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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Why do the words “soup, swoop, loop de loop” come to mind every time I lift a spoon to my lips?

It’s all thanks to Barry and Anita.

A while ago I was lending a friend the keys to our house. We keep spare keys in a ceramic pot I was given years ago by someone who made it while on an art-school pottery course. “That’s er . . . quite challenging,” the friend said of the pot.

“Is it?” I replied. “I’d stopped noticing how ugly it is.”

“Then it’s a grunty,” she said.

“A what?” I asked.

“A grunty. It’s something you have in your house that’s hideous and useless but you’ve stopped noticing it completely, so it’s effectively invisible.”

I was much taken with this idea and realised that as well as “grunties” there are also “gruntyisms”: things you say or do, though the reason why you say or do them has long since been forgotten. For example, every time we drink soup my wife and I say the same thing, uttered in a strange monotone: we say, “Soup, swoop, loop de loop.” How we came to say “soup, swoop, loop de loop” came about like this.

For a married couple, the years between your mid-thirties and your late forties might be seen as the decade of the bad dinner party. You’re no longer looking for a partner, so the hormonal urge to visit crowded bars has receded, but you are still full of energy so you don’t want to stay in at night, either. Instead, you go to dinner parties attended by other couples you don’t necessarily like that much.

One such couple were called Barry and Anita. Every time we ate at their house Barry would make soup, and when serving it he would invariably say, “There we are: soup, swoop, loop de loop.” After the dinner party, as soon as we were in the minicab going home, me and Linda would start drunkenly talking about what an arse Barry was, saying to each other, in a high-pitched, mocking imitation of his voice: “Please do have some more of this delicious soup, swoop, loop de loop.” Then we’d collapse against each other laughing, convincing the Algerian or Bengali taxi driver once again of the impenetrability and corruption of Western society.

Pretty soon whenever we had soup at home, Linda and I would say to each other, “Soup, swoop, loop de loop,” at first still ridiculing Barry, but eventually we forgot why we were saying it and it became part of the private language every couple develop, employed long after we’d gratefully ceased having soupy dinners with Barry and Anita.

In the early Nineties we had an exchange student staying with us for a year, a Maori girl from the Cook Islands in the southern Pacific. When she returned home she took the expression “soup, swoop, loop de loop” with her and spread it among her extended family, until finally the phrase appeared in an anthropological dissertation: “ ‘Soup swoop, loop de loop.’ Shamanistic Incantations in Rarotongan Food Preparation Rituals” – University of Topeka, 2001. 

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt