Monday, October 06, 2008

LittleBigPlanet: crazy shit toolkit

A quick look at my search history (only slightly redacted) over a day of fooling around with Sony's snugglestyle platform-playbox LittleBigPlanet shows a rapid arc from eager curiosity to wholly bought-in obsession: “littlebigplanet levels” -- looking for videos to while away the beta demo download time; “littlebigplanet tutorial” -- that's when I was hoping to learn the secrets of how dudes were coming up with some of the crazy shit I was seeing; “how to knit” -- when my love of woolen mascot Sackboy bubbled out into desire to snuggle him/it for real, for ever.

Developed by Media Molecule, whose founders were responsible for the indie Rag Doll Kung Fu, LittleBigPlanet's prototype working title was “Craftworld”, a name that bombs from a marketing perspective – sounds like something you'd leaf through out of boredom while your Mom shops for scrapbooking supplies – but actually describes the game well. LittleBigPlanet takes the aesthetics of DIY handcrafts and grade-school dioramas, all chunky fabrics, corrugated boxboard, rubber stamps and glitter, and puts them in front of an almost unspeakably robust toolkit and engine for the creation of physics-based platform-game worlds.

Level editors are nothing new; as far back as Lode Runner in 1983 games were shipping with construction sets that let users design their own playspaces and/or use game elements to draw cocks and spell out swear words. It's much less common for the toolkit to be the game, to have creating and sharing content as the whole point of the experience, to have exploring content created by others comprise the overwhelming bulk of gameplay. Sure, LBP comes with plenty of pre-made material, but the only meaningful reason to play through “story” mode is to earn more tools for your kit and to get a glimpse of what those materials might make possible.

Did I say “overwhelming bulk”? That's an understatement, if anything. The game's still a couple of weeks from its official retail release, but the handful of people playing this preview beta – a few tens of thousands worldwide, a relative drop in the bucket – have cranked out enormous quantities of content, powering through the curve of learning and accomplishment from tentative first steps to near-masterpieces in maybe ten days of activity. One short afternoon's power-drive through this cloud of creativity, and you'll see some crazy shit you won't believe, constantly pushing LBP's engine to, through, and beyond the limits of what you might have thought it capable of.

Gamers being gamers, our culture of old-school reference, homage and parody is exceedingly well represented. The first thing you might notice as you orbit around LBP's planetoid menus are dozens of attempts at recreating favorite Super Mario Bros. levels, with various levels of success. From straight re-creation – Sonic's in there, too, and Mega Man, all done up in virtual burlap, paper and felt -- you go on to the adaptations: Grand Theft LittleBigPlanet, LBP Miami Vice, Indiana Jones and the LittleBigTemple of Doom, LittleBigSilent Hill, a Shadow of the Colossus riff that has to be seen to be believed...

Speaking of Silent Hill, by the way, there's another exciting thread of LBP creation, a vector that's inevitable whenever toolkits are opened and an open commons established: subversion. A mathematically trivial quantum of time elapsed between the launch of the beta and the posting of the first levels actively subverting the game/tool's wholesome wuzzy-snuggle style, deploying shapes, textures, sounds and physics to create dark places, horrible dungeons, bloodbathed abbatoirs and weird German-expressionist noir spaces where Paper Mario meets The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari by way of Godzilla.

Then, subversion beyond aesthetics – subversion of mechanics. Limits-testing geeks putting the dazzling flexibility of LBP's Rube Goldberg mechanisms to work tricking what is basically a run-and-jump platform-game engine into becoming, for example, a vertical shooter a la Space Invaders. Or a trivia game. Or an excruciatingly difficult Lunar Lander riff. Or a machine that uses LBP's sound-trigger elements to play the intro, first verse and chorus of Sweet Child o' Mine. Or – most subversive of all – a side-scrolling shooter: the pace of technical development aimed at giving sweet, pacific little Sackboy a big motherfuckin' gun to tote is dizzying.

This pace of innovation is powered in large part by a degree of sharing that goes one step beyond merely making levels available. Creators can choose to present their lovingly crafted gimmicks and gewgaws as rewards for completing their levels: play through some guy's military-themed level, for example, and you might come away with a functional model tank you can then add to your own creations, take apart to study its workings, modify as you see fit. Inasmuch as comparisons of games to film may or may not be valid, imagine: watching Touch of Evil rewards you with all the technical details and resources necessary to realize a four-minute continuous tracking shot; sitting through The Ten Commandments gives you a complete Pharaoh's Throne Room set to use in your next student film.

Sony's hoping to make Sackboy the face of the PlayStation 3, a mass-friendly mascot to soften the console's steely hard-core image heading into the midgame of this generation's battle for market share. It might work; the little bastard's adorable as all hell. But beyond the cuddliness and the frolicsome jingle-jangle of a soundtrack from The Go! Team, LittleBigPlanet is a populist game-making tool of almost terrifying power, and it just might change the medium for good.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

George and Martha. sad sad sad. Whew. Now that I've got that off my chest---- Let's have a good life! I'm going to float down the Slow Can, love the vinyasa side of life, paint walls the colour of lilac and chocolate, gunmetal and coral. Wasabi, lettuce leaf and avocado.

I will not worry about the asshole point of view, I'll breathe a sigh of relief that I'll never see them let alone have to talk to them again, never you never mind about that place I don't have to go no short ....yay! I will expire (in a fabulous room, in my 90-something year, avec the best memories a creature can have. Living well doesn't even have to be revenge if you're smart enuff, and those that wish you ill are dingy and ordinary enough.