For the first couple of hours in LittleBigPlanet, Stephen Fry’s narration, a reprise of his role as the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, threatens to steal the show. If not that then Sackboy, an expressive dress-me-up doll whose arms and head you can move with sticks and tilt, and whose mood you control with the D-pad, will. So careful is the introduction to this overwhelming game, and so reliant is it on paternal, unpatronising presentation, that you wonder if anything is underneath. Later, you’ll wonder if anything isn’t. Then, at work, on the train or as you drift off to sleep, you’ll wonder a little bit more. And by the time you wonder if the wondering will ever stop, you already know the answer.
By now, you’ll have likened the game to many things. Halo 3’s Forge; every Mario rolled into one; STOS and AMOS, the seminal 16-bit game-making kits; those Japanese assault course shows on Challenge TV; or an Oxford Street window display at Christmas. And what you’ll notice is that for every game it resembles, it also resembles something real.
Yes, LittleBigPlanet is a platform game, with a complete story mode of over 50 levels and minigames, all with scoreboards and support for online party play. And, yes, it’s a construction set so sophisticated that it created every one of them. But above all, it’s a world – one built with such incredible attention to detail that you half expect it to spill from the screen and across the floor.
It’s a world with widely reinforced physical rules, which to those expecting a PC-like editor will immediately seem like a compromise. Nothing could be farther from the truth. As you piece together a level out of various materials, colour it with stickers and use levers, switches, sensors and couplers to turn it into a game, the most you can do to suspend its physics is literally press pause. Only then can objects hover without being anchored, or be edited without their behaviour causing problems. Hit play and life in LittleBigPlanet resumes, anything not glued or propped in place tumbling as gravity decrees. Furthermore, the game occurs on three planes in ‘2.5D’ – if something in the background falls behind the foreground, you have to move the obstruction to select and retrieve it.
Does this make life as easy as it could be? No. It enriches it instead. As you hop, grab and swing your way through a complete level, be it yours, one of thousands sure to be uploaded, or Media Molecule’s own, behind every piece is the story of how it got there – how it was brought into being with no tricks, just a spot of glue, a dab of curiosity and some perfectly selected bric-a-brac. Scientists in the Edge laboratory tested the principle by building the first level of Strider. The stars (LEDs) had to be pressed into blackened cardboard and moored to the rooftops; the searchlights were mounted on bookmarks and slipped behind the scene. That’s not computer-aided design – it’s stagecraft, a physical kind of magic.
Work and play collide in this game with such unprecedented force that they become indistinguishable. Bungie got there first, you might argue, but there’s a fundamental difference. As its irresistibly cute intro purports, LittleBigPlanet is a world without limits. Beyond a thermometer that tells you when your level’s too complex – and we’re talking complex – it has no ceiling. What you’re given isn’t just the prefabs of the platform genre or even its pieces, but its science, updated to take advantage of its host hardware’s abilities and applicable to just about anything. Vertical and horizontal scrolling shooters, Mario clones, dialogue-driven adventure games, music boxes, score attacks, machinima, beat ’em ups, racing games, pixel art, classroom experiments, boardroom presentations: all and more are possible.
The big bang happened when the game’s beta, the products of which will be kept online at launch, began last month. In the weeks since, its universe has expanded exponentially. For those inclined to enjoy rather than promote that growth, a seemingly infinite array of user-created levels awaits. Even if the monstrous task of advertising the game falls short, the userbase is speaking for itself. The wonder shows no signs of stopping, and the results will improve to the point – in some cases, they already have – where the line between developer and consumer evaporates. If money was no object and it came preinstalled on every PlayStation 3, this game would engulf us all.
Even those put off by the notable floatiness of its platforming, the sometimes unpredictable switching between planes, the enforced tutorials, and the occasional harshness of its lives system (each checkpoint gives you a fixed number of retries) would, if they opened their pores to the game’s broader concept, suffer an irreversible change of heart. The one unavoidable problem is that the rating system for user-generated levels is obviously controlled by the community, and the tastes of the wider world may not match your own.
But LittleBigPlanet is all about changing your perspective. Just weeks after a limited preview release, this game has exploded, surely, beyond both its projections and its initial code. Even, actually, beyond the conventions of the average review. It’s a multiplayer riot, a visual landmark, a feat of engineering, and one of the most charming games ever made. But even those accolades are dwarfed by its scope, its potential, and the apparent endlessness of them both. What’s more, it sees the pariah of this generation, Sony, publishing at the height of its powers. Not since the early days of PlayStation has that troubled brand stood for – and fostered – such a daring, transcendent, magnificent piece of work.
LittleBigPlanet is one of very few games awarded an Edge 10. You can find the rest here.