu in the morning.

Notes

  1. GTA on the PC does have some popularity with Japanese modders
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