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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Inside Big Ben: why the world’s most famous clock will soon lose its bong

Every now and then, even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care.

London is soon going to lose one of its most familiar sounds when the world-famous Big Ben falls silent for repairs. The “bonging” chimes that have marked the passing of time for Londoners since 1859 will fall silent for months beginning in 2017 as part of a three-year £29m conservation project.

Of course, “Big Ben” is the nickname of the Great Bell and the bell itself is not in bad shape – even though it does have a huge crack in it.

The bell weighs nearly 14 tonnes and it cracked in 1859 when it was first bonged with a hammer that was way too heavy.

The crack was never repaired. Instead the bell was rotated one eighth of a turn and a lighter (200kg) hammer was installed. The cracked bell has a characteristic sound which we have all grown to love.

Big Ben strikes. UK Parliament.

Instead, it is the Elizabeth Tower (1859) and the clock mechanism (1854), designed by Denison and Airy, that need attention.

Any building or machine needs regular maintenance – we paint our doors and windows when they need it and we repair or replace our cars quite routinely. It is convenient to choose a day when we’re out of the house to paint the doors, or when we don’t need the car to repair the brakes. But a clock just doesn’t stop – especially not a clock as iconic as the Great Clock at the Palace of Westminster.

Repairs to the tower are long overdue. There is corrosion damage to the cast iron roof and to the belfry structure which keeps the bells in place. There is water damage to the masonry and condensation problems will be addressed, too. There are plumbing and electrical works to be done for a lift to be installed in one of the ventilation shafts, toilet facilities and the fitting of low-energy lighting.

Marvel of engineering

The clock mechanism itself is remarkable. In its 162-year history it has only had one major breakdown. In 1976 the speed regulator for the chimes broke and the mechanism sped up to destruction. The resulting damage took months to repair.

The weights that drive the clock are, like the bells and hammers, unimaginably huge. The “drive train” that keeps the pendulum swinging and that turns the hands is driven by a weight of about 100kg. Two other weights that ring the bells are each over a tonne. If any of these weights falls out of control (as in the 1976 incident), they could do a lot of damage.

The pendulum suspension spring is especially critical because it holds up the huge pendulum bob which weighs 321kg. The swinging pendulum releases the “escapement” every two seconds which then turns the hands on the clock’s four faces. If you look very closely, you will see that the minute hand doesn’t move smoothly but it sits still most of the time, only moving on each tick by 1.5cm.

The pendulum swings back and forth 21,600 times a day. That’s nearly 8m times a year, bending the pendulum spring. Like any metal, it has the potential to suffer from fatigue. The pendulum needs to be lifted out of the clock so that the spring can be closely inspected.

The clock derives its remarkable accuracy in part from the temperature compensation which is built into the construction of the pendulum. This was yet another of John Harrison’s genius ideas (you probably know him from longitude fame). He came up with the solution of using metals of differing temperature expansion coefficient so that the pendulum doesn’t change in length as the temperature changes with the seasons.

In the Westminster clock, the pendulum shaft is made of concentric tubes of steel and zinc. A similar construction is described for the clock in Trinity College Cambridge and near perfect temperature compensation can be achieved. But zinc is a ductile metal and the tube deforms with time under the heavy load of the 321kg pendulum bob. This “creeping” will cause the temperature compensation to jam up and become less effective.

So stopping the clock will also be a good opportunity to dismantle the pendulum completely and to check that the zinc tube is sliding freely. This in itself is a few days' work.

What makes it tick

But the truly clever bit of this clock is the escapement. All clocks have one - it’s what makes the clock tick, quite literally. Denison developed his new gravity escapement especially for the Westminster clock. It decouples the driving force of the falling weight from the periodic force that maintains the motion of the pendulum. To this day, the best tower clocks in England use the gravity escapement leading to remarkable accuracy – better even than that of your quartz crystal wrist watch.

In Denison’s gravity escapement, the “tick” is the impact of the “legs” of the escapement colliding with hardened steel seats. Each collision causes microscopic damage which, accumulated over millions of collisions per year, causes wear and tear affecting the accuracy of the clock. It is impossible to inspect the escapement without stopping the clock. Part of the maintenance proposed during this stoppage is a thorough overhaul of the escapement and the other workings of the clock.

The Westminster clock is a remarkable icon for London and for England. For more than 150 years it has reminded us of each hour, tirelessly. That’s what I love about clocks – they seem to carry on without a fuss. But every now and then even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care. After this period of pampering, “Big Ben” ought to be set for another 100 or so years of trouble-free running.

The Conversation

Hugh Hunt is a Reader in Engineering Dynamics and Vibration at the University of Cambridge.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.