March 21, 2011
The "games as art" debate won't be settled by critics, conference panels, or forum philosophers. It will be settled by artists. There will be no seminal essay or winning argument. At some point, we'll look out at a vast body of work - amassed over time, built by skilled creators, unbound by classifications - and the fact will be obvious. Like the rising sun. We'll notice and agree it was there all along. We'll realize it didn't actually rise at all. We just needed time to turn and see it.
An inspired group of artists is quietly creating work of surpassing quality in the LittleBigPlanet community. These original designs bear the markings of artistry: imagination, self-expression, craftsmanship, visual coherence, architectural and kinetic beauty. Like all good art, these inspired creations stand out in a sea of shoddy, derivative, or merely competent work.
Of course no aesthetic taxonomy can suitably account for what is or isn't 'artistic,' and any attempt to define 'beauty' leads to a rabbit hole with no exit. Moreover, even among players who agree games can be aesthetically ambitious, few cite user-created LBP levels as worthy of such consideration. Their work is ignored for reasons similar to the ones gallery owners once used to reject quilts and other textile art. They don't require special talent to make. They re-use the same basic materials over and over. They all look alike.
When I examine the levels conceived by the gifted designers featured below, I see ambitious and evocative creations. I discover ideas and surprises. I play inside worlds that fill me with joy, wonder, and even dread. I marvel at their cleverness and ingenuity. I dig for the secrets of their construction. As an artist from another medium, I well know what provokes this complex interplay of thoughts and emotions in me, and I'm accustomed to calling it art.
It's so much more than just a game isn't it? The fact I can sit in my little flat in London with a cup of tea, beavering away on some random Star Wars tribute level and a month later someone sitting in Japan, drinking HIS tea, loads it into his PS3 and plays what I've made. I still find that completely awesome.
--Level designer "julesyjules"
So, who are these wonderful creators? I can't highlight them all, but I'll point to a handful of my favorites. If you're a longtime LBP player, you're probably already familiar with their work. All remain active in the LBP community, sharing ideas and helping others improve their skills.
These designers share certain traits common among artists. Each has created a distinctive body of work. Each possesses a recognizable signature style. Every inch of their work has been carefully considered. An unmistakable craftsmanship and design savvy elevates these levels above the work of less capable designers. Their levels are full of great ideas, beautifully executed. Play them and see for yourself.
Lockstitch created some of the most beautiful original levels for LBP1, and he continues to inspire other designers with his newest creations for LBP2 - one of which, Refuse Ridge, appeared just yesterday. Lockstitch has made judicious use of LBP2's new tools, utilizing some (bounce pads and camera options) while ignoring others (controllinator and sackbots). Budding creators interested in platform design would do well to contrast Refuse Ridge with his work on Vile Anchorage, one of my favorite LBP1 designs. Lockstitch demonstrates why restraint can be a virtue.
Poms may be the most imaginative designer in the LBP community. His work often stakes out a point of view, which has alienated some players who apparently think LBP levels should only be about 'fun.' Poms' creations are great fun, but they also explore (literally, in the case of The Miracle of Life) human reproduction and religion (Hell's Angels 1&2). Poms is a master of lighting and materials, and he frequently returns to his creations to tweak and improve them. His newest work for LBP2 is a series called Brainwash TV. The title speaks for itself.
Ruof is my favorite LBP level designer. His creations aren't the flashiest or most frenetic. He rarely builds complex gadgets, and his levels won't challenge anyone's platforming skills. But there's something unmistakably soulful about Ruof's work. He makes quiet little platformers that feel more like lovely toys than games. In Ruof's designs, the world responds to the player. Rather than presenting a series of obstacles, his levels unfold in lovely, clever little ways. Ruof has a thing for stairs that magically appear, descend, unfold or otherwise present themselves. If LBP makes a digital universe feel warm and tactile, Ruof is the best example of why that feels so good. Try his Starry Night (LBP1) and 2nd Li'l Platformer (LBP2).
Nobody said LBP needs to be sunshine and roses all the time. Ungreth brings a gothic, haunted vision to his creations. The self-written description on his LBP.me page reads: "Ungreth is a turd. Don't trust him, don't play with him, and avoid his levels like AIDS. He's not as good as he thinks he is anyway...his levels are really confusing and frustrating to play." Don't believe him. Tenement: LBP2 Edition will take you far away from Media Molecule's Craftworld. Can a side-scrolling LBP level really depict tragedy, suicide, and loss with cuddly sackboy characters? Believe it or not, yes.
If you want to trace the maturation of an LBP level designer, check out the evolution of Lfiers work from his first LBP1 creation, Resident Raytech (LBP1) to his newest design, Symphony of Dissonance (LBP2), released last week. Observe what he's learned about varied level design, pacing, scenario presentation, and camera work. Symphony of Dissonance cleverly enables player-driven platform creation as interactive gameplay. This adventure is easily on par with the best of the story levels designed by Media Molecule.
I'll also mention a few individual levels that caught my eye recently:
- Stereo/mono 2 is a rhythm-platformer that makes terrific use of LBP2's powerful lighting and sequencing controls.
- Industrial Platforms is a fabulous level created by a 10th-grader learning about game design.
- Cause and Effect 5 is the latest in a series of films built with LBP2's toolset. The entire thing relies on physics. "No buttons, switches or pistons. Just gravity and inertia."
This is the last of three posts devoted to LittleBigPlanet and its community of creators. You can find the previous two here and here.