Friday, October 31, 2008

LittleBigPlanet: Impressions of a New, Yet Familiar, World

As I have mentioned, LittleBigPlanet was the reason I bought a PS3. Therefore, I would be remiss without offering my thoughts on the game. I refrain from calling this a review, as I am of the mind that to truly review something takes time; possibly even multiple play-throughs, but at least more than a week of serious reflection. I can offer some early impressions though, with the possibility of starting a bigger discussion or even revisiting them in the future for a proper "review."

Let's go planet-side:

1. "Standing on the Shoulders of Giants:" The Gameplay of LBP

Hanah astutely noted that the packaging and appearance of LBP is surprisingly deceptive. Sackboy's cuddly demeanor and enchanting world belie gameplay that is both traditional and challenging. At its core, playing LittleBigPlanet is like playing the wacky love-child of Super Mario and the Prince of Persia. Sackboy can run, jump, grab, and swing. While this move set may seem quaint by today's standards, the levels test these moves in almost every way imaginable, in almost endless iterations.

LittleBigPlanet is a game aware of its roots. The first level is full of over-sized mushrooms, and later levels see Sackboy speeding through narrow tunnels while grabbing rings (excuse me, orbs) along the way. For a gamer like me, this is the sublime: a set of simple, yet versatile actions that the player must apply in inventive and skillful ways. No formal leveling up is necessary to succeed; only personal improvement with the skills learned in the first level will see you through the experience.

This kind of toughness is not often seen in modern games and is definitely not for everyone. LBP the quintessential platformer. Its stripped down nature draws attention to level design and the rules of the environment: the player is forced to test Sackboy's limits as well as their own. How far can Sackboy really jump? How wide does that ledge need to be? Will my momentum swing me high enough to reach that platform? With enough practice, the answers to these questions become instinctual, giving modern players a taste of what things were like back in the old days. Perhaps most importantly, the player can now apply these skills towards the creative process.

2. "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands:" Level Creation

I try not to get hyperbolic on the site, as I think it undermines rational analysis, so believe me when I say that I have never seen anything like LBP's level creator. It is so robust, so comprehensive, and so malleable that it actually may be faster to describe what you cannot do with the system as opposed to what you can do. Everything a player sees in the game can eventually be used, giving the player nearly as much power to design levels as the game's developers. I have played an underwater exploration level that uses a series of jet packs as scuba gear as well as a castle siege level complete with catapult.

The amount of freedom to be had in the level creator is both amazing and paralyzing. Starting a level from scratch has been a daunting process for me, as it is clear that creating something that is appealing from a gameplay and an artistic perspective requires days, weeks, and even months of work. The game renews my respect for visionaries like Shigeru Miyamoto who started scratch with even fewer historical precedents. LBP may be the best example yet for the "games as art" movement: creating a great level takes skill, ingenuity, creativity, and perseverance. If the combination of those traits does not yield art, nothing does.

3. "Evidence of Intelligent Design:" The LBP Experience

It is clear that, in designing LBP, Media Molecule were painstakingly deliberate in their design choices. No part of the game, from the menus, to the animation, to the narration is an afterthought. Craftsmanship like this does not happen every day, and it is wonderful to behold when it does.

That being said, the game is not without its shortcomings. The multi-layered platforming can sometimes be hindrance to a level's momentum. It is quite irritating to be stuck in the foreground or accidentally jump into the background. The mechanic of having a layered side-scroller is novel though, and serves to give the game more depth than traditional 2D fare (both literally and metaphorically).

Considering the game's overarching theme, dreams, it is not surprising that Sackboy's jumps are floaty. Sackboy's movements fit with the game's fantastic, ethereal theme. While the jumping may have benefited form some tightening, I think the overall feel is purposely different from other classic sidescrollers. Sackboy is not Mario, he is not Sonic, he is not Simon Belmont, and therefore he does not control like them. Once I accepted this and started learning the rules and mechanics of the game rather than trying to superimpose my preconceptions, the jumps magically got easier.

4. "What Dreams May Come:" Closing Thoughts

LBP is a title that gives me confidence in the future of video games. It draws from a solid foundation of great influences, embraces contemporary techniques, and strives to innovate. The effort MediaMolecule put into their work is readily apparent, and the powerful tools available to players makes me think that this game will be around for a long time.

I argue that LBP is a game about evolution, even more so than Spore. LBP inherits its basic DNA from the classic games that came before it, but the potential for mutation and growth is built into its structure. LBP is one of those games that could potentially go on forever, and I cannot wait to see what the future holds for Sackboy.

No comments:

Post a Comment