Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Making of "Sack Trek: Arena"

Pardon a little fuzzy-headedness; I'm running on what amounts to two hours' sleep, and that sleep marked by dreams so vivid and involving it might as well have been wakefulness. Dreams of shifting platforms, flickering menus, pistons, gears, pulleys and explosives, and the constant cycle like a fever-vison: fuckup, undo; fuckup, undo; fuckup, undo. Welcome to the late-nite madness of LittleBigPlanet authorship.

Now, making stuff with LittleBigPlanet's creation tools is easy. Knocking together, say, a functional fire-breathing dragon – or, perhaps more amusingly and certainly more demographically likely, a giant dick on tank treads launching electrified sperms – is the work of a couple minutes. Making an actual entire level, a level more sophisticated than the thousands of worthless “steep hill with ramp” stages clogging up the LBP servers, is more arduous. When my first opus, a cutsey adventure featuring a ride on an owl and a mission to aid a group of deer-worshipping cultists, got vaporized by the close of the pre-release beta period, my heart kind of went out of it; I was content just to meander through the work of others. Yesterday, though, I was inspired to rejoin my worldwide brethren and sistren and get back into the wonder, joy and toil of creation.

Creation... otherwise known as “intellectual property infringement." Unless you move in certain subcultural online circles you may not have heard the howls, but they have been loud and echoing in the hidden chambers: LittleBigPlanet publisher/developers Sony/Media Molecule have been perceived as being hard and merciless in their moderation (i.e. deletion) of LBP levels featuring famous properties. Unfortunately, this means a Pac-Man-shaped portion of the LBP pie is living on borrowed time; seventy per cent of the “community content” – and almost all of the best stuff – has been themed on Batman, God of War, Shadow of the Colossus, Grand Theft Auto, Sex and the City (?!) or some other familiar touchstone. This is natural and wholly predictable behavior for early-adopting nerds, and its censure pisses them right off. In old-school fuck-you solidarity, I abandoned my original IP, the deer-cult-owl thing, and set to work on a stage based on the original-series Star Trek episode “Arena". The one where Kirk fights a lizard man.

Sleeves rolled up and elbows-deep into the toolkit, and the depth of possibility LBP makes available becomes more apparent as every new idea becomes quick reality, even (or maybe especially) when doing the broad strokes. Hang a big black rectangle, spangle it with stars and a moon or two, and bam: Space... the final frontier. A few swipes with some grayish-white material, and there's a recognizable Enterprise. Hollow out bridge, Captain's quarters, turbolift shaft, transporter room... drop to the “planet surface," pull in the readymade Desert scenery, click three times and there's a passable ruined colony, still in flames from the Gorn (aka lizard man) attack. Bam, bam, bam. I am like unto a God, a Roddenberry in virtual styrofoam.

Ah, but... God's in creation, and the Devil's in the details. Two hours of tinkering to get the turbolifts a) working and b) not crushing the player against a bulkhead. Another two or three puzzling over how to create a beam-down effect before just saying Fuck It and letting gravity (and a transparent tube) handle the problem. Tinkering with the Gorn character 'til 3 a.m., first fussing over the motion of its limbs (there's a fine line between threatening and spastic) then fine-tuning the aim on the deadly boulders he's chucking. Agonizing over a spring-loaded death-contraption where Kirk has to zipline over some flaming spikes – it's not canon, but no LBP level can be called complete without flaming spikes. Now to model Kirk's improvised musket...

And that's just the mechanical stuff. What really traps you is the set decoration, the need to get everything exactly right. As long as I spent modeling the Gorn, I spent at least twice that furnishing my Enterprise. The red-alert lights, the space-plants and astro-tapestries in Kirk's Love Chamber. The bridge decor: Captain's chair, consoles, viewscreen and the alien face thereon, Spock's dialogue, background electronic ambiance. Machinery of the transporter room, Scotty's red uniform, sound effects of the beam-down...

The only way to stay sane is to stop fighting for fidelity and let yourself roll with LBP's lo-fi arts-n-crafts aesthetic – suggest, rather than simulate. A viewscreen? Here's a sticker that looks kind of like a TV; slap it up on the wall and move on. Players will get it. Here's the power and glory of theming your level on an established pop-cult property: readymade context. Build a big, urban level with lots of ziplines and pulleys and a big black hotrod... fine. Begin that exact same level with a tuxedoed gingerbread man saying “Good evening, Master Bruce!” and suddenly those clankity traverses become Bat-Ropes, that car becomes the Batmobile, a narrative is in play, and it's f'n sweeet.

I think Sony/MM will relent on their IP-infringement crackdown; I think they'll have to. Their core audience – which in the case of a crowdsourced-content game like LBP is also their core creative team – are bred-in-the bone fanboys, remixers, nostalgists and payers of homage, and those folks won't play (or make) ball if their work's a moderator's click away from becoming electron dust just because it has a picture of Mega Man in it. Meanwhile, look for “Sack Trek: Arena”, coming soon to a Planet near you... just as soon as I get those goddamned boulders right...

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