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!