This week Zero Punctuation reviews Little Big Planet.
The current gaming renaissance has been a bad time to be a mascot, all told. Since the average age of gamers is now far beyond old enough to know better, the need for a girning cartoon face to convince your mum of a console's wholesomeness has fallen in indirect proportion to the average number of lovingly rendered skull and brain fragments bursting from the backs of people's heads in a typical Christmas release. The hyperactive little shits of the '80s have become the insecure neurotics of today who need a steady drip of realistic violence to continually postpone the inevitable office shooting rampage. Sonic the Hedgehog now lives in a septic tank in a condemned hospital, and Mario's probably not far from moving in with him, since his creators are making much more money selling bathroom scales and MIDI synthesizers to undersexed, housebound women. This is a cynical time, and we don't want our big corporations to have friendly and approachable faces. As we weather the economic crisis among stockpiles of canned dog food in a refrigerator box, the image of a cabal of black-suited fiends with red, glowing eyes sitting around a spotlit conference table in a penthouse office wallpapered with banknotes gives us a nice, comforting blame figure.
Well, maybe for you. I'm part of the notoriously recession-proof entertainment industry, so I've been blowing all my money on guitars and beautiful Filipino boys. But anyway, the PS3, I've always felt, looks like something I'd expect to see bursting out of a Middle Eastern mountain range to herald the coming of the star-born ones. But Sony, it seems, have vowed to bring console gaming back to the family through the power of their big, unfeeling black monster and hence LittleBigPlanet. It's astonishing just how much effort has gone into making the game friendly. You get the impression LittleBigPlanet is waiting for you to invite it to your birthday party. A lot of that is the voice-over by Stephen Fry that feels like a velvet finger soaked in warm honey being gently worked around your earhole. I SAID EARHOLE!
And then, of course, there's the Sackboy character, who looks like the result of a sinister military experiment to concentrate cuteness to a weaponised level for use against angry girlfriends. Sackboy is a mascot for the current age, one with absolutely no identity or personality but that which the player ascribes to them. In most cases, then, this will mean that Sackboy's a mustachioed cross-dresser in a stupid hat, and if you play with friends he also has an irresistible compulsion to punch people in the face at the end of levels.
Gameplay is basically platforming so old-school it wears a mortar board and employs corporal punishment. You have to transfer yourself from A to B by way of a jump button and a physics engine. The one acknowledgment of that whole 3D thing the entire games industry has been built around for the last decade is the ability to switch intermittently between three 2D planes, usually at the point when you don't want to. Controls are a wee bit stodgy all over, like a treacle pudding that sits heavily in the stomach after a hearty meal. Jumping is also a rather difficult and inexact science, like coming up with analogies for these reviews when the air conditioning's bust.
Playing co-op with some chums is fun, because when you totally fuck someone over it's doubly funny to then turn to them in real life and make smug preening noises. Everyone gets a shared amount of life, you see, and once it's gone you have to start the whole level again, a gameplay device in place presumably to ruin friendships.
But the level design is really, really good, like. . .something good that's. . .made of chocolate. They're full of really creative mechanical devices and it's all got this wonderful charm about it that disarms you, then trips you up and plants your face into a muddy riverbed. . .made of chocolate.
If I seem to be having trouble with this review, it's because LittleBigPlanet is so bloody insubstantial. There's really nothing else to say about it. Once you get through the levels - really nice levels, mind - all you're left with is the ability to dress up like a twat and stick googly eyes all over your mission hub. I guess that means this review is a bit shorter than normal. So here's something else to fill the time.
(Yahtzee dances around in his boxers to "Soul Bossa Nova" for 12 seconds, a pair of googly eyes attached to his bum)
Oh, fuck! Sorry, I forgot - user-made content.
There's a very in-depth level designer built in, with a host of tutorials you will be tempted to go through just to have Stephen Fry's voice tonguing your coc. . .hlea for hours on end. And at the end of it, perhaps you could make some levels to put online for all to see, an act that will typically will hold all the significance of gobbing into a river.
I feel there's a fundamental different in philosophy between me and the developers of LittleBigPlanet. They believe that every single person is an extra special god child with a bud of creativity aching to burst out into a single, perfect flower, and I believe that every single person is a tosser. And any flowers that pop up are going to be buried under garbage, fiery penises, and countless reproductions of levels from Super Mario Bros., all of which the moderators hastily delete (along with anything that looks at them funny.)
If a game that stands up by itself wants to release level design and modding tools, then brillo bananas. Good modding communities are the sprinkling of cinnamon on a delicious trifle, and thus relying on user-made content is like eating heaped spoonfuls of cinnamon neat from the jar. I don't want to have to wade through waste-high rendering plant runoff to find the good levels, especially when I can do that just by playing the story mode. You know, the levels designed by professional fucking level designers? If I buy a house, I want an architect to design it. If I design it myself, it may have a more personal touch, but it's going to fall over very fast. And even if it doesn't, the giant fiberglass breasts on the front will be very tacky. And the neighbors will complain when the gingerbread garage starts to smell.
Here's my final word: it would be very ignorant of me to say that courting user-made content is lazy. It's probably a lot of work to make the design tools user-friendly and create an online sharing system for it all, but it's an awful lot of effort when all you're ultimately doing is creating a great big blank wall for people to scrawl giant cartoon cocks on.
- Determined to bring everyone down: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- Getting users to rate levels doesn't work perfectly either 'cos there are a lot of ferrety dipshits out there who will give five stars to anything that references Naruto
- No relation to the Little Big Adventure series, regrettably
(The camera cuts back to Yahtzee's googly-eyed boxers, however this time he is standing still. The camera zooms in on his bum with some rather unnerving sound effects and digital screeches. The camera will also switch to this grainy filter at times.)