Review: LittleBigPlanet

Just as Pegg and Stevenson’s ‘Spaced’ felt like a sitcom that was created specifically for people bo

It was at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, March 2007, during a keynote by Phil Harrison (then director of Development at Sony) that two English developers shambled onto the stage and demonstrated their new game. Fifteen minutes later, Media Molecule and their debut project, LittleBigPlanet, were the most anticipated work on the Playstation 3.

The keynote talk was titled ‘Game 3.0’ which at the time seemed like a trite attempt at soundbite - but some eighteen months later as LittleBigPlanet is finally released, one has to concede that it heralds a shift.

David Puttnam once commented that he could identify the precise moment when he decided to stop producing films as the day he saw Trainspotting. It wasn’t that it was a poor work, much the opposite - more it was a film he recognised he could never have made. LBP feels something like such a step-change for videogames. Just as Trainspotting was far more than just what was committed to celluloid, so LBP is more than just the sum of its code.

For all its audacious ambition, LittleBigPlanet anchors itself firmly to its roots as a two dimensional platform game. Like Donkey Kong or Jet Set Willy before it, this is essentially a game about running and jumping. After a gentle introduction by Stephen Fry, who explains the key concepts of the game, you’re left to play through the 20 levels of ‘story mode’ which Media Molecule have produced.

Sackboy (or girl), the infinitely configurable hero is an irresistible delight. Acting as your avatar in the world, this cloth puppet flings himself around the puzzles with innocent abandon. The powerful physics engine that powers the game being both a blessing and a curse here. Whilst objects feel weight beautifully, the controls of Sackboy himself can be irritatingly clumsy. Another frustration is the limitation of ‘lives’ for Sackboy. In a post-LEGO Star Wars world the whole idea of having finite lives in a game such as this seems like a wholly unnecessary irritant that gets in the way of the fun.

It’s a stunningly beautiful world to play in. For those with high-definition televisions still looking for the kind of content to show off with ... well, it’s finally arrived. LBP is a beautiful evocation of childhood hobbycraft. Just as Pegg and Stevenson’s ‘Spaced’ felt like a sitcom that was created specifically for people born around the early seventies, so LBP feels like our game.

For all the problems with the control mechanism of Sackboy, the art direction cannot be faulted. Moving through the stunningly realised levels feels like rolling through warm recollections of Bagpuss - rummaging through a dressing-up box full of off-cuts of fabric, playing at cutting and sticking on the kitchen table. Cloth patterns evoke the suburban England of the Seventies so accurately that you feel a palpable need to order a Chopper from Ebay and freewheel down a hill. It’s difficult not to suspect that Biddy Baxter didn’t have a hand in this somewhere. Playing LittleBigPlanet feels like being a kid, and its impossible not to be intoxicated by the warm glow with which the game cuddles you. Perhaps more than anything else, that is the game’s achievement.

What makes LBP particularly special though, is its capability and promise as a tool for making more LBP.

From the outset, it was conceived not just as a game, but as a toolset. Built into the game is a detailed and hugely powerful set of tools which allow any player to create and share new levels with other players.

This user-generated-content is the beating heart of the game, and a quick visit to the ‘cool levels’ planet allows you to browse through them. With the game only having been released for a few days, there is already a staggering amount of content available. Calculators, wedding proposals, songs - already LBP has established itself as a rich platform for new creative expression.

This is an area of the game that is both incredibly exciting, as you marvel at the individual creativity. It's also potentially one of the biggest problems. Aside from the obvious forthcoming issue of how to navigate all this content effectively, what’s also apparent is the clear drop-off in quality from the levels which ship with the game and the user-generated content already available.

Work veers from the visionary to the one-gag diversions, but there’s a nagging frustration that none of the work reaches the level of detail of the developers own. But then of course, you remind yourself that this extraordinary work has only been in the public’s hands for a few weeks, everyone here can only be scratching the surface at best. It’s extraordinary, the whole game hums with promise.

LittleBigPlanet hasn’t so much been released, as started. We really have, only just begun.

LittleBigPlanet

(PS3)

Developed by Media Molecule

Published by Sony Computer Entertainment

Iain Simons writes, talks and tweets about videogames and technology. His new book, Play Britannia, is to be published in 2009. He is the director of the GameCity festival at Nottingham Trent University.
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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.