Soapbox: Variety Is the Spice of Gaming Life
Posted by Sammy Barker
Sammy Barker shares his taste for a good gaming buffet
We’re never ones to pass up on a game of follow-the-leader here at Push Square towers, so it was only a matter of time before we politely borrowed the soapbox format that’s been running wild over on our sister site Nintendo Life for a while now. For those of you peering voyeuristically in from the outside of our close-knit community, our intention with this series of features is to offer some personal insight into the gaming views of our network of writers. In this first edition, Push Square editor Sammy Barker discusses his long love affair with video game variety in the wake of Grand Theft Auto V’s release. Before we get started, though, we should stress that the views shared in this feature – and all future soapbox articles – reflect those of the individual editor, and not necessarily those of the website and its affiliates as a whole. We know that it’s a Twitter profile cliché, but it has to be said.
I don’t have a short attention span. If the occasion calls for it, I can set my mind to a specific task for hours on end. There’ll need to be an end goal in order for me to keep my focus in check, but I’m quite comfortable plugging away at repetitive tasks if the reward is good enough; I worked in a bar once, and the intricacies of that job involved pouring drinks for several mind-numbing hours at a time. As such, I’m comfortable with the idea of games picking a handful of mechanics and polishing them to perfection. In fact, some of my favourite titles are fairly simplistic when pulled apart – the likes of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, God of War II, and Resident Evil 4 never really reinvent themselves during the course of their campaigns. Despite this, I’ve long harboured a fondness for releases that dare to step outside of their comfort zones – and the launch of Grand Theft Auto V has forced me to rekindle that affection.
Shenmue certainly wasn’t the first game to lace its sandbox with superfluous activities, but it’s definitely the one that made me fall in love with minigames, side-quests, and subplots. I distinctly remember unwrapping my copy of the Dreamcast exclusive on a wintery Christmas morning, and swiftly submerging myself into the bustle of a small Japanese town. But it wasn’t the cutting-edge graphics, engaging storyline, or even relatable characters that forced me to fall in love with the classic – it was the mere interactivity of it all. You could peruse the goods on sale in the local convenience store, phone a computerised weather service to get an update on the upcoming outdoor conditions, and visit a local arcade. It was all very believable, and – outside of a few pivotal story instances – it allowed you to explore at your own pace. If you didn’t want to continue the plot, you could go and play Space Harrier, race a forklift truck, or enjoy a round of darts. For the year or so after that fateful winter holiday, I spent hours and hours merely messing around in Yu Suzuki’s ambitious play box. And it never got boring.
I get a similar feeling playing Grand Theft Auto V now. To be honest, I don’t rate any of the activities in Rockstar’s release very highly – but the mere fact that they’re included fills me with admiration for the game. I love the fact that if I tire of divisive antihero Trevor Phillips’ potty-mouthed rants, I can unwind with a spot of tennis in Michael de Santa’s private backyard court. The mode may do a poor job of replicating Virtua Tennis’ arcade gameplay, and the dodgy ball physics may make it difficult to get a decent rally flowing, but it offers respite from the rest of the world, and it gives me something else to do when I want a break from the crux of the campaign. The strength comes in numbers, too: fairground rides, stock market simulation, golf, triathlons – you name it, and the open world game has got it. With such a wealth of activities on offer, I’m finding myself wandering from one minigame to another like a sweet-toothed child in Willy Wonka’s fictional chocolate factory.
I’m aware that this approach has its setbacks. For starters, few developers have the time or budget to construct worlds on the same scale as Yu Suzuki or Rockstar. The former was one of the top dogs at SEGA around the time of Shenmue’s conception, and the developer was subsequently able to break the bank on the adventure – even if it was a little too ambitious for its time. Meanwhile, the latter has the backing of a billionaire dollar brand – no one’s going to stop the studio from delaying its next title while it adds a dozen more pages to an in-game web browser. This is, of course, a luxury that most studios would never obtain. United Front Games certainly tried to push the boat out with Sleeping Dogs, but while the title was praised for its core game mechanics and structure, it never quite lived up to Grand Theft Auto on the content front. The same could be said about virtually every other open world game deployed this generation, from Just Cause 2 to inFAMOUS.
The other issue is that the abundance of distractions can break the flow of an otherwise well told plot. Grand Theft Auto V prides itself on its narrative, but I already feel like I’ve broken it on a number of occasions. For example, there’s a point in the game where you need to complete a couple of activities to rob a local jewellery store. Without spoiling things, there’s a lot of urgency on this job as you need to repay a rather large debt. However, rather than performing the necessary actions to get the heist in motion, I just couldn’t help kicking back at the local golf course. This probably says more about my own misguided understanding of prioritisation – and it’s hard to fault the game for my own reckless lack of urgency – but it does demonstrate how freedom can sometimes represent a negative. By the time I got back to preparing for the heist, I’d forgotten what I was supposed to be doing – and this is an issue that I’ve encountered in other open world experiences.
But while I’m well aware of the dangers like an overweight person addicted to Burger King, I still find myself gorging on this style of game. I came to the Yakuza franchise quite late, but just like Shenmue before it, the SEGA published brand scratched a similar type of itch. The environments in Toshihiro Nagoshi’s scum-infested series are a lot smaller than any Western sandbox game, but the variety is just as compulsive. From fishing to pachinko machines, the property is packed with optional activities – Yakuza 4 even included a couple of character-specific simulation minigames where you manage a hostess bar and train an apprentice in a small rundown dojo. In this series in particular, the minigames are particularly poor – but I still couldn’t stop my stomach from performing somersaults when I recently read that the upcoming Yakuza Ishin will feature a full agricultural side-mode that will allow you to grow crops, care for animals, and sell your vegetables at market. If it follows in the footsteps of the rest of the series, I know that this pastime will be about as much fun as chewing on glass and washing the blood out with lemon juice, but I feel more excited for the PlayStation 4 title knowing that the superfluous side-mode is being included alongside the main single player campaign.
I think that what it ultimately comes down to is novelty. As a youngster in the early 90s, I owned a dodgy toy known as a TV Boy that plugged directly into the television. The device featured a d-pad, a large round button, and over a hundred games based upon an unlicensed clone of the Atari 2600 hardware. It was awful; despite the enormous roster of different titles, you could count on one finger the number of experiences that were playable for more than five minutes – Ice Polo, a rip-off of Activision’s awesome Ice Hockey, in case you’re curious – but I still spent hours simply cycling through the enormous list of games sampling all of the different mechanics. There were bad versions of River Raid, Pitfall, and Dancing Plate all in one place, and I was able to switch between them all at my own leisure. Even at the time I knew that I could play a better game on our family Mega Drive or Super Nintendo, but that would be limiting myself to the selection of ten or so titles that we had in our library. Why would I do that when I had access to over a hundred on my crude plug-and-play plastic plaything?
And I suspect that it’s the same feeling that forces me to fall in love with these open world games. I could probably have more fun playing Top Spin 4 than the tennis mode in Grand Theft Auto V, and certainly get more out of Hot Shots Golf: World Invitational than Rockstar’s cringeworthy take on Tiger Woods – but I simply can’t shake the appeal of having all of the disparate mechanics at my fingertips at any one time. I understand that minigames aren’t conducive to all types of experiences, and that it takes a special developer to pull all of these ideas into a single cohesive whole. But that won’t stop me from getting giddy when Grand Theft Auto VI implements some kind of Cooking Mama derivative, or when Yakuza 6 allows me to go out litter-picking around Kamurocho. After all, variety is very much the spice of life.
Do you have a fondness for the kind of minigames that get stuffed into series’ such as Grand Theft Auto, or would you prefer developers to focus on a smaller selection of mechanics? Register a vote in our poll to share your opinion, and don’t forget to write a comment to give us a little more insight into your opinion.
Do you enjoy titles with lots of optional activities? (36 votes)
Yes, the variety is the very best thing about open world games
I like minigames, but only if they’re of a high quality
No, I’d rather developers focused on a smaller set of mechanics
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