Open-world! Sandbox!

These two terms are nearly ubiquitous in modern game advertising, and developers seem to be falling all over themselves to prove that their new game is the sandboxest and the open…nest of all. Cool. No problem with that. The thing with open world is that it’s essentially meaningless if there’s nothing do to there and doesn’t amount to much of anything.
That said, there are some game that make it world very well, and they are the ones we’re going to focus on here. But first things first.

Basic terminology

For clarity we should briefly explain the difference between “open world” and “sandbox”, because contrary to popular understanding they are not the same.
Open world – open world games have just that. An open world. It isn’t a gameplay concept as much as a world structure. If your game has a huge overall map and allows for largely uninhibited travel it’s open world. Not much to say about it.
Sandbox – sandbox can be coupled with open world, but really doesn’t have to. Sandbox games give you tools and let you run wild with them. The gameplay is open-ended, you are encouraged to make your own fun, instead of experiencing what the game has prepared.

Having set the terms, we can move on to giving a brief TOP 10 list of subjectively best sandbox games.

10. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

The most recent entry in the history of the Legend of Zelda franchise has a pretty decent amount of sandbox to it. Most importantly, it uses the sandbox to give the world as such a lot of believability.
Everything works just as you’d think it would, boulders, fire etc. and the game encourages you to take advantage of it through your exploration. Even better: Link has a number of magical abilities acquired via runes, and nothing really stops him from using them at will everywhere.
In Breath of the Wild’s case all of this serves to create a world which feels coherent, even if to some extent arbitrary and silly.

link excuse me princess

Calm down, Link

And it succeeds at doing so with flying colors, we must add. If you happen to have Nintendo Switch Breath of the Wild is a must have for many reasons, and it does make sandbox gameplay feel useful and a worthwhile world-building exercise instead of a gimmick.

9. Dishonored (franchise)

Arkane Studios struck gold with Dishonored. They started the search in Arx Fatalis and kept it up in the Dark Messiah of Might and Magic, but Dishonored, oh boy.
We’ve written about it before, and have called it a goal-oriented playground. Dishonored (1, 2, and soon Death of the Outsider) lands the spot here, because it does little beyond giving the player a goal to achieve and some fun tools you can use at will anywhere.
Essentially DH is a simulation of an arcane assassin. All powers work dynamically within the physics engine rather than being scripted and being given canned animations. You can teleport to any structure in range wide enough to support you, possess NPCs from rats to guards, stop time to interact with bullets and crossbow bolts shot by enemies or yourself….

There are plenty of other videos showing off just how sandboxy the game can feel and how creative you can get. And it’s only open-world within the levels themselves, the game progresses linearly otherwise.

8. Mount & Blade: Warband

Mount&Blade is a simulator of a person trying to make a living in a more or less medieval-like setting. This doesn’t sound particularly interesting, but bear with me for a moment.
The character creation makes M&B look like a relatively complex RPG, with some background details for you to define, a huge number of face-customising sliders, a bunch of stats etc. and none of this prepares you for what comes after. When you leave the chargen you’re given a rudimentary combat tutorial and are let loose on the world. You’re free. Do what you want.
Get a small band of warriors to protect you and become a trader or support craftsmen. Get a larger band of warriors and pledge allegiance to a king, get a rundown castle and a a half-dead village. Or fight for yourself, capture a keep or a city, become a new power in Calradia. Be just a roving mercenary or just a guy who makes a living by fighting in tournaments.
M&B: Warband isn’t a sandbox in a mechanical sense, true, but it’s an extremely open-ended game, with many possible outcomes and little overarching plot or goal other than an occasional quest from a lord or another distressed NPC. Otherwise, you are free to do whatever.

7. Factorio

Have you ever dreamt of having a massive factory? Factorio allows you to.
What is Factorio? Essentially a game about creating the most optimised (or the most convoluted, if that’s your thing) way to produce expected results.
Your Factory expands almost as fast as it grows in complexity.
Factorio allows for the creation of pretty weird constructions. One player managed to create a Factory playing the music video to Darude’s Sandstorm, of all things. No kidding.

A further YouTube trip reveals self-replicating factories, and even a rendition of Portal’s ‘Still Alive’ and a couple other songs. If you can imagine something work thanks to a sequence of programmable units, there is good chance it can be done in Factorio and the game won’t mind one bit. The problem is setups like these require some extreme planning and probably engineering skills, and thus have a high skill threshold. Nothing that can’t be overcome, of course.

6. Dwarf Fortress

This is a game that might be largely unknown to many of you. Not surprising, too. It’s not particularly pretty, being fully text-based, it’s very weird, and gets weirder with every patch, and its skill threshold is through the roof if you want to play for any extended period of time.
It is however quite possibly one of the most complex city simulators out there, complete with robust procedural generation of pretty much everything. It also has some of the silliest accidental occurrences anywhere.

Now the axedwarf is two inches higher!

Now the axedwarf is two inches higher!

The game doesn’t give you any goals other than keeping the settlement alive and, preferably, growing. What you do beyond that is entirely up to you.
Notably, Dwarf Fortress was cited to be an inspiration for Minecraft, and was picked to be featured in the Museum of Modern Art.
If you have time and patience, you should check it out, it’s freeware.

5. Saints Row 4

Saints Row 4 get the spot at the expense of GTA V for the sheer insanity of everything that happens in there. It’s also probably the best superhero game to date, and the least angst-driven, to boot.
What is SR4? A simulator of a superpowered unapologetic and oddly cheerful criminal. The playable character over the course of the game gains access to multiple abilities, all of them considered… unnatural. If you’ve played Prototype before you almost know what to expect, but Prototype didn’t have mad doctors with cat heads running amok, ragdoll-based side activities, and the kind of rampage GTA with its more realistic style can’t really provide.
Most importantly, The Boss has an outstanding and incredibly entertaining traversal powers, letting you run fast, jump high, and glide far. Then you add several different flavours of blasts, including one turning everything to gold, a couple flavours of telekinesis and a couple more. All of them allow you to have a smashing good fun and ignore the insane narrative whatsoever.

4. Kerbal Space Program

This is a very smart and very cute game, with a very good physics model. Importantly, unlike most other games on this list, this one can actually teach you something.
The idea is that you’re helping a humanoid race known as Kerbals launch their space program. That’s pretty much it, but when coupled with a very complex physics engine we get a game that even NASA and Elon Musk are interested in. Where does the sandbox part comes in, though? In building the various rockets and other interplanetary exploration gear, of course.
You can experiment with a large list of components to create some fairly outlandish machines, of this is your jam. As long as you meet the win condition, you’re good.

KSP boasts a very detailed physics engine, which allows all objects to be reasonably accurately simulated with Newtonian dynamics. Watching your meticulously constructed monster rocket fall apart in a realistic way is extremely satisfying. Although efficiency is strongly favoured, nothing stops you from going wild.

3. Conan Exiles

This list would be severely incomplete without some representative of the inexplicably popular more-or-less online survival game genre. Conan Exiles gets the honor due to it being probably the freshest in the early accessed survival genre, and doing its best to capture the atmosphere of Robert E. Howard’s and succeeding to a reasonable degree.
What can you do in Conan Exiles? You can survive. That’s pretty much the central idea. What you do to survive is another thing. You can devote yourself to hunting animals for resources, mastering the various crafts, becoming a warrior. If you want you can even summon humongous avatars of your chosen god (Mithra, Seth, Yog) to crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and wreck their carefully build settlements.
Funcom keeps developing the game, enjoying the Early Access label, and despite glitchy “launch” it keeps a fairly steady playerbase. Sure, it’s about half as big as the one of DayZ and doesn’t come anywhere near the popularity of ARK: Survival Evolved, but Conan Exiles is fairly new compared to direct competitors and well worth checking out, especially if you like Howard’s body of work.

2. Terraria

Easily one of the finest examples of open-world crafting-centered sandboxes in recent memory. If you are hungry for crafting, dungeon crawling, and some basic survival mechanisms (monsters mostly come out at night, mostly) but don’t want to manage a three-dimensional space, then Terraria is just the game for you.
It’s done in a 16-bit style reminiscent of games of old, but boosted by some basic physics engine, making dungeon crawling more dangerous (as it should), because you never know when you can get flooded by lava.
The players are encouraged to create their elaborate home bases, which can grow to actually impressive sizes and house a number of loyal subjects, provided you tend to their needs.

terraria homebase turtle

A’Tuin’s hatchling? (Found on Pinterest)

It’s an all-round good fun worth checking out, but, sadly, it can’t quite compare to the king of all sandboxes.

1. Minecraft

Here we go. The MVP of sandboxes. The one that despite being now 6 years old remains relevant. The one that pretty much formed a subculture around it. The one that created ample opportunities for people to recreate some of the most incredible feats of human architecture. Minecraft took the world by storm. And it isn’t really hard to see why.
It is by far the best at capturing in digital form the joy of putting together crazy Lego builds. If you so choose you can flat out ignore the survival game that sticks to the unbridled creation, too.
Just take a look at some of the amazing creations, as ranked by folks at WhatCulture Gaming.

The things which were unthinkable to achieve until somebody came along and did it, over usually weeks of work. If sandboxes are about having fun with the game’s systems, then there’s probably no game that can beat Minecraft.

Can there be the end?

A specific ending to an article might run counter to the overall theme, but texts have their own laws that need to be obeyed to some extent.
Sandbox is notoriously hard to specifically describe. It may apply to extensive crafting, the general lack of goals and abundance of systems, even the freedom of abusing the abilities and physics engines for fun and profit during missions. It can be found in any genre, really.
Overall, this list isn’t exhaustive of course. You may well favour a game we didn’t include for some reason or another. If this is the case, as always, sound off in the comments and let us know.