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Quicksand Box

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Swim until the water is all you have ever known and all you ever desire.

"I have a hard time with GTA. I find the total freedom paralyzing. When given the opportunity to do anything, I tend to do nothing."
Tycho, Penny Arcade

You just got a new game! It's huge, expansive, non-linear! You can do anything you want to, the world is completely open to you. So... what do you wanna do?

You suddenly find yourself paralyzed, you can't figure out where to go next. You wander aimlessly, sometimes for hours, until you're able to find a goal.

This is what happens when a player starts playing a Wide-Open Sandbox or Metroidvania game and ends up getting stuck. First comes surprise, then consternation, confusion, desperate flailing around, despair, potential killing sprees, and in the worst cases, death, quitting the game without having even left the starting town. This is particularly common when they start playing again after a long break.

Gradually became a Discredited Trope as internet access for guides became easier, game developers are quicker to user feedbacks, and general implementations of Anti-Frustration Features that became standard, such as objective markers, in modern videogames since the late 2010s.

Efforts to avoid this in sequels or current (as of the 2020s) games may actually be seen as overly-pampering. Openness is not bad; some players prefer the risk of getting lost to being railroaded. Well-designed games would often find remedy in an Achievement System which provides inspiration and impulse to the player. Compare Alt Itis, which largely focuses on differing character abilities and options, and Sidetracked by the Gold Saucer, which may overlap. Contrast No Sidepaths, No Exploration, No Freedom.


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    Action Adventure 
  • In the Atari game Adventure, you have a general goal and no idea how to accomplish it or where anything is.
  • The Batman: Arkham Series may have started with a relatively linear Metroidvania, but the future games opened up immensely. Gotham tends to be filled with side content, but the most notable is probably the Riddler collectibles. The Riddler in each game can distract you for a good percentage of the game's playtime, something that can be extremely daunting if you want to achieve 100% Completion, or at least just see the resolution of his plot. The actual main story, however, is consistently and clearly signposted, so once you decide to actually finish the game, you know what to do.
  • Honkai Impact 3rd might consist of small sections per mission, but the many activities, limited-time events, and sidestories to do can be overwhelming to an average gamer. There's also the fact that large amount of content can be gained without the need to pay or use paid content.
  • 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 Legend of Zelda:
    • In the original The Legend of Zelda, you're sent out with little idea what to do and especially where to go leading to some early deaths. ("It's dangerous to go alone! Take this!")
    • In Breath of the Wild, after you get the four main runes (bombs and the power to manipulate metal objects, paralyze objects and turn water into ice) and learn the basic backstory and goal of the game, you're able to do whatever you wish to do, with the only limitation on where you can travel being your own skill and resourcefulness, and your one mandatory task being to get to Hyrule Castle and defeat Ganon. You learn what your main goals are early on, but once you've left the Great Plateau there is zero hand-holding as to how you're supposed to go about achieving them (and there's usually more than one way to do anything that needs doing). Once you've found a side-quest, the game does keep track of your current objectives and pinpoints where you're supposed to go to complete them, so at least you're not completely lost in doing them.
    • Tears of the Kingdom, being a sequel to Breath of the Wild, follows the same route: After completing the tutorial and getting your new powers, you're dumped in Hyrule Field, and while the game plunks down a few objective markers for you, you're free to do whatever you want. And you get to do it in an overworld that's even more sidequest-dense, and massively expanded due to the introduction of the Sky Islands and the Depths, which are comparable in size to the primary overworld.
  • Turgor (aka The Void) 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.
  • Like its Metroidvania predecessors, An Untitled Story mostly revolves around finding the next Gravity Barrier and the new ability to bypass it. It has a plot, but it's never at the forefront.

    Adventure Game 
  • 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?
  • From the first minutes of Scratches, your have an access to almost every room of a huge three-story Victorian mansion, and no clear goals besides "Explore this place before going to sleep". Needless to say, there is a lot of Pixel Hunt and Guide Dang It! early in the game.
  • 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 1: In Pursuit of the Death Angel 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.

    Driving Game 
  • 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 (and 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.
  • While the first Forza Horizon tries to avert this with clear progression design, the sequels play this straight in order to not confine the player. In particular, Forza Horizon 4 gave you supercars from the get-go, increasingly numerous events to play, and single-player events that end with extremely short celebrations.
  • Hard Truck series, prior to Hard Truck Apocalypse, gave you little explanation of where to go and what to do as a trucker in a small but open landscape. There's also realistic damage modelling too.
  • Need for Speed: Underground 2, after you're stuck into searching for secret races or need to complete specially hard DVD/magazine covers.

    First Person Shooter 
  • 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.

  • City of Heroes was benefitted by this. After you get your characters out of a character creator where the only limit on customization was "no asymetrical costumes" you now had to get through your starting mission path. Unlike most MMOs which will have you do one story mission chain. Co H at launch you had to choose one of two starting zones and from there, had a choice of five starting mission contacts... per zone... And that's if you want to do the story mission, you can go to level cap by repeated missions and pick up group teams and never do lore stuff at all. The Devs actually cut an entire zone worth of content and City of Villains launched with a tighter chain (one zone and two initial contacts... that gave at least three choices in the unrelated next content, but the wide open story content was back enforce with Going Rogue expansion, which introduced another starting zone for both factions, which had two factions to choose from in that zone... and then had two sub-factions within them and offered the option to defect from any level of factions. You would need four characters to do each mission chain when appropriately leveled. As a rule, no matter what level you were in City of Heroes, you couldn't do every level appropriate mission without freezing your xp-gain (and they even offered a system to "go back" in time and do the missions again.). That said, mechanically, the missions didn't differ all that much and many players did have paths that would show missions that offered superior story, settings, and effects.
  • 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.
    • Since the introduction of wormholes, you can accidentally turn an activity you learned from a tutorial on your first day into a one-way trip to a random section of the universe that may take hours to reverse without dying even if you don't land in a hostile PVP area.
  • 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.
  • Final Fantasy XI would drop you in a starter town with a level 1 weapon suited to your class, unless you were a Monk, in which case you got your fists, unless you were a Warrior in which case they gave you a one-handed sword, even though a one-handed axe would be far better suited to Warrior (there is no indication that WARs are better with axe than sword). Then they'd point you at either Saruta-Baruta, Gustaberg, or Ronfaure, depending on the city you started in, and wished you the best of luck in a game that would come to include 20 jobs, a subjob function, 99 levels, 8 crafts not counting fishing, fishing, and much more. Thank God there was a wiki.
  • Kingdom of Loathing doesn't have this problem at the start, as the game makes it very clear what you need to do and how you need to do it. However, the vast majority of the game's content is only available (or only feasible) after you complete the main quest... and you're not told how to find any of it. The house with the smoking chimney might point you to the Sea, but that's it.
  • Ragnarok Online, being a very old MMO, falls under this. As soon as you get out of the tutorial zone, you are given virtually no direction. There are no filler quests that give meager XP/money rewards, NPCs don't have marks above their head that say they have anything important available, and even if you do find a quest, the quest tracker is archaic. There are supposedly storylines, but they are not out in the open and are available so late in the game, not many people will know about them. Traveling between towns on foot is a treacherous journey full of aggressive monsters that will ambush you. The only thing most people would know what to do then is to endlessly grind killing monsters until they can do the job change quests that the website provides a simple guide for.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
    • Even before a lot of content was added and the old world was revamped, it would fall into this. With two continents to explore no real "main quest" directing you to the next zone besides some quest arcs that would send you to another zone, no real path through a continent (or indication that you have "cleared" a zone short of the mobs being way weaker than you), it was frankly hard to not get lost in the world or wonder just where the next zone was. The fact that there were very few alternatives for some level ranges and quest chains that were almost too expansive didn't help either.
      • One good example was the "Princess" quest - initially it was available in Arathi Highlands, a zone intended for level 30. Unfortunately, the quest could not be completed until the player was nearing level 50, leading a lot of players confused since the rest of quests in the zone would be "done", and the player has no indication on where they can go next.
    • As of 2018, zones now scale in level up to the player, even allowing the player to skip entire expansions' worth of content.

    Platform Game 
  • Aquaria, once you reach open waters.
  • 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.
  • Most games in the Metroid series suffer from this trope.
    • Metroid: In the original game, all the rooms look the same and there is no map feature. Back in the day, games of this kind expected players to draw their own maps as they played them — something that isn't the norm for more modern games, leading to lots of complaints from younger players about getting lost.
    • Super Metroid: The game is 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 Metroid Prime Trilogy try avoiding with an optional hint system that shows where the plot will advance.
    • Metroid: 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.
  • Sonic Frontiers suffers from this a lot. It being a first Wide-Open Sandbox in Sonic The Hedgehog series doesn't help at all. New players are going to see lots of UI elements they aren't familiar with, markers on the map that aren't explained, as well as new moves in Tutorial Mode they are not going to memorize the first time.
  • Nintendo attempted to avoid the trope in Super Mario Maker by having the editing tools unlock once per day so that the player wouldn't be bogged down with a ton of tools and not knowing what to do with them when it came to creating a level. When the feature was revealed days before the game launched, there was a big backlash against it, causing Nintendo to release a patch a day after launch that made unlocking tools far faster.
  • Geometry Dash:
    • The game's editor is an extreme example of this. After loads of updates, in version 2.1, the editor has became so complicated that it really scares off many newcomers. The editor here is way more complex than in Mario Maker since you can make literal custom designs and minigames out of existing blocks and features. And it's all fully available right from the start, with a not really helpful guide. In 2.2, this became even more extreme since the editor got 6 years of new features in a moment. It's implied this was the reason the editor guide got a major update for 2.2 in an attempt to help both newcomers and returning creators understand how all the new features work.
    • The same applies for the game itself, or for 2.1 content, to be more precise. That update added lots of new features in the menus, and lots of cool secrets, that are meant to entertain players with something that is not building or playing levels. New players, however, might get lost in 2.1's online menu or just ignore the secrets, and thus miss lots of cool stuff.
    • The same also applies for online levels. When the player, after slow-paced official levels, comes into online levels, they might get confused with their constant usage of all existing features as well as constant change of shape (these levels are called "flow levels") and go back to official levels without realising there are easy levels as well.

    Puzzle Game 
  • Riven, the sequel to Myst was intentionally designed this way to satisfy two kinds of gamers. The sightseer can get to four of the five CD discs in the set without difficulty, but only the insanely dedicated puzzle solver can get to the fifth disc. And if they weren't insane before, they certainly will be 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).

    Real Time Strategy 
  • Most Paradox Interactive games can be this to some degree. "You're now in control of Saxony, what do you do with it?" Victoria: An Empire Under The Sun is probably the biggest example.
  • 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 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.

    Role Playing Game 
  • 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
  • While all of the Assassin's Creed games were set in open locations, the side content was usually limited to optional collectibles and stock missions. Assassin's Creed Origins, however, marked a shift into an open world RPG. In Origins, after the prologue and aside from the occasional Beef Gate, you're let loose upon almost the entirety of ancient Egypt, filled to the brim with forts to capture, landmarks to explore, treasure to discover, and side quests to complete. Assassin's Creed: Odyssey takes this even further with the entirety of ancient Greece and all new systems and optional objectives to complete. The game even subtly encourages you to take your time, extending the playtime so much that it would be easy to retire from the game tens of hours in without ever having completed the story.

  • 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.
  • 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. (The most common advice to new players is, "If you're fighting skeletons, you went the wrong way.") 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 can be 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 what is usually their first boss, the Last Giant, as it gives no indication of what do next.
  • Divinity: Original Sin and its sequel suffer from this to varying degrees:
    • The first game, especially during its first half or so (prior to the Phantom Forest), doesn't do a whole lot to really tell the player that there is an "order of events", apart from enemies that are higher level. There are a lot of sidequests that the player can apparently take, but very little information on just how to complete them (or even when you can) is given, meaning it's very easy for players to run around and get lost.
    • The second game is much more linear, but it still can cause the player to fall into this in its second act: The Reaper's Coast. The player has a very vague goal and a few pointers as to how they can accomplish it, but the specifics of just how much is available (and how to go about completing them) is vague enough to practically require a walkthrough. It closes back up in the games' final act(s), but even then, nothing will stop the player from simply wandering around and being stuck in encounters that are way too high level for them.
  • In Dragon Age: Inquisition, the first explorable zone, the Hinterlands, is also the largest, with tons of side quests, landmarks, and other stuff to do. This has been known to cause players to lose sight of the next main quest and completely immerse themselves in exploring every nook and cranny of the zone, and then complain that there is too much to do and the plot is moving too slowly (especially if they forget what the next main quest even is, having set a side quest as active by accident). This especially plagues players desiring 100% Completion and used to BioWare's "don't move on until you've completely cleared a zone" formula. "Still in the Hinterlands" has become a meme. What the game actually expects you to do is to clear the low-level areas of a zone first, do a main quest, and then comes back at higher levels.
    The gameplay for DAI is amazing, but there's no neon sign saying, "Leave Hinterlands. Come back in 5 levels. Bring pie."

    Leave at level six or seven, come back at ten, leave at twelve, come back at 15, kill the dragon, be happy.

    Makes the game flow a lot better than spending 30 hours in hinterlands like I did, and being overleveled for the rest of the playthrough on Nightmare."

  • Earthbound Beginnings, in noticeable contrast to its two successors, has little-to-no handholding whatsoever. The overworld is very open, lacks a map, and has a lot of identical settings due to graphical limitations. The gameplay itself is also incredibly nonlinear; besides finding the Eight Melodies (which in and of itself suffers from Guide Dang It!), you have to figure out what you need to be doing on your own.
  • Elden Ring is FromSoftware's truly open world Souls-like RPG. Combining the nebulous nature of the Dark Souls games with a massive world to explore means players can spend hours combing Limgrave, the game's starting area, for equipment, collectables, and levels. This is by design, however, as Margit is an extremely difficult first major boss to fell, and your time in Limgrave will prepare you for him.
  • Common throughout The Elder Scrolls series, in large part because of how early the games Open The Sandbox for you. Typically, after a brief tutorial and a tip on where to go next for the main quest, you're free to go wherever you want and do whatever you want. There are Loads and Loads of Sidequests, as well as full blown Sidequest Sidestories (some of which, particularly the faction questlines, are nearly as expansive as the main quest). By game:
    • Daggerfall has a nigh-infinite (though with significant procedural generation and Randomly Designed Dungeons) game world. After escaping the Noob Cave tutorial dungeon, you're told to use fast-travel to head to Daggerfall itself but the game otherwise leaves you to your own devices. Given how big the world is, it's 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.
    • Morrowind, though thousands of times smaller in terms of raw square footage than its predecessor, trades away the procedurally and randomly generated sections for a hand-built game world while still being far larger than most video game settings. Vvardenfell, the island the game plays on is huge, and it takes almost 45 real-time minutes to walk from one end to the other (and that is without stopping to explore along the way). In the (short but extant) tutorial, you learn in about five minutes how to use the controls, then the game kicks you out of the door, hands you a couple of coins and says: "Here, this is the world, have fun" while only giving you a direction for where to go to continue the main quest. Beef Gates and the rare Plot Lock are the only impediments to going wherever you want and doing whatever your want. 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.
    • Oblivion and Skyrim continue the trend of large and (mostly) hand-built game worlds. After the tutorial in each, other than a direction on where to go next for the main quest, there is nothing stopping you from immediately going and exploring the entirety of those game worlds. On the one hand, these worlds are huge (compared to other RPGs) and are incredibly detailed, with dozens upon dozens of quests. On the other, nearly all the quests are neatly catalogued in your character 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 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, although once through the first time you can usually find a fast travel marker on the other end.
    • New Vegas mostly manages to avoid this by way of the general world of the game being meant to funnel you down a certain path (specifically, going south from Goodsprings and taking a loop through Primm, Nipton, Novac, and Boulder City before finally reaching New Vegas) via Beef Gates, general questlines, and suggestions from other characters, as well as a pretty clear breadcrumb trail of people telling you which way Benny went.
  • Probably the number one complaint about Final Fantasy 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 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.
  • Final Fantasy VI: The game becomes wide open as soon as you collect four party members and the new airship in the second half of the fact, absolutely nothing stops you from tackling The Very Definitely Final Dungeon except the ridiculously tough battles that you would face along the way. One of the most popular forms of Self-Imposed Challenge is actually to head to the final dungeon with as little as possible.
  • 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.

  • 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.
  • 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.

  • Horizon:
    • Horizon Zero Dawn gives you a wide-open world to explore once you've completed the tutorial. Sure, there's something about tracking down the people who massacred your village, but first why not go check out some ancient ruins for artifacts, or climb a Tallneck, or hunt some machines for parts, or...
    • Horizon Forbidden West downplays this by staggering out Opening the Sandbox so that the player gets two "starting areas" to explore before heading out into Tenakth territory, which is where the real meat of the game is. Still, it's easy to get bowled over by options even in the Daunt alone, where there are collectible items, numerous sidequests and a multitude of things to do and buy in Chainscrape and Barren Light. Then the Utaru territory is even worse, being much larger in all directions with oodles more stuff to do. Then Aloy finally reaches Tenakth territory on the other side of the mountains containing the Zero Dawn facility, and she has three separate directions to go in for the main quest alone, each one taking her through a gigantic swath of the western U.S. with hundreds of machines to kill and side objectives to complete.

  • Contrary to the Penny Arcade page image, Mass Effect 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 (with a fourth becoming available after the first two are finished), 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.
  • 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.
  • Mount & Blade essentially has no goals. You just get dumped into the world and told to make your own fun.
    • Its Mission-Pack Sequel / Updated Re-release, 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 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.

  • For the people who love to aim for 100% Completion, Pokémon can be like this. Beat the Gym Leaders, unlock the NationalDex, explore the world, and catch them all! Sounds simple, except sometimes, the games don't tell you where certain things are (like rare Pokémon) or how to access them.
    • To a lesser extent, exploring the region could become a case of this as well. The regions, while generally linear, had some degree of flexibility until Diamond and Pearl, after which, from Platinum and especially Unova and onward, the games either follow along a direct path from beginning to end (Unova, Alola) or the games make aggressive use of NPC Roadblocks who tell you where to go next (Kalos, Galar). Though Game Freak has never stated why this is the case, the most common theory is that they came from complaints from players about getting lost and growing frustrated.
    • Pokémon Legends: Arceus deviates from the linear gameplay of its predecessors by dividing the Hisui region into several enormous sandboxes, like larger versions of Galar's Wild Area. While the game does attempt to prod you in the right direction to continue the story, there is surprisingly little hand-holding and a lot of not-knowing—you're free to, for example, encounter and challenge Alpha Pokémon before you even know what they are, much less before you're able to defeat one.
    • Pokémon Scarlet and Violet throws you into Paldea without a paddle, or even a suggested route to follow. After you first attend the academy at Mesagoza, you are thrown into an open world with no invisible walls and a mount Pokémon who can leap a river. Three NPCs each give you a storyline, each of which adds five to eight destinations on the map with NO indication of what level you need to be at to stand a chance for any of them. Arven and Cassiopeia will ring your phone when you approach a Titan Pokémon or a Team Star Base, respectively, to tell you what type you're dealing with; beyond that, making sure you and your Pokémon survive any given battle is largely dependent on the player to either save scum or do their research in advance.

  • 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.

  • Several games in the Ultima series are like this. Especially Ultima IV and Ultima V.
  • 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...
  • 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.

    Shoot Em Up 
  • 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.

    Simulation Game 
  • 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.
  • Dead In Vinland originally had an overall-game time limit that it didn't tell you about until you ran afoul of it. Fortunately the devs patched this out after release. It's hard enough without it.
  • 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. Consulting the wiki regularly is almost mandatory for new players, and many veteran players still check in every so often.
  • Many Raising Sims have the initial struggle to pay for food and housing, requiring some scrambling around at first to keep your character alive, before your enhanced skills give you the free time to explore:
  • 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.
  • The Sims series can be summed up as "You die, you lose. Maybe. Start playing." The sequels starting with 2 at least include a system for short-term and long-term goals.
  • The RollerCoaster Tycoon series, although almost all of the stages do have objectives to fulfill. After you complete them, then it wanders off into this territory.
  • Stardew Valley, the Spiritual Successor to Story of Seasons, often causes this to new players. The player is given a small bit of exposition, but it drops a lot of content available to you at once. (Various character stats, exploring the mine, farming, foraging, unlocking the bus, relationships, fishing, unlocking more areas to explore, rebuilding the community centre) Virtually no explanation is given to you as which of these is important or even how you can go about doing this, or when. The sheer amount of content available at the start, as well as your tiny wallet can make players feel almost stressed.
  • 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.

    Survival Horror 
  • Cursed Trilogy: 2 and 3 can fall into this with how much of the game world becomes open to exploration at the beginning, but little to no hint(s) are provided as to what specifically the player needs to (or should) be doing. It's easy for a player to pick up item(s), but not have any idea on where they should be used. Confounding this are the amount of items that have no use. As a result, it's very easy to spend a lot of time poking around before trying to find an item that will open up more of the game world, or to get a hint as to why they need to pick certain item(s) up.
  • 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.
  • The Dead Linger throws you into a zombie-infested world, gives you a small prompt on how the controls work... and that's 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.
  • The Path was designed with this in mind. Fortunately it's a small sandbox.
  • Radiation Island starts with a brief tutorial on movement, scavenging, crafting and tracking animals. After that you're abandoned on the beach with the helpful suggestion to "Proceed as you may." Sure, you can pursue the storyline, but with the "dig sites" containing chests of loot, the crafting system, and the ability to design, build, and furnish entire buildings, it's possible to ignore the storyline completely. It can turn into a choice between Walking the Earth and settling down to be a homeowner.
  • 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 usually 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.

    Tabletop Games 
  • 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. Given the obstinacy of the average player, the best solution is often for the GM to nod and congratulate the players for figuring it out.

    Wide-Open Sandbox 
  • In 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.
  • 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.
  • Crackdown 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. The weapons can also be a mess at first. Many weapons are practically useless at low levels, and the best ones don't last long. Some enjoyed the freedom and experimentation, though.
    • Dead Rising: Chop Till You Drop: The conversion for the Wii was specifically designed to address the complaints.
    • Dead Rising 2 is a bit more open, with the opportunity to discover combination weapons and more psychopaths to fight. Off The Record is even more open, especially in its sandbox mode, where you don't even have to find any Zombrex to keep going.
  • Degrees Of Lewdity is a lewd text-based sandbox game in which you can do, well, whatever you please or tickles your fancy and that anything can happen to your character or the characters around you.
  • Falling Sand Game is quite a literal version of this, having different colored pixels that react differently to other pixels. That's it.
  • In Foxhole, it can be daunting for a new player to figure out what to do and where to go; there is no in-game direction as to what you should be doing to win the war. Especially since you start only with a pistol and a hammer, just getting a basic rifle or finding the action takes some getting used to.
  • Garry's Mod provides the player with access to every asset from every modern Valve game the player may have installed, tools with which to put said assets together in any way imaginable, and the default maps "gm_construct" and "gm_flatgrass" alongside all of the maps/levels from whatever Source Engine games you have installed. Knock yourself out. Addons available on the Steam Workshop and sites such as allow for an effectively infinite number of new tools, maps, and assets to play with, both original and ported from other games.
  • Genshin Impact can feel like this. Granted, limited time, limited amount, and day-locked activities "help" to alleviate the confusion, but there's just a lot of things to do.
  • The Grand Theft Auto series were perceived as this, though there is a clear indication on where and what to do, generally, visit any stuck markers (except the North marker) and do whatever you have to do.
  • The Just Cause series. 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. For Just Cause 2, there is also how the game only has eight story missions but almost hundreds of side missions and activities that are required to unlock the story mission.
  • 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 introduction of 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.
  • Mad Max (2015): There is some gating, but you get to drive around a sizeable wasteland that is absolutely full of optional content. It's extremely easy to intend to look for one upgrade part, only to realize you've spent hours away from the next story quest on various tasks.
  • 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 Ender Dragon (as the name implies, it's meant to be a Final Boss of sorts, but beating it does not end the game) 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. Then there's the sheer size of the map: you can wander in one direction 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). There are various environments all over the place, too (it is possible to see a snow biome right next to a desert in this game before the 1.8 update), giving you a variety of resources to use in building your desired constructions.
  • No Man's Sky features a game world so large (specifically, a universe with 18 quintillion procedurally-generated worlds to explore that will take 585 billion years to fully discover) that you might just take your small ship, fly to the nearest planet, land, and stay there.
  • Saints Row 2, the game starts with the requisite tutorial missions, but then to progress in the story, you are required to earn "respect", with a lot of fun activities and challenges to do. 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. Like Grand Theft Auto, however, there is a clear indication on where and what to do, generally, visit any colored markers and do whatever you have to do.
  • Saints Row: The Third and Saints Row IV are very linear. 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 don't need Respect to unlock missions, either. Side activities and collectibles are also clearly introduced in story quests.
  • Done deliberately by Shenmue, in what can feel like a deconstruction of open-world games even though it was one of the first successful 3D examples of the genre. Having little real guidance in the game's world simply spotlights the protagonist Ryo's feelings of aimlessness and lack of direction or purpose.
  • The Space Stage in Spore conveys the sheer immensity of space very well. 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. Mods make the game even more fun (infinite Staff of Life, for one).
  • In Terraria, you wander around looking for materials, but how you actually progress is confusing to a newer player.
  • 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.

    Real Life 
  • Back in 2007, Keiji Inafune, then working for Capcom, suggested that the effect of this trope, combined with his perception of the Japanese desire to be guided, explains the relative lack of success that Wide-Open Sandbox titles had in Japan at the time. There was a mention of Western attitudes towards free-roaming gameplay being similar to going deer hunting and bagging a bear instead.