La-Mulana can be like this, even though the whole ruins aren't initially open to you. You do, however, have very little in the way of objectives when you first enter the ruins. Being that Lemeza is an archaeologist, exploration is one of the main themes of the game—puzzles and hints are everywhere. It's often not obvious what solving a particular puzzle does for you, and it's difficult at times to figure out just which puzzle will help you to conquer which obstacle. If you miss a certain early item, you might not even know when you've solved a puzzle, which could lead to a lot of frustrated wandering as you try to figure out what, if anything, you just accomplished.
The Atari game Adventure was even more this. You have a general goal and no idea how to accomplish it or where anything is.
The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask. Without a guide, a new player will likely wander around for all three days and not complete the tasks necessary to recover the Ocarina. After it is recovered, it quickly becomes much more clear where the player must go.
The Void (aka Turgor) doesn't hold your hand, rarely tells you where to go, and when it does tell you what to do, it doesn't tell you in what order or how best to do so. It is very much a game of trial and error, and you can expect to die several times even before fighting a Brother through simple resource mismanagement.
Most early Sierra adventure games. Particularly the games that used a text parser, which were infamous for dropping you in a room without so much as an introductory message, while the later point-and-click games had at least some sort of introduction giving you some clues. The original Police Quest was particularly infamous: at the start of the game, you're dressed in your police uniform in the main hall of the station. If you don't figure out that you need to attend your morning briefing within the first three minutes of the game, you'd get Have a Nice Death when you finally walked into the briefing room.
The first Detective Barbie game, especially for the target audience, girls in single digits. You're alone in a carnival, there's no lines, all the rides and attractions are working... mystery, what mystery?
Burnout Paradise suffered from this a fair bit. You're tossed into a large open world where events are unlocked at every intersection with traffic lights, and drive-throughs like Junkyards, Billboards, Shortcuts, Auto-Repairs and Paint Shops to find (not to mention the Speed and Crash Road Rules on all 70+ roads on the map). The entire game world is unlocked from the start. It can be a nightmare to navigate the game world when you're unfamiliar with it, as events often finish on the other side of the map from where they started. To cap it all off, after finishing a licence, all events are reset and you can win them again.
Similarly to Burnout Paradise, Criterion's Need for Speed: Most Wanted has a very similar structure; an open world that is entirely available to explore from the start of the game, with Billboards, Shortcuts, Speed Cameras and Paint Shops. The difference is that events are organized by vehicle, and every vehicle is unlocked simply by finding it parked in the game world. This means that there is almost no sense of progression in the game, particularly when the same 15 or so events are spread out across the 60 cars that can be unlocked.
Borderlands for the most part attempts to give you many different ways to locate your next target such as hint markers, objects, and a list of missions, however this won't aid you if any of the game's bugs kick in, such as the "Keep Your Insides Inside" glitch which will stall a player at a dead stop in the story, making it impossible to play online with people and progress.
Second Life. When the question to "what can I do?" can more or less be answered by "anything", this is a big stumbling block for newbies. It also gets overwhelming when you look up tutorials on how to even build things from prims or how to make a script. And then there's the in world currency (mostly gotten with real money) where you can use it for almost "anything"... God help us if Second Life and Scribblenauts have a child.
EVE Online has been described as a sand box with land mines. There are few over arching quest and most of the content is player generated. Leaving many newbies completely at a loss for what to do next. Expect everyone else to repeatedly kill you while you decided what to do for yourself.
Star Wars: Galaxies allowed players to level up several skills across 30+ professions, explore one of the largest MMO gaming worlds ever created, and fly (and fight) in space. Most of the planets allowed players to create and run cities, decorate them (and the planets) with various Storyteller objects, and decorate multiplayer ships.
EverQuest was very much like this in the early days. The process of receiving quests was not at all intuitive, completing them even less so, and often the only guidelines a player had as to where he was supposed to be was the level of the roaming monsters.
RuneScape, full stop. Fortunately, there is an in-game list of quests that help newbies explore the areas.
World of Warcraft has become this due to the sheer amount of content added over its expansions. Players can easily reach max level before doing most of the main questlines and most players are likely to not experience all of them before quitting. This is actually fairly typical of MMOs that follow the traditional structure as they may start off with a single linear main path but will over their lifetimes grow extremely diverse in terms of endgame alternative content as developers are forced to give maxed veterans new things to do. This also tends to make the path to max level more like a pre-sandbox tutorial.
The Saga of Ryzom has a relatively wide-open tutorial area, and you can do the four or five quest chains to learn the game's various skills in any order you like. Then you go to the mainland, which is huge, and some players are just so awed by the hugeness that they make a new character and stay on the tutorial island for a while longer.
Earlier incarnations of A Tale in the Desert were much like this. You were plonked down next to some schools in a vast world, told to grab some flax and to build a few materials to get started - and then you were left wondering what to do next. Research crossbreeding? Build art? Take over the world? Yeah.
This is a rather common trope with Metroidvania games; since many of them give you a very broad goal or just drops you into the game world without much of a hint.
Most games in the Metroid series suffer from this trope; it becomes very easy to become lost in the game world, even in the newer games which tend to be a bit more linear. Super Metroid is probably the most well-known for this, which, due to bugs, intentional design decisions and underestimating players' abilities, gives the player several different routes through the game, and many weapons and items are skippable with some ingenuity. Because there's no clear indication of what to do or where to go, putting the game down for even a day can either leave you with no idea how to progress, or stumbling in the right direction.
The Prime series try avoiding with an optional hint system that shows where the plot will advance.
Zero Mission has each Chozo statue set a rough waypoint to the "next" statue, unless you jump off the rails yourself — if you go Sequence Breaking past the point that one of the statues wants to advise you about, it won't bother when you come back to it later. Since the game clock runs during these hint scenes, it's beneficial for speed runners to skip as many as possible.
Castlevania: Circle of the Moon. The game starts off by dropping you into Dracula's Castle; and not telling the player where to go. The hints you get are few and far in between, and even then they just give you a broad goal.
Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow takes a step to avert this trope by having a screen where you can consult a character who gives you a hint on what you can probably do next.
Riven, the sequel to Myst was intentionally designed this way to satisfy two kinds of gamers. The sightseer could get to four of the five CD discs in the set without difficulty, but only the insanely dedicated puzzle solver could get to the fifth disc. And if they weren't insane before, they certainly were after.
Scribblenauts. You can create anything to solve your problems... which leads some players to just lock up. Should you make a bridge to rescue the penguin, or a boat, or a submarine, and how do I get the penguin to come on board, and what do I make to deal with the shark, and... you get the idea. Some don't lock up, but after experimenting, rely on a standard set of useful items that they know will generally work (Jetpacks, Ice, Cthulhu, Ropes).
Most of the Total War games are like this. Depending on which game you play and which faction you play as, you'll probably occasionally be assigned missions from some authority like the Pope or the Roman Senate, but aside from that you're pretty much cut loose to do whatever you want. Conquer the world, become a trade superpower and then conquer the world, spread your religion across the map and then conquer the world, or just burn it all to the ground and let the rebels have it. And then conquer the world.
Dwarf Fortress is possibly the only game to encompass geology, weather patterns, genetics, city building, tactical combat, individual psychology, item crafting and the effects of a punctured lung all in the same game setting. This is made worse by the fact that the author is continually adding new features to the game, making it much more complicated every year. This causes most prospective players to quit in the first week. Once you can make it past the learning stage, the game is immensely fun. By now, the only hope for a newcomer to learn the game is to start out with a version from back when it was still 2D.
Mount & Blade essentially has no goals. You just get dumped into the world and basically told to make your own fun.
Its sequel, Warband, gives players the option to do a starting quest that has a small, simple storyline and conclusion, introducing them to some of the mechanics and the setting...at which point they are again dumped into the world and left to their devices.
While most user-made mods add only different weapons and textures, there are a precious few which add a storyline, or at least a long-term goal.
In Arcanum: Of Steamworks & Magick Obscura the book that tells you what subquests you currently have active doesn't tell you where you actually got the quests, so you can spend hours visiting every city in the game to find Raxinfraxin, the guy who wanted M'hurna's Emerald (or whatever), which you just found in some ruins. A similar problem exists in Baldur's Gate
Once the SaGa games went onto consoles, every single one suffered from this. SaGa Frontier plays the trope straight and averts it because of And Now for Someone Completely Different: Lute and Blue had the most "open" quests (and Blue had "learn magic" as a guidepost), while the other five playable characters had relatively linear stories. Depending on who you chose to play as, you had your pick of linearity.
The Fallout games give you an overarching goal and a suggestion of where to head first, then leave you to your own devices. It's possible to go the whole game without finding out about whole cities. There are also a large number of unmarked or "freeform" quests.
Fallout 3 makes this worse by connecting locations through a maze of subway tunnels.
New Vegas even more so, you can spends dozens of hours without even going to the title city. The final battle at the Hoover Dam is the Point of No Return, however, and the game ends once you complete the main quest.
Metal Max and Metal Saga. You're dumped into an enormous world with no more guidance than "See those monsters on the wanted posters? Kill them", and the occasional mention of places you can go now.
Yume Nikki. The start menu says you're looking for "effects", but there's no explanation where to find them, no word of what they are, and no in-game reason for you to do anything. Plus you can wander for hours without finding anything and just wonder if the game is some LSD-induced Mind Screw.
Gothic III does this far more so than the previous games in the series. At the start you're dropped into an overrun town and must liberate it, but then other than some far distant goal of meeting up with an old friend somewhere and the vague notion that it'd probably be a good idea to liberate the rest of the country and see if the King is still holding up, no real direction is provided. Exactly what you do and how you do it are left up to the player to decide, with consequences for your actions learned the hard way.
Darklands hardly even had a main plot, just random quests. Technically, you're supposed to stop the apocalypse by defeating Baphomet, but that only entailed doing two quests to find the location of the final fortress then beating the fortress itself. There were no hints in game or in the manual that that was supposed to be your goal.
For the people who love to complete everything, Pokémon can be like this. Especially prevalent in the original Gold and Silver, where you were allowed to go to Mt. Silver, but since no one mention the boss at the summit, no one was in a rush to get there.
Final Fantasy XII: all the way. Once the Sandseas (and Giza Plains) are no longer guarded by the Imperials, you can go anywhere. Should you continue with the plot, however, you will be stuck in one place after the other. FF12 tends to vary between Wide Open Sandbox and Linear gameplay—but even the linear gameplay isn't all that linear. Obviously, this can become very stressful very easily, what with all the Level Grinding you have to do just to survive in dungeons and whatnot. In fact, should you grind for too long, it is likely you will completely forget what it is you were supposed to be doing, and 80% of the time, the game isn't helpful in reminding you.
It should be noted that more than half of the time, bringing up the map sub-menu will have either your next destination marked on the map, or your next objective displayed at the bottom of the map screen. Too bad you wouldn't really remember that unless you read the manual.
While the bulk of Final Fantasy XIII is in fact No Sidepaths, No Exploration, No Freedom, the one exception, Gran Pulse is this trope. You are dumped into a field, given a short tutorial about Cie'th Stone giving missions... and that's it. The next step to continue the story is a red X of in an unrevealed section of the map.
Probably the number one complaint about Final Fantasy I is how easy it is to get lost. You are given incredibly vague instructions of where to go such as "visit the sages at the crescent lake," which you can't SEE unless you have the airship, which by the way you have to be around this area to get a key item to obtain that anyway. Then, once you have the next Plot Coupon...you have no idea where to take it or what to do with it. There's even a point where you have to exit a dungeon and visit a strange man who lives in an unmarked cave to be told that you have to go back into that dungeon and use the item you got from it.
The second Golden Sun game has a more wide-open world because it is the whole rest of the world, whereas the first only featured one continent. However; there were players who wound up going the wrong way and getting themselves stuck (in Air's Rock, or at Briggs) when they were supposed to have done another event first, and the game doesn't stop you from doing so. With the ship you have to get to the other side of the world but are blocked by an obstacle in a canal and have to go elsewhere first, but there are obstacles there too, forcing you to have to go find another way to bypass them. It can be refreshing to be allowed to do whatever you want but set the game down for too long and it will take awhile to figure out where you've already been if you pick it back up - the game doesn't keep track of your progress, so you might find pieces of a trident, but have forgotten just where you got them.
What's also made a little worse is the fact that you have to collect pieces of a Trident - with little to no indication as to why you need it, or exactly where the parts were. For example, one part is located in a continent on the bottom of the world.
Common The Elder Scrolls series of games:
The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall: The world is enormous. You are told to use quick-travel to Daggerfall and the game basically leaves you alone. Given how big the world is - its' very easy to get lost. If you follow Daggerfall's main quest, you explore maybe a dozen towns and dungeons. The rest of the 15,000 locations are optional.
The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind: The island the game plays on is huge, and it takes almost 45 minutes to walk from one end to the other. In the tutorial you learn in five minutes how to use the controls, then the game kicks you out of the door, hands you a couple of coins and basically says: "Here, this is the world. Have fun". You only get some hints of where to go for the next story mission. The game also doesn't do much hand-holding in your quest log, forcing you to remember people and places from quests you might have received weeks ago in real time.
Skyrim. There's nothing stopping you from exploring all of Skyrim, other than a "Go meet my sister/uncle in Riverwood" spoken by the person you help at the end of the tutorial dungeon. On the one hand, the world is huge (compared to other RPGs) and incredibly detailed, with dozens upon dozens of quests. On the other, nearly all the quests are neatly catalogued in your pause menu with reminders of what you're doing and geographic markers to where the next objective is located, and each individual quest can activated or deactivated from that menu.
The later Wizardry games, VII and 8 especially, have quite a bit of this. You're dumped onto an alien planet with only the broad outlines of what's going on and are expected to figure out what to do from there. If you import from the previous game, you might be immediately greeted with a questline to follow... that's probably far too hard for your level. Good luck figuring out where you're supposed to go and when - the plot of these games tends towards the labyrinthine...
Contrary to the Penny Arcade page image, Mass Effect 1 averts this problem for the most part. You go through a few training missions before getting the Normandy to freely fly around the universe, only to be restricted to one ship/planet/asteroid to explore within each star system. Story progression is rather straightforward, despite you being able to play a trio of core missions in whatever order you wish, and a clear goal in mind. In addition, all active missions are logged in the pause menu — even separated to required and optional missions — so you never have to wonder what you're supposed to be doing. Mass Effect 2 is also an aversion in spite of more missions and a wider scope of freedom. It's still linear.
Dark Souls throws you into the land of Lordran with no clear goal beyond "ring the two Bells of Awakening". You don't know what will happen when you do, or even where their locations are. At the very first stages you can find yourself in locations that have enemies you can't possibly damage without fulfilling special conditions that you're not told. Generally the game doesn't give the player any hand holding, expecting them to read through item descriptions to get hints of where to go next.
Despite statements from the developers on making it easier to find out where to go and fan fears, its sequel is much worse than the original when it comes to this, as all the player is told is to find the four Old Ones and kill them for their souls. Where the player goes from there is up to them, though most get confused as to where to go after defeating the first boss in the starter area, as it gives no indication of what do next.
Star Control II. Once you're finished with your initial business in the Sol system, you have a few broad goals, as opposed to specific objectives. The game focuses heavily on exploration, so it's largely up to the player to figure out good places to mine resources, who's on what side, and so on. It's a little overwhelming.
This is made particularly sadistic in that the game is actually on a time-limit... Take too long exploring and the resident Scary Dogmatic Aliens will start killing species off. However, it usually gives you some clue about where to go next for the main plot, even if it's as vague as "Hey, I heard there's an alien species that lives over that direction someplace." The main point of confusion is usually that it's up the player to keep track of his own quests; the game doesn't tell you what missions you've picked up or where to go to complete it, if they even told you where to go next at all. And it is easy to get distracted with mining and never get around to following up on the storyline.
The SimCity series have no goal at all other than what the player sets for himself. "Build the highest population city you can" is a pretty popular one.
Though each game has a handful of scenarios with actual win/lose conditions.
Not to mention The Sims series. It can be summed up as "You die, you lose. Maybe. Start playing." TS3 did at least have a rolling tutorial that gave you the option of learning how to do things if you activate them with the tutorial section unread. The Sims 3 characters that are old enough have wishes and lifetime wishes, which give you points and increases their moodlets when completed.
The RollerCoaster Tycoon series, although almost all of the stages do have objectives to fulfill. After you complete them, then it pretty much wanders off into this territory.
Animal Crossing series. "Plot? What plot?" After you earn and spend a couple million bells on pimping your house, don't count on there being anything to do outside the starting town.
Academagia - Welcome to Wizarding School. You have a bajillion stats, all of which currently suck, and you don't know what any of them mean. You have dozens of available actions, and you will quickly gain far more than you could ever use. Your only actual goal is figuring out what on earth they DO.
Many Life Sims require some scrambling around at first to keep your character alive, before your enhanced skills give you the free time to explore. Princess Maker and Cute Knight have the initial struggle to pay for food and housing. Cute Knight Kingdom removed a lot of this starting urgency, and thereby left some players with no idea of what to do.
Wing Commander: Privateer could evoke this. You're given a ship, some credits, and that's it. You're not even in the same sector of space, let alone star system or planet, as the first main plot mission.
The Path was designed with this in mind. Fortunately it's a small sandbox.
The Dead Linger throws you into a zombie-infested world, gives you a small prompt on how the controls work...and that's pretty much it. The game has no definitive end, but since your goal is to survive the Zombie Apocalypse, you're probably always on the run, evading zombies and trying to scavenge food. But still, if you get lucky with the random world and item generation, you could just find the biggest backpack, fill it to the brim with food and stay in the town you probably started in (or near), without ever going out to explore the more interesting places in the procedurally generated world.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R. can do this to you, but you have to invoke it to a degree. Most of the games' immersion comes in when they go off-script, although the next goals are pretty much always marked out for you so the story can keep moving. In the first game you can at several points tell the guy who gives you your next mission to piss off and just run around the Zone killing people and hunting for artifacts until you're ready to move along with the story.
DayZ. At the start you absolutely need to find a gun, but once you have a gun and some ammo and you know where to hide you are more or less done with the mandatory tasks, leaving you in the middle of a giant map with no objectives and nothing to do. You can gank players, take their cars and powerful guns, then use those to gank more players until you get ganked in turn and have to reroll a new character.
A Game Master trying too hard to avoid Railroading his players may take things too far in the other direction if he's not careful; dropping the Player Characters into the game world and expecting them to make the plot happen without any sort of guidance or plot hook. Such games may end up with the characters spending all their time getting drunk at the tavern.
GM's attempting to give their PC's multiple missions and sidequests to choose from often find this. If the PC's are more used to linear plots and the idea of everything must tie together, throwing multiple, often unrelated or only tangently related plot threads/missions at them can lead their players to spending way too much time on a side quest type plot (thinking it must be the main plot) or attempting to tie various threads together that were meant to be separate. A good GM can gently drop hints to steer them the right way when this happens, or simply right out hint/tell the players.
The early X-Universe games hit this pretty hard; you're thrown in the universe with a mediocre/bad ship, with no real goals aside from short plots. X3: Terran Conflict gives the players more clear goals and offers more plots to follow while making it somewhat easier to start.
Just Cause 2. It's very easy to get lost, but the sheer amount of non-story related things makes it possible to have oodles of fun while completely ignoring the story.
Crackdown has been accused of this, since it basically just gives you a list of 21 criminals who need to die, and then kicks you into the city to fend for yourself. It's balanced by the fact that you learn how to play the game eventually, and that it's quite fun to wander around getting things. Except those goddamn Orbs!
Capcom's Dead Rising tries to avoid this with a strict timing for taking up missions, thus limiting the player's ability to roam blindly, but it also made some players frustrated at not figuring out which missions were more important, since missing a mission-time dooms the player to being unable to progress further with the story.
Plus the weapons can be a mess at first. Many weapons are practically useless at low levels, and even the best ones don't last long. Some enjoyed the freedom and experimentation, though.
The Space Stage in Spore conveys the sheer immensity of space very well. Possibly too well. Mods make the game even more fun (infinite Staff of Life, for one). Also, nothing beats watching a binary sunrise (Find a binary -two star- star system. Go to a non-dangerous, and preferably with a thin atmosphere, planet. Watch the suns rise.) Or, watch them set, preferably with the appropriate music.
Minecraft. You are thrown into an enormous world without any defined goals at all - players can build huge structures, mine valuables from the ground, slaughter monsters, explore landscapes, become nomadic, construct railroads, seek out the Enderdragon or do practically anything else.
This was even worse before the game came with a list of achievements that encourage new players to learn the basics of mining, farming, construction, and combat.
This is not helped by the sheer size of the map. You can wander in the direction of the map and go on for hours never finding an end to it all; in one interview Notch said the potential size of the gameplay world can go up to eight times the surface area of Earth itself (although there isn't any major difference between different sections of the map). Not to mention the various environments all over the place (it isn't impossible to see a snow biome right next to a desert in this game) giving you a variety of resources to use in building your desired constructions.
Not big enough? Mods like Mystcraft let you make as many new worlds to explore as you want, and even decorate them with different types of environments.
Terraria is a bit less intimidating, since you start with basic versions of three main tools (Axe, Pick, Sword). Even if you do decide to wander, Terraria is 2D and has a much smaller game world, making it much harder to get hopelessly lost.
Another problem is progression. Of course you wander around, looking materials but how you actually progress is confusing to a newer player.
Similar to the above, Garry's Mod provides the player with access to every asset from just about every modern Valve game the player may have installed, tools with which to put said assets together in just about any way imaginable, and a default map entitled "Flatgrass." Knock yourself out. Various addons increase the amount of tools and assets available by an order of magnitude.
Falling Sand Game is quite a literal version of this, having different colored pixels that react differently to other pixels. That's basically it.
Conway's Game of Life is not so much a game as it is a visualized automaton of squares. It also happens to create a myriad of patterns and can be 'programmed' to produce simple computers.
As per the page quote, the Grand Theft Auto series has this, particularly since Grand Theft Auto III. It gets marginally better in San Andreas with the introduction of the cell phone, and much better with the smartphone in GTA IV. In the original GTA III though, having the option to do police, ambulance, and taxi side missions (all with valuable rewards), search for and collect hidden packages, find vans or weapons with rampage side missions, doing actual side missions for gangs or the mob, and finally progressing the story, all with little guidance from the interface...things get paralyzing quickly.
Saints Row 2 is this to a rather good degree. The game starts with the requisite tutorial missions, but then to progress in the story, you are required to earn "respect". It does tell you how to earn respect, but the various methods are so numerous it can lead some players to being distracted before even attempting any of the many mini games to earn said respect. The story itself can actually be this as it is very non-linear in its progression, allowing you to start any of the three basic gang story events at any time (with enough respect). And that doesn't even count the "stronghold missions" that have elements of story in them as well.
Saints Row: The Third on the other hand is much better. With rare exceptions you usually have only one story quest to select at a time, and the game will periodically remind you to do it. You no longer need Respect to unlock missions. Side activities and collectibles are also clearly introduced in story quests so you know what you are supposed to do.
In the rather obscure FPS sandbox Boiling Point the main quest is laid out pretty clearly. However, the story missions are all blocked by sizable cash gates, leaving the player to wander around aimlessly until they figure out how to get a hold of some money.
Kerbal Space Program. You have all the spacecraft and rocket parts you might need, all the eager pilots you may require to test them out, an unexpectedly realistic physics engine and an entire solar system. Everything else? Up to you. One of the stated goals for the recently introduced Career Mode (and the Tech Tree in particular) is to mitigate this by gradually and logically introducing new parts to the player as they progress.
Capcom's famed Keiji Inafune suggested that the effect of this Trope, combined with the Japanese desire to be guided, explains the relative lack of success that Wide Open Sandbox titles have had in Japan. There was mention of Western attitudes towards free-roaming gameplay being similar to going deer hunting and bagging a bear instead. note GTA on the PC does have some popularity with Japanese modders. Apparently the sandbox isn't so bad if you can make it look like the gamer's favorite anime. Or least favorite:Nothing like the scent of dead Pikachu in the morning. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is also fairly popular.