Sunday, August 10, 2008

Sackboy: He's Kind of a LittleBigDeal

Who would have thought that something as humbly named as Sackboy would be poised to turn the gaming world on its ear? Media Molecule and Sony Computer Entertainment's new game, "LittleBigPlanet" has been receiving almost boundless praise from the gaming media since it was announced roughly one year ago. The game's full impact, however, cannot be gauged until it is loosed into the wilds of pop culture at large. Once that happens, mark my words, it will become a phenomenon.

At first glance, "LittleBigPlanet" seems quaint. It features a bunch of top-heavy little characters flopping around what looks like a carnival attraction. The objectives are simple: find this, go here, avoid this, fight that -- time tested mechanics of 2D platforming games, such as Mario and Sonic. Obviously, there is a new sheen of warmly lit, high definition graphics, but the simplicity is still apparent.

This simplicity is both central to the game's appeal and highly deceptive. It is deceptive because it belies a staggering amount of complexity. Media Molecule touts three words that will define gamers' experience with "LittleBigPlanet": create, share and play. Playing through the dozens of levels contained on the game disc is certainly part of the fun. The game has striking art design and seems to have solid gameplay, but this is only one aspect of the experience. Users have a staggering array of tools at their disposal, allowing them to create levels of their own and then, perhaps most significantly, share them with the world. "LittleBigPlanet" is essentially going to do for games what YouTube did for video. Suddenly, it does not require tons of software, education or (for better or worse) effort to share your creations with the world.

The level of creative freedom players have in the game is hard to convey. The full breadth of options, after all, is still not known, as the game will not be released until October. Examples of what has already been done, however, show much more than any list of bullet points ever could. The possibilities as far as art design, gameplay, and even storytelling are boundless.

Keep in mind that everything you see in these clips was created with the same tools gamers will have at their disposal.

There are countless other videos on YouTube that show the actual creation process, and it is apparent that its depth does not come at the expense of accessibility. The interface and controls are extremely intuitive, ensuring that players are only bound by the limits of their creativity.

By and large, there is nothing like "LittleBigPlanet." Microsoft does provide low-level development software for users to create Xbox Live games, but it is aimed at aspiring game designers and not the masses. The game's focus on community and its nostalgic aesthetic are what really bring the experience together and raise it far above any other gaming experience.

Whether you are creating a level, playing one of the pre-designed levels or playing another user's level online, you can be joined by up to three friends at any time, both those sitting on the couch next to you or those across the ocean -- and it's all seamless. Users' levels will be regulated with a star-based rating system and organized geographically, based on the creator's location.

Every step of the way, the game maintains its striking aesthetic. The main menu is a Sackboy navigating a paper maché solar system in a cardboard box that has been fashioned into a spaceship. Levels are set in the grass or dirt of a backyard. The Sackpeople have visible stitches and wear outfits of construction paper and yarn. It is simply impossible to lay eyes on the goofy expressions of these simple, little characters and not be overcome with a childish spirit of whimsical imagination.

This all may be very high praise for a game that has yet to be released, but the if the universal excitement this game has received thus far is any indication, the gaming community is only the first group of people that is going to fall in love with "LittleBigPlanet." Picasso once said it took him his entire life to learn to paint like a child. With "LittleBigPlanet," it seems that people the world over are going to take one big step in that direction.

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