Many gamers out there find themselves constantly coming back to video games for one main reason: to get away from reality, even if only briefly. They enjoy the freedom provided with entering a brand new world, and it is the very same reason many of us fell in love with video games from a young age. It allows you to escape to some other dimension, separate from everything else, and live out your wildest dreams.
Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Many games feature limitations as to what the players can do. Sometimes, these limitations are put in place for technical reasons, other times because it is what the developers intended. There is no reason to knock any games modeled in this way, it is simply how the developers envisioned their creation. For some players, however, this limited amount of freedom is exactly what they are trying to escape from in the real world. If this is the case for you, I would highly recommend playing a sandbox style game.
Sandbox games differ in the nuances, but generally allow players to do just about whatever they want (within the game’s mechanics). Some games may be more “sandboxy” than others such as true physics sandbox emulators like Garry’s Mod. Others simply grant freedom to the player to create, explore, and craft as they please in an expansive universe. For the purpose of this article, I’ll be lumping these two styles of freedom-centric games into the same list. With that out of the way, let’s get right into the best sandbox games available on the Steam marketplace:
ARK: Survival Evolved may be somewhat past its prime, but that does not discount the quality of the game. At its core, Ark is an open-world survival game. The player wakes up on a beach, naked and afraid, with little direction on what to do or where to go. In reality, there is no ‘correct’ way to go or thing to do. Generally, players will begin to harvest resources, construct small bases, gather food, and yanno all of the typical survival tropes. However, the true sandbox nature of Ark does not come until later in the game, or through utilizing in-game commands to put the player into creative mode.
If someone wants to earn it the hard way, players must combat dinosaurs, hazardous environments, and (depending on the server type) even other players. Once that has been done and a ton of resources has been amassed, the player can truly express themselves in whatever way they desire. There are no limits on what someone can build, how many dinosaurs they can tame, or adventures they can go on.
If that seems like too much work for you, simply load up a single player world and type cheat GiveCreativeMode. After that, you will have no restrictions in terms of crafting requirements, crafting wait times, health, etc. You are simply able to build whatever you want in the pre-historic world of Ark!
Mama Persi on Steam with 36,000 hours of in-game time writes about Ark saying:
“I absolutely love this game. It encompasses all that I can expect of a survival game. Check out my hours and you will know how much I love this game.”
Oh Rust... My beloved game. I have already created an in-depth review on this masterpiece of a game, but I’ll touch a bit more on what is possible in terms of self-expression within Rust. There are certain servers (able to be found in the server browser) that title themselves ‘sandbox servers.’ These servers give all players infinite materials and turn off PvP combat. This allows everyone in the server to create whatever they please without the chance of some zerg coming and blowing up your entire base.
These sandbox servers are even better with friends. You can have build-offs, speed building competitions, or just create something wacky with your buddies. The choice is completely up to the players. These sandbox servers are a great change of pace from the typical frustration associated with official servers. They also make a great place for practicing your builds before you get into a real server, if that’s your thing. Whether you decide to play Rust in a sandbox server or on some modded/classic server, there is still no true limit as to what you can do or what direction you have to take. That is the wonderful aspect to survival games, once you ‘survive,’ you are pretty much free to do whatever you’d like!
Frzatre on Steam writes of Rust saying:
“With friends Rust is an absolutely wonderful experience. You get together, you pool your effort and resources, and you build structures and defend them as a team. There are many games out there that share similar concepts, but none of them pull it off quite like Rust does.”
The newest game on this list, Valheim, was released in early February of 2021. While some may not consider this a true sandbox game like Minecraft or Garry’s Mod, I’d argue it still falls into the same category as the two above. Sure, there is a set storyline players are supposed to follow and a lengthy list of bosses players must defeat. However, this is only a setup to the sandbox nature of Valheim. After the player has defeated all of the bosses and rightly claimed their buffs, the player is able to freely roam the lands doing as they please.
There is a ton of different stuff to do once you have beaten the game. With Valheim’s expansive building and crafting system, your imagination is the only real limit. Even better, player’s can take their beefed up Vikings to any seed they desire. This means that if you grow bored of the seed you used to defeat all of the bosses, you can transfer everything over to another seed with a whole new landscape (procedurally-generated worlds, baby). The player is free to live out their Viking days however they desire.
General Dingus on Steam writes about Valheim:
“Imagine, if you will, that Terraria and Skyrim had a baby, and that baby really liked Dark Souls.”
By now, you are probably thinking “is this guy really going to write an entire article on sandbox games and never mention Minecraft?” Well, now I will. Meet Terraria, its Minecraft but 16-bit and two-dimensional (I wonder how many Terraria players I just offended). That is definitely a bit of a generalization, but for the most part it is accurate.
There are a ton of different bosses to fight and realms to explore that differ greatly from Minecraft, but the premise is the same. You spawn in a new world, gather resources, explore, fight bosses, gather more resources, build homes, fight bosses, gather more resources… you get the point. Terraria allows the player to create their own adventure and do whatever they desire. If you want to build a massive city, go for it. If you wish to power up your character and kill every single enemy in the game, go for it. Whatever kind of freedom you are searching for in a video game, it can all be found within Terraria (unless you are looking for a third dimension, then maybe try Minecraft).
thomasdewdney18 on Steam left a review on Terraria saying:
“Awesome game with countless things to do. Very challenging and rewarding. Game requires a lot of grinding but is paid off with all the unique and cool features the game provides. Would definitely recommend this game.”
For the sticklers out there, Garry’s Mod may be the only ‘true’ sandbox game on this list. In simple terms, GMod is a physics sandbox that gives the player a ton of different tools to create whatever they like. For any game designers or programmers out there, think of it like Unity but a little less complicated.
The main appeal to GMod is the community servers. There are a bunch of different maps, game modes, and creations made by other players that are uploaded. This allows anyone to be able to download the map and play it for themselves, with or without friends. This allows players a choice of freedom as to whether they want to create their game, or simply play someone else’s game as they already did all of the work. GMod is so expansive it is hard to touch upon everything in a condensed list. The bang for your buck you get from this game is so steep that it even managed to make ESG’s Three Best Steam Games for Under 10 Dollars list.
Miss Luny on Steam lovingly writes about Gmod saying:
“Even after so many years Garry's Mod is still the best Source Engine Sandbox out there. Thanks to an endless amount of community made mods and game modes there is always something to do. Or you can just goof around with assets and see what will happen!”
This one is a bit of a stretch as a sandbox game, but hear me out. Rimworld’s core feature is an AI storyteller that impacts your gameplay. The overarching goal of Rimworld is to survive and escape the planet. Each playthrough is different depending on the way the AI interacts with you and what events it throws at you. From this, there is an unlimited potential for gameplay (reminiscent of a sandbox game, no?).
Even if you don’t buy that argument, there are still a ton of different things to do in Rimworld besides escaping the planet. Even better, there is a ‘free game’ mode in which random events are restricted and the player is free to do as they please. All of the wonderful attributes of sandbox games are applicable to Rimworld in this game mode. It is also the only top-down 2D game on the list!
Psionicer on Steam remarks about Rimworld:
“RimWorld pretty much covers all abilities and play styles, if you just want to build a base from the ground up with no real threat, making everything perfect, you can. If you want to fully fight off the AI Storyteller as they bombard you mercilessly until you crack, fold and die, you can.”
Now that you know of all the different realms that exist on Steam to express yourself in, all that is left to do now is exactly that: express yourself! Whether you want to tame massive Titanosaurs in the world of ARK or create your own game with Garry’s Mod, you’re free to do as you please with these sandbox style games!
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