Shamus has another great article up, this time using GTAIV and Saints Row 2 to illustrate the difference between gaming on rails and games that allow the player to make choices and experiment.
I’ve written about choices in games before, and I suspect I’ll do it again, but it’s nice to see someone else doing so, and finding concrete examples to do so. I’m decidedly not a fan of this sort of game, since my inner thug is plenty (over)satiated with the mayhem and murder in MMOs and JRPGs, but the “sandbox” nature of a “toolbox” game is appealing, at least in the abstract.
Perhaps that’s why The Incredible Machine is still among my most beloved games. For me, the best games give you a goal, some tools, and allow for multiple solutions. They get bonus points for allowing players to define their own goals, and create emergent gameplay.