Blood and Sandbox

Blood and Sandbox
The gaming industry likes to define itself in terms of hardware generations, but actual gamers experience it via software that evolves along its own parallel path. Many game genres have added true-to-life physics and high-def graphics, but are essentially unchanged since the '80s. Sandbox gaming, which first emerged in 1984 with the pioneering yet primitive computer game Elite but evolved into an entirely different creature in late 2001 with the groundbreaking Grand Theft Auto III, was as much of a leap forward as gaming's transition from two dimensions to three.

Before open-world gaming, programmers essentially built a maze that you trundled through. But technological advancements fundamentally deconstructed what a videogame was ― instead of programming events to happen at specific intervals, one had to program for the possibility of all events happening at any interval. It allowed the player to run wild in the code ― here is our world, have at it. Initially, cultural critics were appalled ― not grasping that Rockstar hadn't made a violent game per se, but merely created the possibility of violence. What made it so disturbing was that it gave gamers free agency.

Some have griped that sandbox gaming is an unfinished experience, but you might as well apply the same logic to criticizing a SuperSoaker, or a soccer ball, for that matter. Over the past decade many of the most interesting, culture-defining games ― from Mass Effect to Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion ― have been sandbox games and that trend continues this spring with two games that best embody the different Eastern and Western approaches to the medium.

Just Cause 2, by Swedish developers Avalanche, is a full-on toy box title. Though there is a story ― you play black-ops agent Rico Rodriguez airdropped onto a small Southeast Asian island-nation to overthrow its tin despot ― it's mostly an excuse to wreak havoc and cause chaos with a grappling hook, parachute and an endless supply of small arms. The creators have abandoned the quasi-revolutionary underpinnings of the first game ― this time you're assassinating a world leader because he "won't take Uncle Sam's calls" ― but added so many environments, missions, possible game options that it feels like you could play almost indefinitely. The gorgeous graphics are put to work realizing sandy deserts, tropical jungle and snowy mountains for you to wander at will ― 368 total locations, including a ski resort, a floating strip club and a hidden WWII Japanese base ― joining various factions, following the main storyline or just blowing shit up while driving cars, boats, trains or even a Boeing 737. The secret weapon in its do-anything arsenal is the chaos system that awards you points for each every destructive act.

Yakuza 3, the hidden gem of a game I expect to be near the top of my year-end best-of list, uses a more linear open-world structure. While there are over a hundred side-missions, sub-scenarios and mini-games to keep you off the main storyline, it even takes its sweet meandering through charmingly quotidian activities. This is one of the most Japanese games ever made. There wasn't even a plan to ever release it in North America, so there was no catering to American tastes. Even the cut scenes are Japanese with English subtitles. (Sega controversially removed some content deemed too Japanese, including hostess clubs and a Japanese history quiz show and a mahjong mini-game.) Sega Japan apparently consider sandbox gaming as more of a life sim. So this game about ex-Japanese gangster Kazuma Kiryu doesn't just involve street fights and shooting sprees. Having left the Tojo Clan, you participate in his new life running an orphanage in Okinawa. Hours of the game are spent tending to the kids, mediating their disputes, cooking them dinner and helping them fight off bullies.

Its sounds deadly dull, but it's not ― it's an always-fascinating game, whether fighting off thugs outside a ramen shop, fishing on the beach, wandering the neon-drenched streets Kamurocho, playing golf with a local city councillor, dropping coins at the Sega arcade, buying a CC Lemon drink at the convenience store, getting some action at a Tokyo love hotel, starring in a samurai movie or even, yes, blogging, Yakuza 3 lets you truly get involved in the Kaz's life outside of the main storyline about a confluence of corrupt politicians and gangsters trying to shut down your orphanage to put up a resort and American military base.

The more time one spends in an open-world ― be it as non-linear as Just Cause 2 or as story-driven as Yakuza 3 ― the more it becomes clear that sandbox is simply the purest form of modern gaming. By giving each player the power to shape their own unique experience, it completed gaming's evolution from reactive to truly interactive.