Thoughts on the Demands of Self-Directed Games

I like it when a game leaves me to my own devices. Maybe there’s a little handholding at the beginning, but at some point, it lets go and allows me to do almost anything I want. However, when one knowingly or unknowingly drops into multiple sandbox games at once, does self-direction become too much of a good thing? It struck me recently that I’m in the midst of playing two largely self-directed games. They each have overarching goals – seeing through the story of the Phantom Thieves in Persona 5 Royal and defeating Odin’s enemies in Valheim – but it’s up to the players as to how they want to reach them. In other words, I have to make my own objectives in each…and that’s not always the easiest thing to do with a limited time budget. I’m certainly familiar with sandbox gameplay, but it’s not firmly in my comfort zone, which is dominated by a longtime preference for quest-based gameplay (even in open-world games). I have to think/plan/solve a lot during the day, so when it might come time to relax with a game at night, I don’t mind it giving me set tasks to accomplish or that objectives are chosen for me.

The self-direction loop I’m speaking to in Persona 5 Royal occurs outside of its Palaces and its randomly-generated dungeon, Mementoes. It’s the social side of the game, when players take control of the protagonist in the “real world.” Such spans vary; and as my protagonist has opened up many new locations and met many new people, his social circle is currently quite wide. Almost too wide, really. When one of the Palaces isn’t active (of even when one is), he can do a multitude of things –go shopping, do laundry, study, watch a movie, work a part-time job – the list goes on and continues to grow every time he enters a new location. I recall feels a little overwhelmed by all the social choices in Persona 3 Portable, but in P5R, the deluge of socialness is almost paralyzing! What make it feel worse is my limited time budget. I’ve found the game difficult to play in short bursts (which is what I did with P3P), because I’m never too sure if a certain social choice will take five minutes or forty-five minutes. Adding to this is that some conversations can go on f-o-r-e-v-e-r. It’s all part of the presentation, yes, and such can be skipped through, but as it’s my first playthrough, paying attention is key. Which also means that it’s a terrible choice to play when I’m tired. When time is limited, tired playing is better than nothing…well, sometimes.

Valheim‘s sandbox is quite different, though, I imagine, what one would expect in a survival game. The main goal is to survive, that’s it. Players are given the tools in-game to do just that, but there’s nearly no direction otherwise. The game does have a helpful hint-giver in the raven, Hugin, but he’s been mostly absent. I imagine he might be waiting for me to defeat the game’s second main “boss” called “The Elder.” Why haven’t I done that yet? It’s it because I’m bad at this game, I wonder? It may just be that Valheim is turning my sense of progression in a game on its head. Unlike in P5R where my character does receive regular reminders about doing something or meeting someone, there’s none of that in Valheim. The Elder’s location is marked on my map, and I’ve sailed to it a couple times, but with each, I found myself really unprepared, not just for The Elder, but generally. So, I restart to a point before and prepare. And prepare. And prepare some more only to get distracted by building, or taking on a boatload of enemies, or finding resources, or just building something (my favorite part of the game). And then my time is up and I have to go log out, feeling underwhelmed and disappointed that I didn’t try to take on The Elder again. This spinning of my wheels makes me feel like I’ll never progress and that I’ll never even be good enough to do so. It’s not a great state of mind to be in.

 Tackling Valheim and Persona 5 Royal at the same time had become something of a “rock and a hard place” quandary. Both games are brilliantly enjoyable in giving me tons of leeway, and I want very much to make good progress in each. At the same time, both games are also annoyingly open-ended, and because I’m apparently terrible at directing myself to make “good” progress, I end up moving sideways in them instead of forward. Or, at least, that’s how it regularly feels. Further, I’m reluctant to shelve either game for fear of never playing them again; at least I have some momentum going, for what it’s worth. Though, I’m not even sure why I’m worrying about giving up on either, because it’s not as if I’ve never set aside game and returned to them after a long stretch before. I figure I might have to do that with one of these titles – Valheim probably – because when time is of the essence, a little focus can be crucial. Indeed, maybe that’s the element that’s missing from all this. In trying to do too much at once, it feels like I’m doing nothing at all!

Lede image was e taken by author during Xbox gameplay of Valheim (Game Preview), © Iron Gate Studios.


  1. cary says:

    Reblogged this on Recollections of Play and commented:

    I like it when games don’t tell me what to do. But sometimes a little direction is nice, too. In this Virtual Bastion post, I talked myself into thinking that there must be a middle ground…maybe?


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