By Mento 4 Comments
All right, let's get this show back on the road. If you haven't read it yet, Part 1 is over here. I'd recommend doing so if you want any idea what is even going on with this "toybox" business. In short, I'm deliberately sabotaging anyone's capacity to understand what the heck I'm talking about for a quixotic crusade to get people to refer to the very specific sub-genre of non-user-generated-content sandbox games as "toyboxes" instead. Also I'm putting together a hypothetical paragon of the genre from of a composite of its extant peers. The blog's mostly the latter, if I'm being honest. But enough rambling, it's time to delve into four more aspects of what makes a toybox tick:
Whatever the game might call them, these are the meat and potatoes of any toybox game: The individual toys themselves. Generally speaking, a game will introduce a new gameplay feature in the main story and allow the player to try additional iterations of that feature through a bunch of optional side-missions scattered across the world. For instance, it's not long after the first instance of the camera hacking mini-game in Sleeping Dogs that the "Drug Bust" side-missions become available. Ditto with the street races. Of course, there are times where a goofy side-mission might be incongruous with the serious nature of the story (I seem to recall GTA: San Andreas's plot being a lot more dour than its "jetpacking fat CJ" extra-curricular activities would suggest) and would tend to exist entirely outside the main narrative, almost as a form of optional levity. Ideally, side-missions are a way to take what already exists in the game's engine (driving, shooting, melee combat, etc.) and allow players to have their fill of them beyond what meagre portions the story had to offer. If they have a bit of fun with them in the process, so much the better.
Only one game has really created such a diverse range of side-activities that they became (for better or worse, since they weren't always optional) to be more vital to the core game experience than the story missions themselves, and that's Saints Row 2. I promise this'll be my last visit to Volition's (so far) trilogy of gangsta paradises, at least for this exercise. Saints Row 2, far more so than its antecedent and descendent, created a hilarious and varied selection of activities with which to earn cash and "respect" between missions. It's a shame Saints Row: The Third felt the need to pare down the number of these, keeping ones that perhaps would be best left behind. I sorely missed the sheer manic fun of the Fuzz activities, the childish poop humor of Septic Avenger and the celebrity-approved sheer sociopathy of Crowd Control. I'm not saying Saints Row 2's approach to "you must complete X number of activities until we allow you continue the story" was really the ideal way of ingratiating these diversions to the player, but they certainly made it an easier pill to swallow by having so many of the things to lose oneself in. Clearly this hypothetical construct we're stitching together from whatever's available from the local graveyard won't use the exact same activities as SR2, but having such a wide range and presenting them as the selling point (without making them mandatory!) is really what I'm after here. A strong narrative with twists and turns is dandy and all, but let's not kid ourselves: The mark of a good toybox is one that affords plenty of opportunities to let players romp around and find their own fun.
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of any toybox game is how there's usually a series of collectible knick-knacks hiding around the world for the player to find. Unlike activities, collectibles tend to be as simple to attain as walking over a package or punching a flying rat in the beak. The challenge is in locating all of them, which becomes something of an embroidery kit in a hayloft in practice. The preferable course of action when designing this feature, which is to have some way of allowing the player to actually see these things on the mini-map, doesn't massively improve the experience as it mostly reduces the process to spending an hour or so going from map icon to map icon to ensure that part of the 100% completion percentage is dealt with. There are folks who like a good scavenger hunt (myself included) and it's a feature that's fairly easy for designers to stick in the game, which would explain their ubiquity, but for most players it's an aspect that's eminently inessential.
Because almost every toybox has one, I'm going to go with Fallout 3's approach. Fallout 3's collectibles, the ludicrous Vault Boy bobbleheads, gave you plenty of reason to want to chase after these dorky little things - some very useful stat and skill bonuses - and put them in places that, while not exactly concealed, tended to challenge the players in various ways. One might require that you steal them from right under the nose of an NPC, necessitating the use of stealth, while another might be hidden deep in the territory of a family of Deathclaws. What I'm taking away from this is the idea that a series of collectibles ought to A) be earned rather than simply stumbled upon, B) confer something useful to the player in terms of stats or some other desirable benefit and C) be at least somewhat limited in number to preferably a dozen or so, if only to cut down on the amount of time it takes to hunt them all down as well as providing some intrinsic rarity and value behind each one. I'm not going to bat an eye if it's one in a set of 500, as I've probably been seeing them everywhere already.
All that said, I'd have no issue with Bethesda if they decided to put some hundred-strong collectible series in Skyrim to give people a reason to keep playing after their level is maxed out and they're wearing all the best gear. A cheap ploy, perhaps, but effective for virtual kleptos like myself.
This aspect of a toybox game can be so much fun when done right. When driving around any given toybox city, the player has a plethora of radio stations to listen to each with their own specific musical genre to suit whatever musical taste the player might have. For eclectic souls like myself, I generally left it on whichever station was default for that particular vehicle. To be perfectly honest I don't generally pay much attention to them, but with one exception: When they took the time to inject some personality and humor in the presenters behind the radio shows.
I feel Grand Theft Auto is the king of this. The various ways they'd create an utterly banal or deeply subversive radio personality and let the voice actors play it perfectly straight was a masterstroke of the satirical humor the series was once known for, before it became a little too bogged down with sober tales of morality. I must've been playing RDR for a considerable time before I realised why the between-town commutes were less fun than they had been in other Rockstar games: Horses don't have radios built into their necks. That game still had some fun with the various encounters you'd have on the road along the way, but it just couldn't match just driving down the freeway listening to some conceited worldly explorer strongly hint at their latent pedophilia. If I could get the Onion News Network to record a news station for this speculative game, I think I'd probably spend hours just driving around in circles listening to it. Well, fly in circles.
Just Plain Ol' Messing Around
Some players just want to watch the world burn. Or watch its physics to crap out and send airliners crashing out of the sky, or send pedestrians flying through the air at the merest hint of a collision. Others want to have a grand old time testing the limits of this world they're in, whether it's performing a flying kick on a speeding bus coming right at them or seeing how long they can survive on a roof with an infinitely-stocked rocket launcher and an entire battalion of pissed off military personnel on the street below.
Of course, if your game is well put-together, there'll probably be fewer instances of the physics engine misbehaving and creating the sort of watercooler conversations that games like GTA: San Andreas did, if that were the thing people discussed around watercoolers instead of Grey's Anatomy and that one reality TV show where all the people sing while cooking. But even without the random weird shit that went on in that game (which was exacerbated even further with the very creative mods that game's PC community had put together in the interim) there was still plenty of random mischief to be had with the tools that already existed. However, I'm going to throw in my lot (and about time, since it was the inspiration for this blog in the first place) with Sleeping Dogs for its benchmarking meta-game. As depicted in the Quick Look, many of the dumb things you can get up to when you aren't actively pursuing a particular goal are tracked and compared to those of your peers. Seeing that a friend has performed more flying kicks in a row than you have gives you ample reason to outdo them, even if they're totally unaware that this progress was being tracked or that you've sworn to overtake them. So many imaginary rivalries spring up as you're playing which can't help but enhance the game in some pathetically petty way. I seriously doubt uffled by my mad dash to get all the gold stat awards before he could. I would go so far as to assume that he didn't even notice. But whatever, man, I fucking won. Suck it.
So there we have it. Thoroughly examining the eight pillars of the toybox has provided this theoretical game blueprint: A light-hearted goofy tale with a stable of playable characters that explore and perform missions in a sprawling science-fiction vertical city with their choice of hovering conveyances blaring satirically silly radio broadcasts, completing a bevy of fun tasks and looking for game-enhancing collectibles on the side, and all the while the player is having their absurd antics stacked up against those of their friends. I'd play that. Get to craftin', devs.
Talking of hastily cobbled together creations, it's time for...