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.
Developed by Media Molecule
Published by Sony Computer Entertainment