Most videogames use technology and artistry to suck players into an ever-more-immersive experience. “LittleBigPlanet” in an exercise is anti-immersion, attracting even the most casual player to its irresistibly adorable cartoon world, then slowly pulling back the facade until they’re left with a blank canvas and the tools to create levels on their own. Coupled with a robust sharing system that borrows the best elements of YouTube, “LittleBigPlanet” is less a game than a platform for making and downloading videogame levels. Ultimate success beyond a niche of wanna-be game developers will depend on an extraordinarily active community that gives everyone else a reliable dose of new creations.
Videogames like “Halo 3,” “Half-Life” and “Doom” have been putting level-building tools in players’ hands for more than a decade. In the past, however, they’ve always been an extra feature intended for hard core players only. “LittleBigPlanet” is a bold attempt to bring that experience to the masses by hiding it in the most accessible veneer possible.
Hero SackBoy is an impossibly cute ragdoll who lives in a world of bright colors, crazy characters and wacky contraptions rendered in jaw dropping realism that rivals the best CGI films. Initially, he’s running, jumping and swinging through amusing storybook levels about missing gorillas and macabre weddings. It’s a decent introduction to the game’s 2-D platforming, though a slightly unreliable jump button, uneven difficulty spikes and an erratic camera when there’s more than one player keep the relatively brief story mode from being as engaging as it should be. Game is also hampered by a soundtrack full of global pop music that’s jarringly out of place with the fairytale aesthetic (two references to the Quran in one of the songs are also the reason “LittleBigPlanet’s” worldwide launch has been pushed back by a week).
The story is less an experience of its own, however, than an exercise in collecting hundreds of items and tools and learning how to use them. Players start by altering SackBoy’s outfits and expressions, then use stickers to add personal flare to environments. Most importantly, they’re seeing in these pre-made levels how everything they’re collecting can be combined into a living, breathing interactive experience.
One can replay story levels to the point of exhaustion in order to collect every mine cart, gorilla swing and waterwheel, but eventually “LittleBigPlanet” wants players to take the leap and start creating on their own. Media Molecule had made using SackBoy to select, place and manipulate items extraordinarily easy. Stephen Fry, the game’s grandfatherly and slightly arch narrator, provides more tutorials than most players will even need on how to do everything that’s possible. In addition to an endless number of pre-made items, there are also raw building materials and even the ability to add music-cues, new camera angles, and in-game instructions.
But as intuitive as the interface is and as much hand-holding as the game provides, there’s no avoiding the fact that eventually players will have to face a blank canvas. Designing a videogame level that’s playable, let alone challenging and immersive, takes at least a few dozen hours and a dedication to learning through trial-and-error. There’s no “LittleBigPlanet equivalent to a viral YouTube video of an adorable animal making a funny face, which means popular levels will have to be high quality. Fry’s encouragement aside, most players initially attracted by the fantastical adventures of SackBoy won’t likely have the time or passion to create them.
They’ll instead be reliant on the community, in which players can browse, download and rate others’ creations. Based on the levels made during the game’s beta test that have been shown on the Internet, there’s every reason to believe “LittleBigPlanet” will have at least some decent creators and even a few extraordinary ones. Already, there are impressive player-made levels ranging from bank heists and auto races to balancing mini-games, and even a parody of Microsoft’s Xbox 360.
“LittleBigPlanet” has one big disadvantage compared with YouTube, however, in that just sampling the wares requires a $400 Playstation 3 and $60 game. For the vast majority who won’t be creators, buying into “LittleBigPlanet” will require either a major leap of faith or strong word of mouth about all the community has to offer.