Made by human beings
Creative planet

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.