By Mento 6 Comments
I'm not really a fan of the term "sandbox". As a general metaphor of "big, non-linear game world with plenty to do", it works well enough, being evocative of a child with nothing but piles of silica and their own imagination to turn it into whatever they wish. However, I feel the term is largely reductive when it comes to describing these games: Sand has no craft to it, no art, no design - in sand's case, that all has to come from the user alone (and with it, the entertainment).
These games on the other hand, have created the many diversions you're likely to come across with care, often with specifically diverse methods to entertain the player. As such, I'm more inclined to call these games toy-boxes: Like the side activities in any non-linear game, toys are built to entertain a child but in wildly varying ways, often stimulating different parts of the mind. Some require skill, some require an imagination, others require more than one person and are intended to be shared experiences, while others still are just there to make you laugh.
So with that in mind I'm going to be looking at Saints Row 2 & 3, the activities that make up so much of their total playtime (SR3's only real major failing is that it doesn't include enough of these diversions, so I'm including the much busier (for better or worse) second game) and how they compare and contrast to toys we played with as little 'uns. It's possible that the appeal of these games, concealed behind the more adult (well, sophomore, so almost) themes of gangsta turf wars and giant dildo bats, is how reminiscent they are of being back in the single digits and having a bunch of brightly colored plastic junk to play with.
The Character Editor - Barbie
A bit of an easy comparison, I suppose. While you can't really edit Barbie's physical appearance without power tools or a microwave, she does tend to have a racially diverse cast of associates of either gender that kids can choose from in much the same way Saints Row 3rd will set you off with templates to horribly mangle in the pursuit of amusing physical abnormalities.
Often regarded as a high point of any Saints Row game, the options for clothing tend to get very silly very quick. As well as having an in-game clothing store entirely owned by the Saints, there's also a "leather and lace" risqué dominatrix store, a costume shop, a Hot Topic ersatz with the very subtle name of "Nobody Loves Me" with equally subtle razorblade decor and that's not to mention the many insane suits you unlock in the main game. A not-inconsiderable amount of the game's comedy comes from how you choose to present yourself (via the sociopathic blank slate of "the Boss") in cutscenes and the like. Ostensibly, this wardrobe-raiding is the entire appeal of Barbie as well - the adventures and careers she embarks on are hinged on being dressed for the part. Two sentences is more than I've ever wanted to type about Barbie though, so moving on.
The Turf Takeovers - Monopoly
While not quite as central to its overall experience as Monopoly's journey of slum lords and financial ruin is to that game, owning property in Saints Row is still its main source of revenue and a lot of buildings serve no purpose other than to be bought by the player for long-term gain. They can also purchase stores (and rob them, either before or after buying them) and cribs, and everywhere else needs to be conquered by eliminating groups of rival gangs that are standing around doing something vaguely felonious. The non-purposeful buildings though, colored brown, tend to range from obvious Monopoly targets (such as "the power plant" or some sort of hotel) to slightly more crime-themed venues (more than a few meth labs and crackhouses).
Unfortunately, rival gangs will not attempt to reclaim their territory. Actually, I spelt "fortunately" wrong there. This is entirely a good thing, if the alternative is to suffer ACR's arbitrarily difficult Tower Defense mini-game or Godfather II's rather persistent "stop having fun and deal with this" retaliations. It's a feature of modern sandb.. uh, toybox games that designers haven't quite perfected yet: It's either a dull, unchallenged climb to the top, or an intrusive constant aggravation.
Now if only one of the starting pieces of Monopoly was a toilet, then we'd have an even stronger comparison to make.
Driving & Vehicles - Matchbox
While driving is ostensibly for getting from point A to point B in a slightly faster fashion than holding the sprint button, the game shows its creativity in the vehicles it includes for the player to use. You have an assortment of cars, bikes and trucks with all manner of in-jokes - there's a Kaneda bike, an Estrada bike and a Nordberg station wagon for starters - then start using choppers and boats and moving up to the slightly insane sci-fi gear of S.T.A.G. There's also Professor Genki's people-launcher car (which I never spotted - perhaps it's a preorder/DLC thing?), an in-game achievement for destroying 50 SmartCars (in case you thought Forza 4 was the only game this year that appeared to have Jeremy Clarkson's involvement) and some Teen Wolf craziness with a completely optional car surfing mini-game.
Matchbox, for anyone unfamiliar with the brand, were an affordable series of miniature toy cars and other vehicles (though not as miniature as Micro Machines, very much their successor) that came in tiny cases that resembled matchboxes. Of course, in Saints Row's case, the matchbox part refers to the intrinsic flammability of almost every vehicle in that world.
S.T.A.G. - GI Joe
S.T.A.G. are very much the greatest American heroes. As much a joke on how current peacekeeping forces handle international and domestic concerns (just check out the many morally okay and completely sane things such organizations are doing to Occupy Wall Street protesters) as they are about the suspiciously well-funded team of GI Joe, these white-armor-wearing military forces show up in Steelport around the halfway mark and start making things difficult for the Saints and Syndicate both with their laser rifles and hover-bikes. Opening with a wonderful "what if this was your daughter" fallacy-slash-parody speech from the Race Bannon lookalike STAG commander that neatly references one of the more questionable actions taken by the Saints' boss in SR2, STAG's sudden invasion is what picks up the game for many Saints Row die-hards who weren't too pleased to have to play through a series of semi-compulsory introductions to already familiar mainstays like Escort, Mayhem and Heli Assault.
Honestly, if Volition Inc. doesn't release scale models of the Daedalus (which really should've been called the Damocles, by the way it kind of menacingly hangs over the heads of everyone in the city. I mean, c'mon. Get your Greek mythology right, guys) and the Thermopylae for sale to easily impressed but oblivious children this Xmas, it has failed to fully capitalize on some very funny satire.
Snatch - Hungry Hungry Hippos
Now this might be a stretch, granted, but the frantic goings-on in both these games kind of neatly parallel, so as long as I avoid easy jokes about corpulent prostitutes I think this comparison can stand up. Snatch is perhaps one of the most famous, if not necessarily well-liked, "Activities" or cash/terrain/respect boosting side-missions of Saints Row. The goal is to collect hookers from a rival gang's grasp and deliver them back to a central brothel base. Complications include an arbitrary time limit (where are the hos going to go?), occasional kidnappings before you reach their hooking areas and the fact that they are incredibly slow in getting in and out of vehicles, which strikes me as a necessary skill you'd pick up after a few years of streetwalking.
Hungry Hungry Hippos, on the other hand, requires that you quickly collect all the pellet-like resources before others can. The time limit is still there, as is interference from others claiming what is rightfully yours, and the annoying way prostitutes sometimes get stuck getting into the vehicle is sort of like the annoying way that you can give your hippo lockjaw if a pellet locks itself underneath it. Plus, some of those prostitutes can be awfully corpule.. oh, dammit.
Insurance Fraud - Operation
Both these games are about hurting yourself. Well, not the explicit purpose of Operation, but the psychological conditioning from that fucking buzzer sticks with you for years. So okay, both games are really about fake medical emergencies and raising money through doing risky things with one's body. While there aren't many childrens' games that are analogous to throwing oneself in front of cars that I was able to find, for some reason, Operation at least shares the same kind of morbid sense of humor and the trepidation involved in preparing to once again throw yourself into a punishing ordeal for fat stacks of cash.
Professor Genki's Super Ethical Reality Climax - Hello Kitty
Okay, I'm running out of steam, so one last Activity. Genki is a cat-human hybrid who enjoys putting regular humans into deadly scenarios with flamethrowers, high voltage currents and armed dudes in bear, dog, bunny, can and hotdog costumes. You gain points by shooting tigers, but lose points by shooting pandas (because it's unethical, you see). It's essentially a distillation of Japan's national twin obsession with Sanrio characters and potentially lethal endurance/self-harm game shows. No reason why they can't be combined to a satisfactory degree.
Because this is super long and I'm getting too tired to come up with proper comparatives (research? second drafts? pfft, maybe if I were getting paid for these), I'll open the floor to you guys:
- What childhood pastimes were you reminded of while playing through the insanity-sprinkled features of the Saints Row games?
- Is calling this sort of game a "toy-box" any more or less insulting to one's adult sensibilities than calling them "sandboxes"?
- Was anyone else disappointed (probably should stop invoking that word if past events are any indication) that neither FUZZ nor Septic Avenger came back in SR3?
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Saints Row: The Third