I find it somewhat strange, but I almost can’t help but consider Rocket League to be the best sandbox game I’ve ever played.
While it is far from the typical genre many consider a sandbox game, I feel like the design ethos is largely one of the most sandbox-esque in existence. It offers boosts, the ability to maneuver the car, a ball, and an arena. That’s it. There are no other mechanics that put limits on what the player can accomplish. If it can fit within the formula of “A moving car that can boost,” then it can be done in Rocket League.
If a car wants to exclusively hammer into other cars at full tilt, it is welcome to do so. If a car wants to spend the game trying to keep the ball aloft by airborne bounces, they’re free to do so as well. If a car wants to fly around and attempt to spike the ball downward, with enough boost, they’re perfectly able. Same for players that aggressively want to hammer in goals. Or players who want to exclusively defend. All of these options are not only equal in the eyes of the game’s engine, but also doable without restriction.
While I quite love games like Minecraft and Grand Theft Auto, both of which are common titles cited when discussing sandboxes, I do still feel very reigned in.
Minecraft puts a heavy emphasis on creating a stable environment, a place to be safe from night time monsters, with a bed for respawning, and the ability to manufacture food. Hunger and life threats make free roaming both very risky and mechanically unfulfilling. It makes exploration have to take a backseat, at some level, to the ability to cook food and survive the night. At its core, hunger and health put harsh limits on a player’s freedoms in Minecraft.
Grand Theft Auto, fantastic as it is, has big environments with severe limitations; they are quite heavily directed. Youtuber GoldVision has a project in which he plays GTA Online as a pacifist, a task that is undermined by the game on a near-constant basis. The creator himself struggles with the game on a semi-regular basis due to being directed more than he’s personally directing.
Further, the environments in Grand Theft Auto are manufactured. They provide the facade of a bustling city, but few buildings have any interiors, and these that do are limited heavily by scene and zone transitions, and feel like separate worlds in whose walls certain mechanics can be disbarred or prevented altogether. All of these limitations on what is or isn’t allowed in certain spaces are very well applied for the mini-games to which they’re attached, but they put harsh limitations on how the world feels, especially given how much of the real estate in the game world is simply the image of a city rather than the full depth of one.
But, most importantly, I think Rocket League strikes my fancy simply because it happens to strike gold on an aspect of play I’ve long wanted but never quite had: a game whose mechanics are its physics engine, rather than the physics existing to bolster the mechanics in some stimulating way.
Rocket League is a game about manipulating physics. Either by manipulating the ball in a way that’s effective for the team—passing, shooting, blocking, etc.—or manipulating the opposing players in such a way that they can no longer manipulate the ball beneficially for their team. Likewise, managing to manipulate the physics in such a way to make aerial play rewarding and effective. And finally, in managing to successfully manipulate the collection and availability of boosts comes into play when trying to control opponents.
In part, it’s so rewarding because player states are largely binary: in player control, or beyond player control. A game like Grand Theft Auto has very complex player states, such as being killed, knocked over, knocked out, intoxicated, but they’re all somewhat mechanical in their application. Shooting opponents, punching them, letting them drink or smoke, are all mechanically applied states. They are started or stopped by the engine, prompted by play, but not actively enacted directly by players. It was the gun, the grenade, the drink, or the game mode that made GTA what it was. The player’s action, short of perhaps punching, is actually a bit further removed from direct player control. Everything else gains an edge of otherness, as if guided by some principle other than the player’s choosing.
Rocket League, however, is enacted almost exclusively on player’s imperative. If a player nudges another player at low speeds, that player will bump the car. At high speeds, that player may launch or explode the other car. These are direct, input-affects-output interactions. Same for any player’s interaction with the ball, which is determined by angle and speed of the player vehicle, more than as would be defined by a “kick” or “punt” button. Everything is at the player’s exact inputs. Output doesn’t emerge from the input of a key or button, but rather a result of multiple complex physical interactions.
Something about giving players full access to all mechanics, with absolutely no non-mechanical limitations at any time, strikes me as the same feel that a physical sandbox has. The user has full control within the sandbox to arrange situations to their pleasure. The limits are more “what is physically possible,” rather than “what is mechanically allowed.” While many games provide grand environments for players to actively exist within, Rocket League touches on the more raw, unfiltered sense of playing in a sandbox. There are rules that govern who wins the game, but how they go about it is entirely up to them. There are more streamlined methods, but the actual act of putting together a winning play isn’t mechanically determined.
It’s my hope that more games manage to take the idea of physics as mechanics into consideration, and they continue to explore not just what physics can do as a method of beautification or amusement, but also how they can be implemented mechanically.