Recently I finished my first playthrough of Fallout: New Vegas (yes, 2010 does say hello, thanks), and in addition to being an amazing game, it shows how to do a player-story in a sandbox amazingly well. Possibly better than any game I’ve ever played, actually (this feeling is very likely enhanced thanks to just finishing the GW2 player story, which, um, F:NV it is not…)
The key is that while what you do matters and is important, the world does not simply wait for you, and it feels like things are happening around you rather than always because of you. It’s fantastic the more I think about it. Some of the examples here around going to be spoilers, so if you have not played the game and hate spoilers… well read the post anyway.
The first half of the main story is finding out who the guy that shot you in the head is, and why he robbed you of the platinum chip. It explains why you are in a small random town out in the waste, and connects you with one of the game’s more important characters (you were hired by Mr. House, the big guy in Vegas). It gives you a goal, but the goal is not immediately “save the world”. Compare this to Skyrim, where in the first 5 minutes dragons happen and after 30min, you are The One.
While you are chasing the guy who shot you, you very quickly notice that the real big event in New Vegas is a war between the NCR and Caesar’s Legion. Some characters really care about this, others just don’t want to be in the crossfire, and some can’t be bothered at all. In a way, this very much reflects how you can approach things as well. You can strongly side with either faction, or screw with both and do your own thing. The game’s story handles all three choices very well, and in very different ways.
Once you reach Vegas itself along the main storyline, things switch from finding the guy who shot you to figuring out how the war is going to affect Vegas and its many factions. Rather than becoming the savior here, you instead play somewhat of a side role and align things based on your decisions. The war, and the big battle, is going to happen regardless, but you can help shape it. That to me is quintessential sandbox vs the solo-hero design of most sRPGs or even themepark MMOs.
Another small example that really stuck out to me was meeting Mr. House. If you go against his plan, he first tries to logically explain why you are making a mistake, and only when you REALLY insist on being a dick does he somewhat lose his composure and start getting angry. It’s a great example of you not being The One, but just some random person in a very big world with very big characters. Mr. House just wants you to play your little part so he can move on with being important, rather than shaping all of his plans around you (again, contrast this with Skyrim and being The One, and how all city leaders react to you).
If you decide to kill Mr. House, his final words are that all his planning is undone, and the area is doomed because it is losing someone special and retaining some small-fry (you). (Which ends up being accurate as Yes Man ultimately reprograms himself at the end, which was a great twist I just spoiled for you.)
There are countless other examples, but hopefully you get my point. Fantastic game overall, and made more so by the brilliant design of the world, and what role you play in it.