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December 2008

Prince of nada

Prince_top Count me among those who find the new Prince of Persia a joy to play. I love its try-fail-try again approach, and while I'm not sure I see the direction Ubisoft took with this game as revolutionary, it's certainly a breath of fresh air in the platforming genre. I love the art direction; love the in-the-zone feel of stringing together acrobatic combos; love the character models and overall vibe of the game. Prince of Persia is a gem of a game that you should see and play.

What I don't love is the story, and what I really, really don't love is the Prince, who seems to be Prince of nothing, as far as I can tell. It's a shame that Ubisoft invested so little original thinking in the narrative aspects of this game, especially given its bold and controversial revisions to the genre and to the PoP series itself. It's as if the developers chose to alienate the fanbase only so much, focusing on overhauling the familiar PoP experience of dashing up, over, and around luscious environments, but duct-taping it all together with a worn-out plot featuring yet another muscle-bound wise-cracking cipher in the lead.

The Prince arrives, loudly announcing himself as the sardonic, self-interested, devil-may-care hero whose hard shell, we know, must eventually be dissolved by the tough, beautiful but vulnerable Princess. We know all about this character, of course, because we've seen him dozens of times. By itself, that's okay. We're willing to accept him as part of a long lineage of hard-boiled, soft-hearted Hollywood-style hunks that extends from Rick O'Connell (The Mummy) and Han Solo (Star Wars) all the way back to to Peter Warne (It Happened One Night), Sam Spade (The Maltese Falcon) and Nick Charles (The Thin Man). Such a man is a handy guy to have around, especially if you like adventure mixed with a little romance.

Unfortunately, the Prince simply isn't clever, charming, or interesting enough to play in this league. He isn't much of anything, really. Were it not for the fact that the game insists that he occasionally carry Elika to a light seed, it's hard to figure out why he is necessary to the game at all. Elika, the only interesting character in the game, already possesses all the skills required to heal the world. She knows the lore; she knows where to go and what must be done; and she has special powers. She prevents the Prince from plummeting to his death, and she fends off enemies that would otherwise kill him. So why is he there?

He is there because the game is called Prince of Persia, and this fact alone means that Elika must fall in love with him later in the story. Hunky swagger wins the girl every time. What a shame. The game goes out of its way to depict a soulful, altruistic heroine with depth of character and a sensitive, spiritual persona (who also happens to be tough as nails). With no real motivation to do so - and with minimal character development from the Prince (whom we know almost nothing about) - she falls for this narrow-minded, money-grubbing, tomb-raiding, self-absorbed jerk. Would such a woman really fall for a guy whose best retort to her evil father is: "Hey, the next time you want to win your daughter back, you could try giving her a pony. The apocalypse doesn't really cut it." Clever.

Unlike Sands of Time, which features two reasonably well-developed characters that slowly evolve while verbally sparring their way through an adventure, the new Prince of Persia unwittingly makes the case for a silent protagonist. If the big outcome of a hero's journey is that he ends a bit nicer and a bit less defensive than he began, was the journey worth taking? Better to keep such a character mute, in my view, and focus on the truly compelling story being told: Elika's.

Better yet, why not make her the playable protagonist and let the Prince play the clever, wise-cracking sidekick?

What's most missing from the Prince is vulnerability. Each of the characters I noted above possess this virtue, buried somewhere beneath his bravado. Good writers know how to let this little trait sneak out at just the right moment, and when it does we learn more about the man than we ever knew before. Toughness and swagger always conceal something else far more interesting. Except when they don't. In the Prince's case, there's nothing else there.

I agree with Leigh Alexander's notion that engagement is a choice. I can thoroughly immerse myself in a simple game like Animal Crossing if I fully invest in that experience and infuse it with a healthy dose of imagination. I'm sure the same holds true for Prince of Persia, and I don't mean to suggest that every player will or should share my response. But, for me, the game erects too many narrative/character barriers for me to overleap, despite my willingness to do so.

Others have remarked on the strong similarities among the plots of PoP and other games like Twilight Princess and Shadow of the Colossus. If you've played these or other "purge the darkness" narrative games, PoP will probably feel like a worn-out shoe to you, as it did to me. But newer players - the ones Ubisoft clearly hopes to attract - may have no problem with this at all.

Even the best video games derive their plots from a variety of sources. Believable, charismatic characters with detail and nuance can elevate formulaic plots. Prince of Persia has one such character; it should have had two.

Prince of noobs?


As a gamer, the holidays nearly always provide a reality check for me. We typically entertain a house full of guests, eat ourselves silly, trade gifts, and play lots of games. The reality check arrives as I watch these casual and "midcore" gamers plow through my treasure-trove of games, inevitably settling on one that somehow emerges as the consensus favorite. This year that game was Prince of Persia. Somehow, I didn't see it coming.

I bought the PS3 version of the game when it was released and quickly loaded it up to take a gander at its highly praised art direction. The game does look fabulous, and I confess my very first impression was more like a wish: "Wow. I wish I was playing a new Zelda game that looked like this." Nevertheless, I spent an hour or so looking at the splendid environments and character models, and I felt immediately comfortable dashing across walls and building swordfighting combos. I left the game looking forward to returning soon.

Having read a positive review of the game from a writer I trust, I was curious to see how Prince of Persia was faring with other critics, so I wandered over to Metacritic for a look. I quickly discovered the game has largely polarized the games press, with many scores in the low 60s to 75 range, and many more in the 90+ range.

When such disparities occur, they're usually due to disagreement over a specific aspect or element of a game, and Prince of Persia is no exception. In this case the issue is the game's perceived lack of difficulty:

"...too easy and auto-piloted for some die-hard hardcore players" -Games Radar

"...lack of challenge..." -Gamespot

"...never quite intelligent enough to push the genre very far forward." -360 Magazine UK

"...a game that, at its heart, is incredibly easy." -Gameplanet

"...watered down gameplay mechanics..." -ActionTrip

"...a beautiful gaming experience, but you won't find much in the way of excitement nor challenge..."

" lack of intelligence..."

"...yet another poor game planted in a bed of fantastic technology and interesting mechanics, which, rather than empowering the player to solve interesting problems in new and exciting ways, merely sends you for a long and elaborate stroll through a beautiful world devoid of challenge or variation..." -Eurogamer

I'm not here to argue Prince of Persia's merits as a game because I haven't played enough of it myself. In fact, nearly all my experience with the game is drawn from an observer's point of view. But an observer's role can yield valuable impressions too, and from that vantage point I can attest that Prince of Persia thrilled and delighted the audience I saw play it over the course of several days. I mean they loved it.

What's more, it clearly engaged these players for precisely the reasons many reviewers scored the game poorly. Its "watered down" mechanics are accessible, quickly learned, and easily executed. It provides immediate excitement, thrusting the player into gameplay that feels urgent, teaching her how to succeed one mechanic at a time. It fosters a kind of "in the zone" feeling that makes the player feel he's in sync with the game as he repeats certain acrobatic combos. It presents failure as a teacher, not a penalty producer; encouraging the player to try again and overcome a mistake via improvement, rather than punishment.

The game is also gorgeous to look at, as every single person who played the game remarked in one way or another. The characters move with remarkable grace and fluidity. We sometimes forget, I think, that these things matter beyond our noting them as a merit worthy of bonus points in a review score.

How are we serious gamers to respond when a big-budget, ambitious, traditionally core-focused game like Prince of Persia arrives, designed to appeal to an audience larger than us? What rubric can we use to fairly evaluate such a game? Can we meet the game where it lives, but also expect it to retain some fidelity to its heritage? If we accept simpler mechanics and gameplay, are we lowering our standards or building a bigger tent?

If the reaction to Prince of Persia at my house is any indication - and if the post-Wii trajectory we've seen continues - I think these are questions well worth asking.

Holiday hiatus

Happy holidays, everyone. I'm taking a few days off to celebrate with family, catch up on sleep, eat more than I should...and, oh yes, play a bunch of games.

I wish all of you a Merry Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Solstice, Festivus, and Zombie Yule. Thanks for all you have done to make this year so much fun for me.

Happy Gaming!


Best art direction '08

The season of lists continues with me carving out a best-of niche that I find especially interesting this year: Art Direction.

2008 was a terrific year for experimentation in a variety of visual styles, and while not every game succeeded as a whole experience, those I've listed below suggest that video games remain fertile ground for visual artists.

Publishers continue to promote games that push pixels and polygons in pursuit of ever-more-realistic depictions of people and places. (Okay, that's out of my system now.) In some ways, this year was no different, with amazingly detailed games like Far Cry 2 and Fallout 3 proving that realism needn't be antithetical to ambitious, creative art design.

But other games proved that designers are eager to pursue visual aesthetic goals that go in other, decidedly less realistic directions. Here are my favorites from this year in no particular order:

No More Heroes

As I wrote back in January, No More Heroes is a game full of game. All the little things - the menus, the load screens, the maps, the save system - everything works, looks and sounds like a skewed, junked out, lo-fi version of a game you've played before. And then there's the blood. Something about the way it splatters. Like an aria. No More Heroes is a compendium of visual and gameplay references, in loving homage and deconstructed parody. When Travis Touchdown looks you in the eye and says "It's game time!" it is both an invitation and a declaration of principles.

Fable II
Peter Molyneux's Albion is a lush, snow-globe vision of Great Britain that weaves together storybook and fantasy settings with an anachronistic blend of medieval, renaissance, and 18th-century environments. It never should have worked. But it did.

Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness

A perfect rendering of the Penny Arcade comic style in cell-shaded 3D with 2D art courtesy of Mike Krahulik's pen. The game crafts a colorful concoction of Lovecraftian steampunk and Hollywood B-movie pulp fiction. The animated cutscenes are terrific and bring the PA comic universe to life.

Mega Man 9

This game makes the list purely for sticking firmly to its principles. Mega Man 9 extends beyond "retro." Its 8-bit aesthetic permeates the entire experience, from loading screen to level design to perceptible flicker. Its very existence seems intended to examine the relevance of simple, pound-your-head-in difficult gameplay on modern consoles. Some of us still think these games are beautiful.


This rhythm/action game for the PSP features some of the most inspired art design seen in any game this year. French artist Rolito took his inspiration from pre-Colombian and primitive arts, as well as spiritual mythology to create a wholly unique and poetic vision. Even Patapon's color palettes seem carefully chosen. You've never played another game that looks like this...and how can you not love a tribe of cyclopsian eyeballs?

Little Big Planet

Among all the attributes of this superlative game, LBP's art direction may be its strongest asset. Little Big Planet communicates a tactile feeling to the player that renders the distance between the game-world and the controller in my hands virtually nil. It's an extraordinary thing to see this game in all its hi-def glory. The brick surfaces, the cardboard cutouts, the felt trees - everything suggests the hands of creators with (apparently) simple earnest skills. It absolutely begs to be touched and explored. And built.

Honorable mentions:
de Blob
Mirror's Edge
Prince of Persia
The World Ends With You
PixelJunk Eden
Professor Layton and the Curious Village
World of Goo
Wipeout HD

Brainy Gamer Podcast - Holiday edition

Santa_Microphone2 This edition of the Brainy Gamer Podcast features a holiday extravaganza of Gamers Confab goodness: a 3-volume confection featuring a sleigh full of games bloggers all discussing our favorite games of 2008!

Volume 1:

Segment 1: Leigh Alexander from Sexy Videogameland; Kirk Battle (aka L.B. Jeffries) from Banana Pepper Martinis; Mike Schiller from PopMatters; and Roger Travis from the Video Games and Human Values Initiative.

Segment 2: Daniel Purvis from Graffiti Gamer; Ben Abraham from SLRC; Trevor Dodge from Male Hipster Leering and the First Wall Rebate Podcast; and David Carlton from Malvasia Bianca.

Download Volume 1 directly here.

Volume 2:

Segment 1: Corvus Elrod from Man Bytes Blog; Mitch Krpata from Insult Swordfighting; Dan Bruno from Cruise Elroy; and Spencer Greenwood from Noble Carrots.

Segment 2: Chris Dahlen from Save the Robot; Sparky Clarkson from Discount Thoughts; and Matthew Gallant from The Quixotic Engineer.

Download Volume 2 directly here.

Volume 3:

Steve Gaynor of the Fullbright blog and 2K Marin; Wes Erdelack (aka Iroquois Pliskin) of Versus Clu Clu Land; and Tom Kim of Gamasutra Radio.

Finally, in the closing segment I reveal my favorite game of 2008 while also shamelessly gaming the system.

Download Volume 3 directly here.

All three volumes are available via Tunes here.
You can subscribe to my podcast feed here.

Happy holidays everyone!!

Persona non mystery


Persona 4 continues to tighten its grip on me, casting me back to "oh my god, it's 3am!" RPG sessions of yore. ("Yore" being the days when I could function on three hours of sleep). P4 does so many things right that I feel a bit guilty picking at its flaws without properly celebrating its virtues. I'm sure I'll get around to those later; for now I want to focus on what I consider to be P4's achilles heel: pacing.

Pacing is one of those design elements we rarely praise because, unlike graphics or level design, we don't tend to notice when it's handled well. By its very nature, pacing remains invisible to us until we stumble over it, and P4 has me stumbling more than I'd like.

P4 is an RPG wrapped around a murder mystery (or maybe it's the other way around), with a plot full of requisite twists and turns. I love the idea of unraveling a complicated story, especially from the perspective of an avatar who pieces things together from within the story as I'm piecing them together from without.

Unfortunately P4 struggles to gather and maintain storytelling momentum. The problem isn't caused by the narrative interruptions that occur when you enter the Midnight Channel to fight the shadows. Chalk it up to genre conventions, but I accept the idea that P4's narrative is punctuated by many hours of dungeon battles that deliver virtually no story at all. I'm willing to suspend the story in my mind while I'm being challenged and entertained by these gameplay experiences. It's an RPG thing.

But when it's time to return to storytelling, P4 too often bogs down in repetitive conversational rehashes of plot points that assume I haven't been paying attention. "Let's review what we know so far," occupies an inordinate amount of time in P4 - a game already fully loaded with conversation necessary to build all-important Social Links. Nearly every plot development in the game is delivered, reviewed, and then rehashed - and occasionally rehashed again - in what soon comes to feel like X-button-forwarding madness. The game is fully voiced, but my experience plowing through these sequences has transformed me into the jerk we all know who won't let anyone finish a sentence.

You also spend a lot of time in P4 doing things that repeatedly relegate murder-solving to the backburner. Making friends, joining clubs, working a part-time job - all require time and attention. You might say these activities help build suspense as you level yourself up to tackle tougher bosses, all moving you ever closer to solving the mystery. But suspense can only be sustained so long before the air goes out of the balloon, and P4 deflates that balloon pretty quickly.

All of this, of course, kills the game's narrative pacing, and no storytelling genre relies more on pacing than the mystery. Well-constructed mysteries understand when to push and when to slow down. They play us like a fiddle, provoking us with bits of information (sometimes unreliable), turning up the pressure with action or intrigue, setting us off-course then back on, and otherwise taking us on a roller-coaster ride where we can only see the track just ahead of us. As a murder mystery / social-dating sim / JRPG, P4 succeeds beautifully on two out of three counts; but the third is undermined by the other two.

Persona 4's shortcomings as a mystery make me wonder if video games can properly function within the genre. Games like System Shock 2 or the Silent Hill series contain elements of suspense, but I don't think they qualify as mysteries. Other games like Hotel Dusk focus on gathering clues, but as a mystery that game was tepid at best. Maybe I'm splitting hairs or too wrapped up in semantics, but it's hard for me to think of a modern video game that succeeds as a mystery. I'm sure you'll let me know if I'm wrong. :-)

None of this should dissuade you from playing Persona 4. It's a wonderfully stylish RPG from a developer (Atlus) that has done more to move the genre forward in recent years than any other. It's a terrific game, and there's no mystery in that.

Holiday podcast surprise

Recording is underway for my special "A Very Brainy Gamer Christmas" (no, really!) podcast featuring the most ambitious Gamers Confab ever! All your favorite blog-o-licious writers will be on hand to celebrate the year that is and was 2008. I won't spoil the surprise, but I think you'll enjoy the 2-volume holiday concoction we're cooking up for you.

Look for both episodes to appear this weekend. Thanks very much for listening.

A crimp in my evening

Annie Hall: Alvy, you're incapable of enjoying life, you know that?
Alvy Singer: I can't enjoy anything unless everybody is. If one guy is starving someplace, that puts a crimp in my evening.

Gamecollection Have you noticed how often we discuss video games, assuming all of us are able to purchase and play any game we like, whenever we want? I do it all the time here or in casual conversation, and I've rarely given it a second thought.

I suppose we bloggers/critics/journos must continue to think and write about games, regardless of the economic circumstances of our readers. But maybe it's time we paused to consider the realities faced by millions of people these days, many of them gamers who love their avocation every bit as much as we do.

Times are hard. In my area, recent layoffs have left thousands of people out of work, with more factory closings and retail layoffs to come. Conversations with students, local friends, and many visitors here on the blog make it clear that an increasingly large number of people can't afford $60 video games anymore, let alone next-gen hardware. One student I spoke to recently was overjoyed by the release of Persona 4 because it meant a brand new AAA game under the Christmas tree for the only console he owns: a PS2. A price tag $20 less than most new games meant that it fell within the $50 limit-per-child that his parents must observe this year.

All of this makes me wonder about the stacks of games scattered around my house. I have a steady job, and I'm fortunate to receive free games now and then for review, so I tend to focus on the latest releases - with an occasional detour for the Vintage Game Club. That means I've got a boatload of fairly recent and older games sitting around that I'm unlikely to play again any time soon. Surely I can connect a problem to a solution here.

I'm aware of rental services like Gamefly, used-game sites like Dawdle, and swapping sites like Goozex, and these are all terrific options. But I'm thinking more locally, hoping to make a difference for families I know or people I'm personally familiar with.

So here's a modest set of suggestions. If you find yourself in circumstances similar to mine, maybe you'll find one of them helpful:

  1. Visit your local library and encourage them to circulate video games. Libraries all over the country, both public and academic, have begun to do this, and many have reported great success. If you donate your used games, you can put a sticker in each indicating that you are the magnanimously cool gamer who made all this gaming bliss possible. In time, you could become the Andrew Carnegie of game libraries!

  2. Set up an email or forum-hosted game-swap club at your school or work and encourage people in your community to join. If you're willing to manage it, you can ensure that the collection grows and people maintain a steady flow of exchanges.

  3. Set up your own lending library and publicize it to students, friends, co-workers, etc. If you get it off the ground and prove it works, you'll be able to convince others to donate their games to your collection as well. A lot of work, but you maintain control and can run the operation as you see fit.

  4. Give your games away on condition that the recipients do the same when they finish them (aka "paying it forward").

Lots of people are facing hard decisions, sometimes choosing between making a mortgage payment or paying the heating bill. Video games are probably the last thing on their minds. If we're willing to share our stuff, we can put these games (and even old consoles) gathering dust to good use, spread some game love around, and maybe help make somebody's day a little more fun.

If you have other useful ideas for those unplayed games on your shelf, I'd love to hear them.

Thanks to Wonderland for the image.

You're not the boss of me

Persona4 A funny thing happened to me playing Persona 4 the other day. The game started bossing me around, and I didn't like it. I suddenly found myself hemmed in with no choices. I wanted to explore, and the game wouldn't let me. "It wouldn't be a good idea to go outside right now," I was told. Instead of offering me choices, the game dragged me from one scene to the next, making all my choices for me. I found myself putting up a fight:

P4: "You decide to go home,"
Me: But I don't want to go home!
P4: "You're tired, so you decide to go to bed early."
Me: I'm not tired, and I don't want to go bed early. What I really want to do is check out this crazy town, but I can't even go from one room to another without the game's permission.

The last straw came when a kid named Yosuke crashed his bike on the street right in front of me. I'd already become friendly with him, so I thought I should stop and help him...but no. The game had other ideas. "You'd better let him be," I was informed, and with that our hero walked away; iris out, end of scene. Huh?!

I was surprised by my reaction. I loved Persona 3 and considered it one of the very best games of 2007. Persona 4 seems every bit the stylish and unconventional RPG its predecessor was, so why was I resisting it? To satisfy my curiosity, I loaded up P3 again and played it for thirty minutes or so, and guess what? Tons of passive X-button exposition coupled with let-the-game-do-the-driving gameplay. Aside from enjoying P3's music a little more, the two games felt very similar to me, both introducing their characters and unfolding their stories along similar lines.

So what's wrong with this game? Have I finally soured on JRPGs altogether - including even the Shin Megami Tensei series that dares to pull up the RPG carpet, repaint the RPG walls, and rearrange the RPG furniture?

I thought hard about this for some time before it occurred to me that I was focusing on the wrong culprit. My resistance to Persona 4 had nothing to do with the game itself. It was, in fact, all about me. It turns out that I'm the problem with Persona 4.

In the last few months I've spent the vast majority of my gaming time playing and completing Fallouts 1-3 and Fable II, with a heaping helping of Little Big Planet thrown in as a palate cleanser. I've played and written about other games too, but the special kind of devotion required by the Fallouts and Fables of the world means they get under your skin in ways other games don't. They require so much time and attention, and they're both so enveloping, that I tend to walk around with them inside even when I'm not playing them.

So when I load up Persona 4 for the first time, what am I looking for? Choice. Player-driven narrative. Branching quests and storylines. All the cool stuff I've been enjoying lately. But the thing is, Persona 4 isn't about that stuff. To be fair, it offers plenty of choices for the player and its own version of quests, but you will see almost none of these for at least two hours into the game.

Why? Because Persona 4 has an authored story to tell, a social environment to establish, a mystery to unravel, several characters to explore, and all of that takes time. If you resist this; if you insist that Persona 4 fulfill a set of requirements it was never designed to meet; if you expect the game to be other than it is, Persona 4 will likely frustrate and disappoint you. But if you're willing to accept the game on its own terms and allow it to define itself in its own way, you are in for a rich and stimulating RPG experience that will dispel the bad taste that some recent JRPGs may have left in your mouth.

If you make this initial investment I'm recommending, you will ultimately find that Persona 4 opens up to you in all sorts of wonderful ways. Developer Atlus clearly trusts its unfolding story and characters (and its fabulous art design and music) to sustain your interest and thrust you into its stylish world - all while simultaneously teaching new players how the game works.

You will soon encounter a moment when you can feel the game shift gears and virtually hand itself over to you. When this happens, it suddenly feels like the whole game is yours, everything matters, and failure is a real possibility. It was worth the wait. Suddenly, Persona 4 begins to levitate.

Wise conversation


You may have already heard that Shawn Elliott is hosting a symposium on "the practice and politics of writing game reviews," and he's assembled a team of respondents including Leigh Alexander, N'Gai Croal, Kieron Gillen, Stephen Totilo and other notable game journalists.

Elliott is a smart guy, and he proves it by going about this the right way: 1) He's taking his time (the project will span months) to isolate specific topics like review ethics and casual/indie/user-generated games. 2) He's keeping the community on the sidelines. The critics will generate the conversation, and Elliott is encouraging them to engage each other vigorously as the discussion ensues. These email conversations will be posted online, and each will surely be met with a big response from the community. Opening the floodgates to all comers would have produced cacophonous chaos. I think Elliott will have his hands full with the ten opinionated writers already on-board.

Some have characterized the symposium as little more than self-absorbed navel-gazing. I think that's unfair. As I read it, the symposium is designed to encourage rigorous reflection on a fairly complex, non-standardized process with lots of moving parts - one that also happens to be the target of significant criticism from within the industry and from the gaming community itself.

If you're part of an organization, however loosely affiliated, that is routinely criticized for shoddy or unethical work, you basically have three options. You can defensively dismiss your critics as clueless or ignorant; you can acknowledge the problem and attempt to distance yourself from the "bad guys"; or you can stop and take a hard look at the situation (including your own possible culpability) in an effort to raise standards, identify problems, or otherwise address the situation in a positive way. This approach takes more time, requires more work, and insists on large doses of humility and self-reflection. This, it would seem, is the road Elliott and company have chosen, and I wish them well.

By the way, the ancient Greeks originally conceived of the Symposium as a drinking party, and the leader of the event determined how much to dilute the wine, depending on the seriousness of the discussion at hand. Like I said, Elliott has his hand full.

Creative planet

In this last of three posts, I'm trying to describe the experience of playing Little Big Planet, rather than applying a systematic analysis (graphics, gameplay, level design, replay value, etc.). You can read more about what I'm up to here.

The great challenge which faces us is to assure that, in our society of big-ness, we do not strangle the voice of creativity, that the rules of the game do not come to overshadow its purpose. --Hubert Humphrey, 1966.

Creativity Above all, Little Big Planet is about creativity. More than any game I can think of, LBP communicates creativity as a kind of dialectic between player and game designers. It's a conversation in which ideas are transmitted from designer to player, and vice versa. The experience of playing the game is punctuated by a series of "stop and admire" moments. I described several of these in my previous post, and I could have listed many more.

But we might also think of these as "stop and store" moments, because as you play the game, you are also gathering ideas and materials for your own later use, presumably infused with your own creativity. This, it seems to me, is a fairly remarkable thing.

Little Big Planet makes you feel connected to a creative process: the designers of the game, whose presence in the world of LBP is palpable; your own customization of your avatar (Sackboy); your individual creativity expressed through the level designer; and other creators around the world - all contribute to an awareness of creativity that I find exciting and appealing. A commenter on a previous post called it a "collective consciousness," and I think that's an apt description.

I'm obviously not suggesting LBP is the first game to enable players to behave creatively. Other games have done so in all sorts of ways, and plenty of powerful toolsets exist to modify games or create brand new games from scratch. LBP is different, in my view, because it communicates creativity as a collective human aesthetic. It presents an organic and accessible world that feels like it was built by human hands.

And so our minds begin to conceive of personal creations fusing gameplay with meaningful messages: a tribute world to a retiring teacher, full of imagery and gameplay conditions that reflect the accomplishments, the milestones, the setbacks, the passage of time that characterize his or her individual journey. Or a social statement world. Or a tailor-made playground. Or a love letter. Little Big Planet suggests all these are possible if you're willing to learn its tools. It's the first game that's enticed me, a non-designer with no programming skills, to give it a try. We'll see how it goes.

I realize I've been rather gushy in my praise of Little Big Planet, and I'm aware not everyone shares my enthusiasm. I've tried to explain in this short series why I admire the game so much, but, as always, your mileage may vary. I want to say "Run out and buy it; try it for yourself," but I find myself growing increasingly sensitive to the financial reality of such a cavalier suggestion. Lots of us don't have $460 to spend on a sleek new console and one game these days. If you do, I encourage you to try Little Big Planet and share it with friends. As Jennifer and I discovered, it's a whole lot more fun that way.

The family that plays together

In this second of three posts, I'm trying to describe the immediate experience of playing Little Big Planet, rather than applying a systematic analysis (graphics, gameplay, level design, replay value, etc.). You can read more about what I'm up to here.

Little-big-planetWarning: If you're squeamish about joyful sentimentality, you may want to hit the eject button now. :-)

Most games are meant to be played with other people. This social dimension greatly enhances the experience of play (I guess you might say it adds "replay value"), and it can bring people together in all sorts of wonderful ways.

Video games, on the other hand, can have quite the opposite effect. If I were to objectively analyze my own video game playing habits, I would surely discover that I've spent at least 90% of my gaming life playing alone. Remove Mario Kart and Madden from the equation, and I'm probably closer to 99%. When I think about my favorite games (and I'm admittedly a longtime fan of RPGs and adventure games), I realize that nearly all of these are single-player affairs.

But lately things have changed. These days I'm spending most of my time playing with other people. Rock Band, Left 4 Dead, and Little Big Planet are in heavy rotation at my house. Despite being vastly different games, each delivers incredibly fun, rewarding, and variable co-op play. I'm not a terribly competitive guy, so this kind of gaming suits me perfectly. Rock Band brilliantly makes me feel like a rock star, and Left 4 Dead brings me together with my blogging pals in a lag-free, non-repetitive zombie kill-fest. What's not to like?

Little Big Planet brings a different kind of joy. Since I began writing about it, I've received no less than a dozen comments and emails from male readers who tell me they're enjoying the game with their wives, girlfriends, or significant others. As I mentioned in a previous post, I play LBP nearly every evening with my wife, almost always at her request. In fact, pretty much everything I know about LBP, I've learned while playing with her. What draws us as a couple to this game? And why has it melted her long-standing resistance to games that insist on precision and provoke multiple frustrating failures?

Much of it has to with discovery. The Gardens and Savannah chapters of the game are relatively easy to complete, but they're nonetheless filled with joyful little discoveries. I can't begin to count the number of times Jennifer or I have uttered the line: "This is so cool!" The giraffes in the Swinging Safari level, for example, gently toss Sackboy over their shoulders to a platform above. The simple, elegant way they move and the feeling of holding onto them while they lift you in the air - it's hard to put into words, but we found it perfectly delightful. The way the bubbles pop. The way Sackboy flings himself from one perch to the next. The way the game communicates speed and collision, light and dark, freefall and suspension. None of these are about gameplay per se, but they color your experience in such lovely and subtle ways, it's impossible to ignore them.

Flaming seesaws, swinging ninjas, wobble poles, cardboard mine carts, flying machines, snakes, trampolines, catapults - Little Big Planet is a parade of elements and obstacles, each cleverly integrated into the cultural pastiche that comprises every unique level. Each feels like a discovery when you first encounter it, and part of LBP's charm lies in the way each reveals its usefulness. Operating the flying machine - an activity, like other parts of the game, that seems particularly well-suited to two players - is pure delight when you manage to figure out how to work together and steer the contraption. Once again, it's a discovery made and experienced together, and the reward is likewise shared together.

Media Molecule understands how to make a game fun for people of varying skillsets. As a casual gamer, Jennifer fears being a liability to me when we play cooperatively. Little Big Planet goes Super Mario Galaxy one better by allowing her to fully play the game and encounter all its challenges, while not requiring her to overcome them. LBP throws such a variety of obstacles at you, some easier than others, that there is nearly always something fun for Jennifer to do in every level, even if she occasionally hits a patch she can't manage. When I inevitably miscalculate a jump and she successfully navigates us to the next spawnpoint by herself, LBP truly feels like a co-op game in which both players are useful and necessary.

A few niggles bring discord to this rhapsody of co-op joy. The camera can sometimes be your enemy, especially if you don't stay together in certain difficult passages; and it can be difficult to keep track of which Sackboy (or Sackgirl) you're controlling. As we near the final tricky stages of the story mode, these problems have grown more severe. So far, we've been abe to overcome them, but I wish the camera would occasionally pull back farther (or let me pull it back) in order for us both to see what we're doing.

At the risk of laying on the schmaltz even thicker, I believe Little Big Planet has brought Jennifer and I closer together. Not in any essential ways, of course (I'd be pretty concerned if we needed a video game to fix our marriage!). But it has provided us with a surprisingly large and long-lasting dose of joyful, playful discovery and fun. The game feels creative to us in ways we've never experienced together with a video game. I'll explore this creative aspect of Little Big Planet in my final post tomorrow. As always, I welcome your comments and thanks for reading.