Lego Harry Potter

The Harry Potter universe was made for Lego

Lego Harry Potter
Traveller's Tales

It's difficult to be a responsible parent and a conscientious geek. Being a well-adjusted liberal, I am acutely aware that when consumed in a balanced way as part of a broad cultural diet, video games can form a valuable place for families to play together. I am even prepared to gamble that such activities might not render my six-year-old son a sociopath and retard his literacy; that's how progressive I am. The biggest disappointment with taking this position, however, is that the mainstream video-game industry offers very little for parents and kids to play
together that isn't irredeemably awful.

In 2005, Giant Interactive Entertainment, a fledgling publisher, attempted to address this market. Wielding a licence to make Lego video games, it set about working out what such a thing could be. After months of prototyping, it had created a game that expressed "Lego-ness" eloquently, allowing players to come together in a safe environment and giving them a sense of permission to explore the world. By Giant's own admission, though, the Lego alone wasn't compelling enough - a further narrative framework was required. Lego Star Wars: the Video Game was duly released in April 2005.

It was a bold design template disguised in a child-friendly confection. In a break from a long-established gaming convention, players found that they couldn't die. They would be challenged, but not punished. There would be a sense of risk, but not danger. The world of the Lego video game was a safe one, in which players were encouraged to play together, collaboratively solving problems and making progress. It offered a rare opportunity not just to play with your kids, but to find a place to be a parent.

Over 50 million sales later (and via Lego Batman and Lego Indiana Jones), Lego Harry Potter arrives on our consoles. The Potter universe is seemingly made for Lego, as this loose restaging of the film demonstrates with trademark wit. One of the tensions at the heart of the previous games has been realising the promise that the game-world is as reconfigurable as Lego. Hogwarts finally delivers on this, with practically everything in the environment capable of doing something - so much so, in fact, that the clouds of exploding, reconfiguring bricks occasionally serve to fog your view.

The central mechanism that Harry Potter offers any game designer is, naturally, magic, which is gradually bestowed upon the player in carefully measured power-ups. It is disarmingly joyous to unleash a new spell on a pile of bricks, causing them to spin wildly in the air and reassemble into another object, and then to realise that you're grinning widely as you do it. It's pre-canned animation, but it feels magical.

The Lego video games are famed for their character animation, a wittily warm rendering of mini-figures whose limbs have been allowed to bend just enough to give them the agility required to perform the stunts for a given adventure. The central joke running through the Star Wars series was the irony in seeing the operatic pomp of George Lucas's original replayed by tiny, inexpressive Lego folk (with hilarious consequences). The Lego games are less good at exposition, however. Somehow, I have managed to watch only the first Potter film, leaving me confused by the game's attempt to tell a story. The film franchise isn't just a marketing adjunct to the Lego games; it provides essential context, without which players won't be able fully to understand the game.

While one's experience of modern franchise partnerships tells you to expect a McGame Happy Meal, Lego: Harry Potter is a banquet of care and intelligence. It's a great and generous piece of work - yet it also feels like a moment to pause and take stock. It is surely reductive to attack Traveller's Tales (which merged with Giant) for repeatedly courting globalised entertainment franchises and prefixing them with the word "Lego", but where does Lego go next?

Having been acquired by Warner Bros for £100m in 2007, and already enjoying a lucrative relationship with LucasArts (the interactive wing of George's empire), Traveller's Tales is now in a position to do something surprising. While we wait to see what that might be, Lego Star Wars: the Clone Wars is coming soon.

Iain Simons is director of the GameCity festival.

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.

This article first appeared in the 20 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Catholicism in crisis