Tuesday, September 15, 2009

LittleBigPlanet: One Year Later

For all of my excitement over LittleBigPlanet last summer, I could not help but feel a bit apprehensive. Media Molecule's humble, little game for the Playstation 3 had tremendous buzz from the media, but no one could be sure how well the game would really work until it was loosed upon the world and given some time to grow. Some wondered if putting faith in the gamer masses to keep such a game alive and vibrant was naive. Thankfully, the game's whimsical aesthetic was not merely window dressing. LittleBigPlanet has not only captured the imaginations of millions of gamers; it has allowed them to flourish.

LittleBigPlanet's launch was, admittedly, a bit rocky. Controversy over the lyrics in one of the game's licensed songs delayed its worldwide release by a few days. It was, sadly, a faux pas that resulted from the developers' desire to make a game that drew from a diverse mix of cultures, but it was rectified swiftly and the delays were ultimately minor. There were a few other flaws, these more closely related to the game itself, that initially hampered the game, as well. The original system for locating a user-created level was woefully clunky. Players only had one choice for finding a level – the cryptic "Cool Levels" section that would select a few new and popular levels to advertise. It did not take more than a few weeks, however, for robust search and sorting options to be introduced to the game.

Suddenly, a burgeoning world full of excellent levels was easily accessible. Yes, there is certainly the predictable share of junk levels – "Easy Trophies!" "1,000 Free Objects!" – but it does not take much work to locate countless, other levels that are easily on par with Media Molecule's own (excellent) work.

The first level I recall truly blowing my understanding of the game's possibilities out of the water was Upsilandre's "LittleBigComputer." Hardly a typical level, there is no platforming and no clear goal for the player; there is simply a fully-functional calculator that the creator had built using the mechanical materials provided.

I find it very unlikely that the developers foresaw their tools being used in this sort of way. That such work is possible speaks to the versatility of the tools they created – not to mention the obvious ingenuity of the level's creator. Be sure to check out the end of the video, when the creator explores the guts of the device. It is jaw-dropping.

Most players, undoubtedly, came to LittleBigPlanet for a more traditional, platforming-based experience. Media Molecule's own levels that shipped on the disc certainly fit the bill. Yet, the developers have not released a single new level since the game's launch. It is a shrewd move – a decisive show of faith in the community and the spirit of the game. I, admittedly, often find myself wishing that they would make a few more levels but the developers know better than to try to overshadow the work of the game's community.

There is no shortage of excellent, traditional levels from the LittleBigPlanet community, either. Countless works showcase an incredible knack for level design, lighting, art design and engineering among many community members.

One example, dan_e2040's "Yggdrasil," remains one of my favorites to this day. It boasts a solid mix of jumping-and-grabbing traversal sections, disappearing platforms and original vehicle sequences. It is all set in a wonderfully atmospheric forest of ancient trees, softly lit by multicolored lights. Even down to the carriage that ends the level, each object is rendered with an amazingly detailed array of rustic branches and planks.

Other creators have dreamed up levels that are equally fun to play, but push the creation tools to their extremes, making levels that not only provide unique challenges, but incredible visual experiences, as well.

ShadowFlareX's "Illumina Garden 2," for example, makes wonderful use of the game's powerful lighting tools. Players must traverse platforms of light, as they navigate the otherwise pitch-black level. Simply jumping from one platform to another takes on a whole new level of difficulty when only the character's feet are visibile. Glowing spheres lift the player for surreal floating sequences and other sections have the player navigating the level in silhouette. While the aesthetics in this level certainly have an effect on how it is played, it will affect viewers' eyes more than it does their fingers. The level is simply beautiful, with bold colors and ethereal shadows permeating every corner.

One glance reveals that this level is brilliant from an artistic standpoint, but anyone familiar with LittleBigPlanet's creation tools will also be floored by ShadowFlare's innovations from a technical standpoint. I am quite familiar with the Create Mode in the game, and I no idea how the creator achieved much of what he or she did with this level.

Needless to say, I have have barely even skimmed the top of what has become a massive collection of levels – over one million as of late July. There is no question that players will continue to break new ground with this game, providing much fun for others to discover. Media Molecule has showed no interest in letting the pace slow, either. The addition of the Paintinator (a paint gun pickup) to the game late last year added a whole new level of gameplay mechanics and the impending addition of water and swimming mechanics this fall promises to change the game even more. LittleBigPlanet: Game of the Year Edition was recently released as well, featuring exclusive, new levels from some of the community's best creators.

One year later, it is apparent that LittleBigPlanet did not merely meet the huge expectations it fostered before its release; the game continues to surprise in both the versatility of the platform and the brilliance of its community's creators. In short, gamers have proven that Media Molecule's faith was well placed and that we all get to reap the benefits.

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