When you were a kid, "sandbox" meant "small plastic box, usually full of sand and ants, which lets you pretend you're at the beach even though you're in a nursery down the road from your parents' workplace". As an adult, "sandbox" either means "a game that lets you choose most of your goals" or "ant-filled nightmare that gets your child all gritty", depending on whether or not you have kids.
Don't worry. Today, we're focusing on sandbox-as-in-video-game, a genre of entertainment in which most of the enjoyment is derived from setting your own targets. Sandboxes range from the no-direction-at-all end of the spectrum, like Garry's Mod (a PC-only asset toybox), through the some-direction games like Minecraft and Astroneer, all the way to games that hold your hand or guide you a lot more towards goals, like Stardew Valley and Animal Crossing.
Fundamentally, though, these games will, at points, all let you roam free, doing whatever you want with the world (or your little slice of it, anyway). Want to plant bananas in someone else's garden? Go for it. Interested in digging a tunnel down to bedrock? Sure. Do you wish to eschew all social norms and build a gigantic fortress right in the middle of town? Hey, this is your power fantasy.
Here are a selection of our favourite sandbox games (and games with sandboxy bits in them) for all of you looking for an off-the-rails experience!
The main challenge in Two Point Campus comes from perfecting and truly excelling rather than simply reaching one, two, or three stars. If that still isn’t enough to sate your masochistic tendencies, Sandbox mode’s ‘Challenge’ option will leave you crying yourself to sleep. Still not enough? The ‘Custom’ option will let you adjust every detail of your mad idea of fun. Want to earn only a tenth of what you’d normally earn and start with barely enough to build a lecture hall? Have at it.
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There’s no story (at least not overtly) in Terraria — you’re simply a person who’s dropped in a new, strange world and tasked with surviving within it to the best of your ability. Upon booting up and pressing on through the impressively in-depth character creation screen you’re transported to a randomly-generated world that’s packed with monsters, dungeons, caves, jungles, and all manner of fascinating life that coalesces into an impressive ecosystem. What you do in this ecosystem is entirely at your discretion, but what’s for sure is that when night falls and the zombies come for you, you will die if you’re not prepared.
It's difficult to describe the appeal of a game such as Minecraft. Though there is technically an 'end' to it, the whole experience isn't really about anything. You can explore caves. You can build houses. You can fight mobs in the night. You can farm crops and animals. On the surface, Minecraft seems like a simple game that one would grow bored of quickly, but the freeform nature of its gameplay structure makes it an extremely compelling experience that's tough to put down.
Astroneer's story is simple: You are a very cute little astronaut, who has landed on an Earth-like planet called Sylva. Although there are no real objectives — you can do whatever you want, really — a Mission Log will gently guide you towards the game's wider story, which involves activating mysterious purple structures around the planet, and eventually venturing to the other planets in your small solar system. Or you could just build a giant statue of yourself.
With sandboxy house-builder Townscaper, Oskar Stålberg has made a charming and compelling toy for imaginative play. Anyone willing to project themselves into its worlds and tell stories to themselves as they build will have a great time. Townscaper will take the merest of throwaway inputs and interpret it as a clever instruction to draft a delightful little village scene, like a waiter congratulating you on your choice from the menu as if the gastronomic talent lies with you and not the chef.
What do you call a sandbox where all the sand is on fire? Well, that's what Little Inferno is, anyway. Little Inferno sits you down in front of a fireplace with one goal: burn whatever you like. Each time you burn something you'll be rewarded with money, that money can then be used to purchase items to further burn things. It's very simple, but we found it — in a way — to be almost relaxing.
Though the Minecraft formula has been iterated on to hell and back, Square Enix managed to offer up an interesting take on the sandbox classic with Dragon Quest Builders, a blocky, open-ended crafting RPG. Then, Square decided to take another crack at the idea with Dragon Quest Builders 2. As many sequels should strive for, this release proved to be a more refined experience than its predecessor, fixing many of its flaws, adding in a wealth of quality of life improvements, and generally providing a stronger case for its own brand of sandbox-style gameplay.
Gameplay in Don’t Starve plays a lot like the survival mode of Minecraft, with some notable changes. Your character spawns in the center of an enormous procedurally generated world and the goal is simply to survive for as long as possible. You have health, hunger, and sanity meters to keep filled, with there being dire consequences for letting any one of them drop too low. Through clever manipulation of materials that you find, you must build tools, hunt and forage for food, and figure out how to survive events like the coming of winter or a Deerclops attack. It’s brutal and unforgiving, but there’s something immensely satisfying in beating such towering odds.
If you’ve played Minecraft, Dragon Quest Builders or Don’t Starve you’ll immediately be familiar with the crafting mechanics at the heart of Crashlands. In terms of its top-down aesthetic, and the barren landscape of its opening hours, it might appear that Crashlands has a lot in common with Klei Entertainment’s survival hit, but rather than forcing you to battle hunger and thirst you’ll spend most of your time at a far more relaxed clip, exploring the map, collecting resources and crafting new armour as you go. It's more suited to short bursts of play, but we still love it.
Subnautica really is one of the great indie early access success stories: A game honed to near perfection during a long gestation period on PC, with lots of input from avid fans helping to shape the core experience as it exists today. As a result what we've got here is a confident and constantly thrilling marriage of addictive gameplay loops, with hugely satisfying crafting and base building elements, well-implemented survival mechanics and a world and story that absolutely ooze wonder, mystery and full-on existential dread in equal measure.
Although Stardew Valley is full of goals (run a successful farm, appease your dead grandpa, make sure Shane doesn't yeet himself into the sea), how you achieve those goals is left up to you. The game might well be a farming simulator on the surface, but there is actually so much more to it than initially meets the eye. Your activities go far beyond just farming thanks to a great sense of community that finds itself sitting at the heart of the adventure. In fact, there doesn’t appear to be any end to the amount of things available to see and do.