What exactly is a sandbox game? It’s a question that no one quite seems to be able to answer. Generally speaking, a sandbox game is one with limited restrictions on player freedom in an emergent and interactive environment, but that’s a pretty broad banner, and as the medium evolves, more games are being cast into this definitional net.
For example, now that modern technology allows almost every open world game to be an expansive and liberating experience, does that make them part and parcel of the sandbox genre? Or should sandbox games be those that are specifically “like Minecraft”, as many online commenters have suggested? Wouldn’t that place the focus exclusively on survival-crafting games, ignoring more purist sandboxes like Garry’s Mod and Arma 3?
You know what? Forget it. Until some professor with a degree in sandbox studies comes up with a clear definition, why not celebrate the diversity of games which fall under the amorphous sandbox umbrella? Better yet, it means that there’s something for everyone in the following ten titles, which come to my mind as the best sandbox experiences out there right now.
10. No Man's Sky
No Man’s Sky doesn’t so much reinvent the sandbox template as it does throw the box into a nearby black hole. No container is big enough for all 18 quintillion of those planets, after all. By expanding the sandbox genre beyond any previous notions of constraint, No Man’s Sky takes the concept of player freedom quite literally, as there are no conceivable limits to how far you can travel in its procedurally generated complex of solar systems.
That cosmic size does come at the expense of gameplay quality, but the mind-blowing spectacle of the former is so impressive, that it takes a lot longer than you might think before the frustrations of the latter begin to turn you off. Despite its controversial status, no other sandbox has quite matched the peak of its ambition, and Hello Games only continues to improve the experience with each game-changing periodical update.
Play it on: PC, PS4
9. Just Cause 3
Don’t believe it’s open world window dressing. Just Cause has always been a sandbox game at heart. Think about it: developer Avalanche Studios has always favoured player freedom over any measly notions of narrative, and Just Cause 3 takes that principle to new extremes. In essence, it’s the same Just Cause you know and love, but with more explosions.
Players are at their leisure to play around with Rico’s wingsuit and tethering tool to cause as much creative chaos as possible, and the operatic physics and destruction engines are there to make sure the domino effect is in full force. With its poor mission design and laughable characters, Just Cause 3 is a far better sandbox than it is an open world action game, so go in with that mindset, and you’ll have a (literal) blast.
Play it on: PC, PS4, Xbox One
8. Don't Starve
Freedom isn’t always such a wonderful thing, you know. Humans are fallible, and when we have freedom, we have the freedom to make mistakes and mess up in big ways, pursuing foolish endeavours that can often lead to fatal ends. Klei Entertainment obviously knows this, as its sandbox survival game Don’t Starve is the video game embodiment of that truth, by simulating harsh world that isn’t afraid to deal with the consequences of the player’s ability to do as they see fit.
But success is merely the sum of repeated failure, and players can slowly learn to master the elements of Don’t Starve by exploring and interacting with its sandbox infrastructure. Make wise choices and behave with care, and you could find yourself king of the jungle, in possession of great gadgets, abundant wealth, and an army of sentient pig-men. The art style is lovely too, acutely capturing the Lovecraftian gothic horror roots of its nihilist sentiments.
Play it on: PC, PS4, Xbox One, PS Vita, iOS, Android, and Linux
7. Elite: Dangerous
While No Man’s Sky was ultimately dragged down by the weight of its broken promises, Frontier Developments has quietly been fulfilling every aspiring space pirate’s dreams with Elite: Dangerous. As a hardcore space simulator, Elite’s complex controls and elaborate mechanics means it’s not a game for everyone, and you have to be willing to invest a lot of time into its breathtaking expanse before can really start reaping the rewards.
But once everything’s clicked, Elite: Dangerous becomes one of the most impressive and ambitious sci-fi sandboxes you’ll have ever played, allowing you to follow your own path and create your own stories in a seamless and ever evolving galactic landscape.
Play it on: PC, PS4, and Xbox One
6. Stardew Valley
Stardew Valley’s sandbox is filled with the kind of warm, silky, sun-kissed sand you might find on a paradisiacal island in the Bahamas, and by that, I mean it’s one hell of a pleasurable game. You’ll spend your time growing crops, helping the local community, and forming relationships with your agreeable neighbours in a gorgeously rendered pastoral landscape.
That almost sounds boring, but ConcernedApe and Chucklefish Games manage to turn the process of real life mundanity into a satisfying cycle of risk, reward, and, if you’re anything like me, lots of radishes. There’s peace and fulfilment in the life of the working farmer, and Stardew Valley boils that quiet euphoria into a single game concept that can have you hooked for days, weeks, and months upon end.
Play it on: PC, PS4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch
If you’re being reductive, “2D Minecraft” is probably the simplest way to explain how Terraria works as a sandbox, but the game is now so much more than its overt inspirations. For starters, it’s a sandbox with a hell of a lot of sand to play around with.
There’s jetpacks, boomerangs, fishing rods, water guns, radios, lightsabers, rocket launchers, grapple hooks, and over 4000 different items for players to muck about with, and the joy of Terraria comes in finding out how each new gadget and gizmo interacts with the world around you. It’s one of the deepest two-dimensional games you’ll ever play, and I’m not just referring to the fact that there’s no end to how far you can dig down below ground.
Play it on: PC, PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PS3, Xbox 360, Wii U, PS Vita, Nintendo 3DS, iOS, Android
4. Arma 3
If you ask some people, you have Arma 3 to thank for PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. That’s because Bohemia Interactive’s vision for open-ended, strategically minded military warfare in a sandbox layered with opportunity for social and competitive interaction set the groundwork for many games of its type to come.
Of course, Arma 3’s engine was eventually used as the basis for the popular DayZ mod, which went on to become a game in itself and has proved massively popular for drawing from those exact same sandbox elements to create an even more intense competitive space. In just four years, Arma 3 has changed the way we think about multiplayer sandbox games, which is worth tipping your hat off to, even if it’s mil-sim aesthetic isn’t your thing.
Play it on: PC
Is humanity just a social construct? In our natural state, are we just as wild and carnal as the rest of the animal kingdom? Can there be any limits to our depravities, or is morality nothing more than a fiction we’ve sold ourselves since time immemorial? These are that types of questions that philosophers have been musing over for millennia, but Rust weighs in on the debate in the only way it knows how. By dropping hundreds of players into the wild, naked and alone with only a rock for comfort, and seeing what happens.
Facepunch Studios’ sandbox is unlike many of the rest, in that it is almost totally free of explicit rules and expected moral behaviour. As a result, all sorts of diabolical mayhem and merciless murder takes place within its Darwinian environments, but you can’t help but look on in wonder. Rust isn’t always a fun sandbox to play in, especially if you’re on the wrong end of the food chain, but it is an endlessly fascinating one, as it taps into something palpable about our desire for self-preservation, and the drastic measures we’ll take just for the sake of survival.
Play it on: PC
Minecraft is often referred to as the best illustration of a sandbox (sandblocks?) game, but regardless of whether or not that’s true, it’s hard to deny the legacy that Mojang’s scrappy epic has left on the genre.
Minecraft is a world where you’re not only able to destroy everything, but transform and create to your heart’s content. It’s this core design philosophy which has allowed the game to thrive and grow for almost eight years since first releasing, as players are still finding new ways to build upon its simple but sturdy infrastructure. A historically important game, as well as an endlessly enjoyable one, Minecraft is a sandbox for everyone, and that’s something that shouldn’t be taken for granted.
Play it on: PC, PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PS3, Xbox 360, Wii U, Wii, Nintendo 3DS, PSP, PS Vita, iOS, Android
1. Garry's Mod
Physics engines are nowadays considered a key part of the sandbox genre, and that’s largely thanks to the legacy of Garry’s Mod. Quite literally a mod created by Garry Newman using Half-Life 2’s Source Engine, in which players were given God powers to tinker around with the engine’s capabilities, the programme would go on to become a PC phenomenon.
It straddles the line between sandbox physics game and amateur development toolkit, as players have used its infrastructure to build elaborate games within a game, including popular multiplayer modes like Terrorist Hunt and DarkRP. Alternatively, a lot of people just have fun browsing and spawning in all the ridiculous contraptions people have built in Garry’s Mod, from giant Nyan cats to rocket powered sofas. Random is definitely the operative word here, but that randomness has been what’s kept the sandbox so popular for all these years.
Play it on: PC