Since returning from E3, I’ve spent as much time with my family as possible, and plenty of it with my son. He’s very much into gaming at the moment, and so he was interested to try out one of the freebies I brought back with me – a promotional copy of Toy Story 3 on the Xbox 360.
Now movie tie-ins, particularly those aimed at kids, are rarely anything to write home about. But Toy Story 3 is different. Sure, it has a story mode that does what story modes in these games usually do: it recreates the film’s most videogame-friendly moments with a few embellishments to fill the gaps. It’s all done reasonably well and is plenty varied, but otherwise it’s a fairly unremarkable experience.
The same can’t be said for its toybox (read: sandbox) mode. Here, you take control of either Woody, Buzz or Jessie in a small town based on the ficitional TV series Woody’s Roundup. Initially, the town is pretty sparse, but as you complete missions given to you by non-player characters – all based on characters from the three Toy Story films – you get the option to purchase new buildings or new toys, both of which bring new residents. Gradually, you unlock new areas as your borders expand, until you end up with a decently-sized open-world environment with plenty to do in it.
This might all sound familiar to fans of sandbox gaming, but how many of these games are aimed at kids? The vast majority of titles in the genre are firmly aimed at an adult audience and focused on violence. To my knowledge, Toy Story 3 is the first movie tie-in that’s attempted something like this, and for my money it succeeds admirably.
It soon becomes obvious that it’s been extensively focus-tested on a young audience. My son, like most four-year-olds, is a complete sadist, never happier than when witnessing people getting hurt on You’ve Been Framed (“the funnies”) or Total Wipeout (“the water funnies”). Only yesterday he asked me to pause the football and rewind so he could watch a player getting hit in the nether regions with the ball. So he was thrilled when Toy Story 3 decided to reward him for throwing five of the LEGO-esque townspeople in the water. He was equally happy when he found he could lob projectiles at key characters, or ride around on a dragon shooting fireballs at all and sundry.
It’s a great game to just mess about in, and with gold star rewards for silly, experimental play (like the moment he decided to avoid the nearest target with the paratrooper and dropped him into a well instead) it’s happy to let kids make their own fun if they’re not bothered about following the missions. There’s still plenty to do even if you ignore the simplistic but fun missions, and it’s remarkable how well James has taken to it given that he’s not really familiar with the films – though naturally we plan to rectify that in the coming weeks.
I can only hope that Toy Story 3 enjoys similar success to its cinematic inspiration, and that other developers see the benefits of kid-friendly sandbox gaming. It’s nice to wander around a world you’re not expected to destroy, and enjoy interacting with characters rather than shooting them to ribbons.