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December 2008

Made by human beings


In this short series of posts, I'm taking a look at Little Big Planet from an experiential point of view. In other words, I'm interested in trying to describe the game as a set of real-time experiences from two gamers' points of view - mine and my wife's - rather than a systematic analysis of the game (graphics, gameplay, level design, replay value, etc.). You can read more about what I'm up to here.

Never underestimate the importance of presentation. The opening cinematic (see below) that greeted us when we first loaded up Little Big Planet hooked us immediately. It depicts a series of real-life people, all fast asleep in a variety of settings: at work, on a bus, at the breakfast table. All are dreaming, "their vast imaginations humming away, charged with creative energy." "Where does it all go?" asks the narrator. According to the world of Little Big Planet, all this collective imagination rises up through the heavens to form an "ethereal dreamscape of adventure and possibilities." A Little Big Planet.

Whimsical nonsense, of course; but the game so thoroughly commits to its vision that we both happily walked right through its looking glass. From the first moment you encounter it, Little Big Planet feels like a very warm place to be. Why?

I think it has to do with a certain strong impression LBP imparts: this game was lovingly crafted by human beings. Beyond the people featured in the opening cinematic, the game gently reminds us that regular (albeit highly talented) people made this game for us, and now it's our turn to play and create. It sets about communicating this right away.

After a few wryly humorous orienting instructions (delivered by Stephen Fry in his signature droll), we set off making our sackboy run and jump (from left to right, of course), and it was here that Jennifer asked me, "Who are these people?" It took me a moment to realize it, but then I understood. At the earliest possible moment the game can do so, your little Sackboy makes his way past the names and photographed faces of the game's creators, each affixed to a piece of scenery.  "What a wonderful idea," Jennifer noted. "We never get to see the people who make the games."

Indeed. As trivial as it may seem, this simple gesture provoked the same affectionate reaction in both of us. These designers (always surprisingly young to me) are proud of their work, and they want us to know it. It occurred to me that, in a way, Media Molecule was also introducing me to my co-creators of Little Big Planet, but at this point Jennifer was unaware of the game's level design features.

Our sense of personal affinity with the game's design was enhanced by its overall visual aesthetic. Both of us felt a strong tactile connection with Little Big Planet. It's an extraordinary thing to see this game in all its hi-def glory. Having seen previews, I already knew what to expect - which is a shame, really, because I was denied Jennifer's startled first impression: "Wow. This is amazing. It looks like somebody's backyard." And so it does. The game provokes another familiar response.

Sackboy reminded us of a sewing project an aunt might take on for her nieces and nephews.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 explored, and we eagerly accepted that invitation.

Nearly everything I've described here could be classified as "presentation." I'm suggesting that part of Little Big Planet's genius, for us at least, is the way it encourages, even welcomes, the player to connect to its world - and its creators - on a personal, visceral level. In reality, Little Big Planet's offering is no less virtual than Killer 7's, for example. A player, a controller, and a screen. But Media Molecule is clearly attempting to establish a relationship with the player that feels like a warm and familiar embrace. For us, at least, it's working.

Next, we begin to play.

What about Sackboy?


It would be an overstatement to say that Little Big Planet has been unfairly ignored amidst the hoopla surrounding other recent games. After all, its massively pivotal, all-important, make-or-break Metacritic score of 95 places it atop the heap.

All the game media outlets have weighed in on the game, and most of the bloggers I follow have had their say too. Pretty much everyone admires the game's charm and visual appeal, with the common complaints focused mainly on its floaty controls and Z-axis issues.

Yet, despite all the praise, the game hasn't made much of a splash. I'm not talking about sales numbers - though if I were, I might note that in its 6th week on the charts, LBP sat 24th on the list, just behind Nintendogs in its 188th week.

I'm more curious about the low volume level of the LBP conversation. Maybe it has to do with the relatively small PS3 install base; or maybe it's because LBP is essentially a platformer, rather than an ambitious narrative experience that writers like me love to sink our teeth into. Fallout, Fable, and Far Cry have filled our plates, it would seem, each providing ample material for opinion, analysis, and debate.

For Little Big Planet, the most prominent point of discussion appears to be the analog stick. When I recently twittered about playing the game, the responses (from astute folks) zeroed in on the wonky controls and their inferiority to Mario's precise system.

Call me crazy, but I like the controls. The Z-axis problems are real and occasionally frustrating, to be sure. But I've grown very comfortable with the physics of running, jumping, and grabbing in the game. They feel natural to me, just like the textures and overall tactile feedback the game conveys. It took awhile to acclimate myself, but now I know a long jump must be accompanied by a gentle pullback on the stick just before landing. You must account for Sackboy's momentum, which adds a welcome bit of danger to the platforming. I like it; others don't. That's fine.

I think a bigger reason for the critical hush surrounding LBP is our lack of a common evocative vocabulary for describing our experiences playing games. More than anything else, Little Big Planet offers a striking, viscerally playful experience.

We can apply all sorts of critical lenses and theories to a narrative game like Far Cry 2 because we liberally borrow from other media like literature and film. Many of us are trying to expand our critical grasp of games beyond such pre-existing formulas, and I think we're making progress. With Braid, Jonathan Blow challenged us to reconsider how games communicate meaning, defying the traditional sender-receiver models of analysis. Smart people like Ian Bogost have helped move this ball down the field for years now.

But what to say about Little Big Planet? A world built with such immaculate attention to detail and filled with such wonderful little surprises. A gaming experience that will, at once, seem utterly familiar and utterly revolutionary. A self-contained, infinitely expandable playful universe. A construction set the likes of which has never been seen or even approached. A panegyric to the joy of playing games. An experience that will charm your socks off.

These are apt descriptions, but they all sound like back-of-box accolades from 1UP or IGN, don't they? None adequately conveys what it's actually like to play Little Big Planet. How to properly capture this and express it clearly?

At the risk of humiliating myself by reaching far beyond my skillset, I'm going to give it a shot. My wife and I have been playing Little Big Planet together for a month, an hour at at time, 3 or 4 nights a week. We're having a blast - me a serious "I'll play anything that moves" gamer; she a non-platformer, non-schmupper, non-FPS, non-strategy, non-RPG gamer with mad Elite Beat Agents and Mario Kart skills.

I hope to account for what's happening to us while we play, tracking back to when we began, and see if I can put words to the experiences that have brought us such joy with this game. I have no idea if this will take me anywhere useful, or if anyone else will even find it interesting. You may decide to take a few days off Brainy Gamer if it becomes tiresome, in which case I highly recommend checking out Dan Bruno's thoughtful series on Mother 3.

I'll return to my senses by Monday or so. In the meantime, I hope you'll stick with me. If you're able to give Little Big Planet a whirl, I highly recommend you do so. I want to see our little Sackboy take those Nintendogs DOWN!


Mr. Braddock: "Benjamin, this whole idea seems rather half-baked."
Benjamin: "No, I assure you, it's fully baked."
                                                            --The Graduate (1967)

Collide I'm wading into choppy waters here, working with a thesis that probably has some big holes in it. So bear with me.

I believe we need more dissonance in games, not less. I believe video games naturally facilitate collisions between what a player does or thinks; what is represented or enacted on screen; and what all of this means. Blurring or smoothing out these barriers, ironically, makes the end goal of doing so - unity of story, play, and mechanics - less possible, not more so. Once the designer starts down the road of unifying these elements into a seamless cohesive whole, even the slightest incongruity is magnified into a betrayal of the system.

Please don't get me wrong. I'm not suggesting we need more bad games. I'm not recommending that designers stop trying to create game worlds that attempt to powerfully connect story and gameplay. I accept the notion that marrying the narrative and ludic elements of a game like Bioshock is a good idea. Within the system Bioshock creates for the player, failing to unify these elements feels like a broken contract. Clint Hocking famously called this "ludonarrative dissonance," and he hits the nail squarely on the head.

The problem is that dissonance is a pernicious beast. If we set about to eliminate it at every turn, it inevitably defies us. Like a gnarly kudzu plant, it just keeps on coming. Games like Fallout 3 brilliantly convey an evocative, explorable world that transcends any of its characters or storylines. As several reviewers have pointed out, Washington, D.C. is easily the most interesting character in the game. But once the humans appear...well, I've gone on about the dissonance created by the characters in this space more than once, so I'll spare you a reiteration.

But even the city itself if full of dissonance. The wearisome sameness of the layouts and items found in every interior location. The endless boarded up buildings with no entry points...except for the ones I need to enter for a quest. The arbitrariness of interactions between me the environment. The world is alive with possibilities, except when it isn't. The world responds to my actions, except when it doesn't.

I want to say this a clearly as I can. I love Fallout 3. I think it's one of the most amazing games I've ever played. I spent weeks on it with my students, and it was the highlight of a terrific semester. As a gamer, I'm earnestly grateful to Bethesda for going the distance with this game.

But Fallout 3 is loaded with dissonance, and the only reason that's a problem is because Fallout 3 tries so incredibly hard to convince us otherwise.

There's a handy solution to all this, and it's our old friend "suspension of disbelief." We're willing to overlook miles of dissonance if the thing provoking us is sufficiently engaging or entertaining. Once I accept the idea that my avatar miraculously transforms her gait from a Quasimodo limp to a sturdy run by dropping one small item in her enormous inventory, I'm good to go. I needn't worry about it anymore. Give in. Let go. Have fun. There's so much game to dig into, why quibble about dissonant moments?

Which leads me back to my thesis. If our old pal "suspension of disbelief" is such a resourceful friend, couldn't he help us accept even more dissonance? In fact, if the game makes it worth doing, might we even choose to embrace dissonance? I say yes...and so does Aristotle, by the way. We are capable of tremendous leaps of faith, even when the mechanics of what we are being asked to ignore are laid bare before us. And sometimes the mechanics are just as interesting as the story itself.

So here's my question: does the road to ludonarrative unity really lead us where we want to go? Is the destination reachable? Is it possible to embrace a design aesthetic that takes us in another direction that could be just as fruitful, if not more so? Okay that was three questions, but it's my blog so I get to ask as many as I want. Now if I could only answer them.

Child's Play

Cplogo In the spirit of the holidays, I'm teaming up with my pals at the Vintage Game Club to organize a donation drive for Child's Play, the charity that donates toys, games, books and cash to children’s hospitals across North America and in the UK, Australia, and New Zealand. Since 2003, Child's Play has raised over 3.5 million dollars in donations to 60 partner hospitals. Over 100,000 gamers worldwide have contributed.

We consulted the Child's Play organizers, and they told us the easiest way to bundle contributions from Brainy Gamer readers and VGC members is to use a service called ChipIn. So, thanks to my VGC colleague David Carlton, we've arranged with them to collect donations on our behalf. ChipIn collects no fees whatsoever, and all funds raised go directly to Child's Play.

If you'd like to contribute, just click the ChipIn button on the widget below (or at the top of this page), and you'll be taken to a PayPal site where you can donate via credit card or your PayPal account.

FYI, when you get there you'll see David's e-mail address because he set up the ChipIn account. Rest assured that none of your money will go to or through David, but directly to Child's Play. Once you hit the pay button, you'll see Child's Play listed as the Merchant, and you'll be given the option to print out a receipt for your tax-deductable donation.

It's been a great year for those of us who love games. If you're able, I hope you'll consider giving back and sending a message that we gamers care. Even a dollar or two will help. The drive ends December 14.

Happy holidays and happy gaming!