Among Sandboxes there is a genre unto itself which is more or less defined by titles like Grand Theft Auto and Saints Row. This style of open city rampage leaves the door open for a sophisticated life and crime simulator in the former case, and a ridiculous, rampaging romp in the latter (with a little bit of overlap). However I believe we can do one better, with Durarara!!, an anime/light novel series literally dying to be adapted into this kind of game. Believe you me, if it were to be made, it would be the greatest sandbox of all time. Oh, and it is set in Tokyo’s Ikerburo district. WARNING: some spoilers for the anime to follow.
Let me give you a brief rundown of the story, and it will quickly become apparent how brilliant an adaptation can be made from it. First of all, there are three central protagonists, a little like GTA 5, but more narratively focused as they are each other’s best friends. We have the shy boy Ryuganime who is new to Tokyo, his street smart, rebellious and flirtatious childhood friend Kida and the quiet, lonely girl Sonohara. In the beginning Kida simply shows Ryuganime around town but it quickly becomes obvious that he is hiding a darker past, as they continually meet a multitude of shady characters with unclear relationships to Kida.
As the story progresses we come to find that not only Kida, but all the main three are not at all like we had initially suspected. Slowly their respective secret lives become entwined until, before they know it, a gang war is brewing and our three heroes are all heavily and unavoidably involved. Our three factions include the Yellow Scarves; a standard Saint’s Row style gang identified by their colour. Next we have The Dollars; an underground network of people who use a secret website to communicate and coordinate and act. They are a little like the real-world group ‘Anonymous’ if instead of hacking they took to the streets. Finally there’s the Slasher faction, a group of hypnotised individuals who are controlled by a possessed sword and are connected via a hive mind. There are also significant forces at work which sway the balance of power, like the mysterious Headless rider, and the superhumanly-strong Shizuo. And, with every step taken, the mastermind Izaya sits like Light Yagame, pulling the strings in an ever increasing constriction of the city.
Clearly there is a huge amount to take into consideration when making a game out of this, which explains why the only efforts so far have been the standard Visual Novel adaptations which most popular anime receive. However I have a clear plan for how stories strengths could be utilised in order to create the most varied and narratively sophisticated, sandbox ever. First of all the player should be given the option of playing as either one of the main characters. This is because a large amount of the story hinges on the actions taken by these three, leading to them each becoming heavily involved in one of the three different gangs. This would allow for a similar style of missions to Saints Row, wherein you take missions based on the various gangs in the city (dealing with them or expanding your own) and there is plenty of source material to allow for interesting missions. For example a Slasher mission could involve the scene where one of the main guys sneaks into the Yellow Scarves’ Base to eavesdrop on their leader, only to be found out and have to make a daring escape. Like in Saints Row you could gain patches of lan every time you complete the respective mission.
The interesting thing about the three character dynamic is that by viewing the story through the lens of just one of the protagonists it is difficult to see the reasons behind all the occurrences, and the shocking revelations will be entirely out of left field. Why are the Yellow Scarves attacking the Dollars? Who is the Headless Rider supporting? Who is the Leader of the anonymous Dollars, what does it even mean to be their Leader? All these questions will have different probable answers depending on whose perspective you see it from. This will not only make you eager to find out what happens next, but it’ll also make you question your very motives for continuing in the first place when a sudden revelation changes your perspective entirely. As you slowly begin to peace the clues together you’ll lead up to the final confrontation really caring for the fates of everyone involved, and have a key insight into why it matters to your character.
Furthermore the veil of ignorance which clouds the judgement of the characters minds could lead to a neat multiple endings mechanic, as your decisions influence the way your faction decides to react, leading either to peace or war. The role of Izaya, the crooked information dealer, would be perfect for making your decisions difficult, as his opinion is often significant but not necessarily trustworthy. This association of Izaya and informed action could be brilliantly emphasised in the players mind in the game world by having him as the voice of all tutorial messages, via cell phone (after all if you don’t know something, you call the information dealer to find out).
Adding yet more layers to the game would be the fact that the main 3 are all in High School. This could allow for a great little High School sim component along the lines of Persona 4, where the day could be spent establishing relationships in school, and the night exploring the city and doing missions. This would also allow for the difficulty curve to rise in line with the seriousness of the story’s conflict. In the beginning the emphasis on High School could lull the player into a false sense of security before things suddenly start to come undone and the intensity of violence increases causing the missions and city exploration to take precedence. In addition, playable interludes featuring the side stories and otherworldly characters like the headless rider could add further variety and depth to the world. How awesome would it be traipsing around the city destroying stuff with Shizuo’s amazing strength or driving up the side of building’s with the black motorcycle of the Headless Rider? These interludes would also work well in the introductory phases as the danger would appear to be separate from the lives of the protagonists, but the player would still have interesting things to do before the three are drawn into the conflict.
Really though, what would make this game stand out is just how remarkably interesting its main characters and their respective factions are. Playing as each would be an incredibly different experience both in terms of gameplay and perspective on the story. You could be beating up suspected Dollars as the Yellow Scarves in one playthrough completely changing gameplay style by seamlessly co-operating via instant message with your unknown Dollar brethren to help a young girl escape from the Slashers in the next. Then when you came to play that part of the section from the other sides perspective you would be astounded at how sympathetic their actions given their circumstances.
Really there is limitless potential to create a truly great sandbox out of Durarara!!, and I’ve only been talking about the first three Light Novels (out of seven so far). This franchise is screaming for a game that fully takes advantages of the source material and if one isn’t made it will be a travesty. In the mean time you can get yourself up to speed by watching the anime for free over on Crunchyroll, and before long you will see, just like me, exactly why this game has to be exist.