My first experience with ‘objectiveless’ games was Nintendo’s Animal Crossing. To those not already familiar or enamoured with it, the game is something of a hard sell: You play as a new resident (later mayor) of a small rural village and…that’s sort of it. you can fish, catch bugs, design clothes, decorate your home, fill a museum of fossils, fall to higher-education levels of debt by expanding your house and enjoy the general mix of high whimsy and anthropomorphic animal characters that Nintendo does so well. But the operative word here is ‘can.’ For all the game cares, you could spend the whole time weeding the grass and virtually staring into virtual space. Much like Pokémon before it, Animal Crossing very much feels like a tool for harassed city-dwellers to experience some Arcadian peace and tranquility in their lives, and in this aspect it shines.
That’s not to say that such games have to follow this mode. Just a few days ago Giant Army released Universe Sandbox 2 and, despite it still being very much in Alpha, received critical acclaim. Billed as a “physics-based space simulator”, it opens with a model of our solar system and the option to change just about every parameter from the force of gravity to the reflectivity of the moon. You can replace the Sun with a black hole and watch everything implode, or try to terraform Mars by shifting its position and atmospheric composition, all to the tune of suitably ambient space-y music. Even firing 57 copies of Neptune into Saturn’s rings just to see what happens is an intensely relaxing and empowering experience. Despite this, you can still channel your inner Animal Crossing villager and simply watch the planets spin, whether that be in real time or not. It achieves the same aim as the former in a very different way: the sheer scale is enough to foster escapism by reducing humanity down to, at most, a few lights on the dark side of Earth.
To these two examples I tentatively add a third category: sandboxes. Now, I never played The Sims, so allow me to use Squad’s fantastic Kerbal Space Program instead as a game with a seemingly contradictory aspect: stress. Intense relaxation has been a hallmark of Animal Crossing and Universe Sandbox 2, and neither The Sims nor KSP offer much of it. However, despite the presence of campaign-esque modes in each, they fundamentally lack objectives. Neither launching rockets nor controlling the mental and bodily functions of four individuals is easy or simple, so let’s call these the ‘hardcore’ objectiveless games to the former two’s ‘casual.’
The distinction isn’t nearly as strong in this type of games as it is in mainstream ‘objectived’ ones. After all, while there is a big difference between planting a flower in Animal Crossing and putting seven astronauts on the equivalent of Pluto in KSP, it’s also possible that you might spend your time in the former catching every fish and bug in the game; in the latter you’ll spend your whole time crashing solid rocket boosters together on the launchpad. The caveat revealed by this is that by ‘objectiveless,’ I really mean ‘without a fixed objective set by the developer(s).’ Rather than using levels, difficulty is – with the exception of bad game design – in the mind and control of the player. The challenge for the developer is offering the player the tools to create this difficulty while also making it possible for them to achieve their own goals.
Often objectiveless games can be a bit of a hard sell when compared to their more driven and explosive counterparts, especially when so much of what we pay for is solid writing and a good story. However, you shouldn’t let this put you off. The rewards from achieving your own goals, even if that’s turning Earth into a gas giant and firing it into the Sun, are likely to be much greater.