LittleBigPlanet is, like the beleaguered Spore, a toolset, disguised as a game, that could offer nothing more and still be worth the asking price. And like Spore, LittleBigPlanet will remain relevant for a very long time; you will be reading about it this time next year.
This is how LittleBigPlanet is described in most, if not all, spaces. It is unfortunate, because LittleBigPlanet shoots for a lot more than user-driven novelty. In fact, it brings innovation to a genre that has remained largely unexplored since the end of the SNES era, along with a bit of charm that is not to be underestimated. It dives headfirst into the world of creation, which is, after all, what video games are about, and cheerfully beckons us to follow along with it. And so we do.
Many years ago, console manufacturers developed the ability to render three-dimensional spaces, and for the next decade or so, gamers lived in the New World of 3D. It was clumsy but impressive, and eventually game developers mastered it and created things like Prince of Persia and God of War. Meanwhile, side-scrolling games fell out of favor and out of scope for all but the most budget-minded studios.
Now, suddenly, we have LittleBigPlanet, which is both a side-scroller and three-dimensional, due to its Z-axis mechanic. This simple feature, which plays simply, opens up possibilities that are at first trivial but turn out to be extraordinary.
At first, the ability to move between planes is simply charming. Sackboy ducks behind trees to discover a barely-visible collectible and dashes around the front of a skateboard so he can clamber aboard. It’s simple and it works. But the levels continue to evolve. It was not until I reached the spinning maze in the ice world that I realized what was going on. The game was teaching me to understand its levels in three-dimensions, and, as it progressed, I went from scurrying behind bushes to running races that required me to ascend a single-screen mountain in less than thirty seconds. (It’s trickier than it sounds.)
Like Mirror’s Edge, LittleBigPlanet is not without its faults. The jumping takes some getting used to, and the platforming can be spotty at times. Yet to look at LittleBigPlanet‘s platforming and disregard it on a formulaic basis would be, again as with Mirror’s Edge, to miss the point. Perhaps, then, it is sheer cleverness on Media Molecule’s part that most people will play through the story mode without getting the point.
I suspect that it is alright for them. The story mode is, after all, simply the result of paying level designers to sit in a room for a year or so and use the level creation tools to make something. Now those tools have been put into the world, and the possibilities are endless. One must not only look forward to ingenious remakes of Gradius and Shadow of the Colossus, but ingenious innovations on the sophistication brought to the side-scrolling platformer by the story mode levels. It’s a future we can’t help but look forward to.
In the meantime, we can’t help but wonder what all the fuss is about. It certainly is astonishing that a big budget game has turned out to be one of the most innovative side-scrollers in years. But as you play through it, or wade through the user levels online, it can be hard to shrug off a tiny voice that says, “Is this it? Is there nothing more?” Keep playing (don’t worry, you will) and eventually you will discover LittleBigPlanet‘s second great accomplishment: charm.
We are, as gamers, seemingly obsessed with melancholy. The biggest games, the Gears of War-s, Metal Gear Solid-s, and Fallout-s all share one thing in common: they cast the player into rather oppressive spaces. But LittleBigPlanet isn’t just happy (it’s no Mario). In fact, it has moody set pieces and spooky levels and sometimes there is even blood. But there is also a sense of joy, of unbridled delight, present throughout the entire game. It begins with the British narrator’s jolly introduction and continues all the way through to the children’s-storybook ending.. There is this way in which the game is so earnest, so innocent, that when you dress your little Sackboy in a Roman suit of armor and have him take on a worried expression, you simply must smile. It’s affectatious and powerful
‘Charm’ is the easiest, and best, way to describe LittleBigPlanet‘s secret ingredient. But like with the Z-axis mechanic, this charm has been pushed out into the world for the users to mess with. So when our British narrator happily explains that LittleBigPlanet is a space for the creativity of the entire world to manifest itself, he’s very much telling the truth. To create a LittleBigPlanet level is not to rearrange assets from the single-player game. It’s to share yourself and your vision.
Part of this is due to the overwhelming number of things there are to build with, but part of it is also due to the inherent charm of those pieces. When everything comes together, and you publish your level, you are putting your voice out there in a way no message board post ever could. You are telling the world who you are, and when you play another level, you are learning – not only to platform but about the person who made it. It’s an intimate connection that is not immediately apparent and is elusive in its description. But it’s there, and when you play a good level, or even make your own, you know it immediately. In short, LittleBigPlanet brings the power of creation, of self-expression, and the self-discovery that comes with it, heretofore locked to all but the most clever (or lucky) programmers and designers, to everyone.
Good poetry, Sir Philip Sidney wrote, teaches and delights. Perhaps it is overstating the matter to suggest that LittleBigPlanet is a good game for the same reason. On the other hand, it very likely is not.