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.
Getty
Show Hide image

Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.