Sunday, June 14, 2009

Review: LittleBigPlanet

Media Molecule


LittleBigPlanet was released in late October last year, making its inclusion in this first May issue of Critic questionable, if we’re still pretending to keep up with the new media releases. But in our defence, it has taken a few months for the game to settle down, in a sense, for the crowd-sourced content to reach past a saturation of dick jokes and approach something resembling quality.

Not to say that the single-player mode – stripped back with a designer’s eye for simplicity to pre-Super Mario Bros. controls – isn’t a bucket-load of joy in itself. The game sure is fun, and zipping through the fifty or so levels put together by people paid to transform design documents into virtual superstructures is a hell of a way to spend an evening, but the fun really starts when you shrug off the shackles of developer / consumer hierarchy and download a shared level from a fellow gamer. Life at the bottom of the distribution pyramid has never been this much fun.

Media Molecule, in an extended fit of designer pique, threw a couple of layers of authorship onto the game disc, and both the single-player jaunt and the inclusion of the robust level-design toolsets are equally elegant. There’s an almost overwhelming profusion of things you can create using a simple dual-analogue controller, but the sheer fact you can publish your finished (and partially finished) creations for the rest of the PSN-connected world to share is reason enough to invest a few hours in the game. Play. Create. Share. The tagline says it all.

This is a big step for console games, although one with which PC gamers will be much more familiar. Bethesda, for example, has offered toolsets to each of its Elder Scrolls games for the past ten years; Counter-Strike had its roots in a heavy mod of the Half-Life engine. The primacy of modding on computers over consoles was partially because of the need for complex controllers, input devices, and internal storage, but it’s been happening for a long time. Hell, even before Quake offered level editors, there were unofficial (but tacitly supported) mods of Doom remade with The Simpsons character sprites and sound effects, hackable at its most basic level for anyone proficient enough in MS Paint to put a smiley face on every single brick texture.

But we’re not exactly talking about mods, here. LittleBigPlanet does offer that capability, of course – you can alter the ready-made levels at will, but why would you want to stop there? Why not set up a Gradius clone side-scrolling shooter, or make a working calculator as part of your level, anything but the predictable (and soon-to-be-redacted) penis levels. Or, if you’re still mired in cupcake SNES nostalgia, knock up the inevitable SMB 1-1 map. But like the ‘offensive’ levels, that will get pulled by Sony’s team of copyright infringement police soon enough – better to invest your time in a little bit of real creation. Make Tolstoy happy: transmit some feelings, make your level the vector for an emotional state. Art is infectiousness, after all.

As such, short of comparing LittleBigPlanet to the latest outbreak of H1N1, I can’t say enough about the game. Suffice it to say that my magnum opus of a level, set in the beige confines of the Critic office, is almost complete. A storm of diatribe submissions battle for the player’s attention; errant apostrophes, misplaced semi-colons and the ever-hazardous em-dashes rain down in a hail of doom. Sackboy teeters on the edge of a precipice throughout; the dual and opposing chasms of journalism and academic life await on either side. It is not until the player reaches the back left-hand corner of the office that he or she realises the banal and atrocious existence of the black hole where time itself cannot escape. Also, it turns out the princess is in another castle.

[This review first appeared in Critic magazine.]

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