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Old 11-10-2008, 09:07 AM   #1
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Little Big Planet - Please Rate This Review

Part 1:

High point - I'm sure that greater 'highs' are yet to come, as I explore more community levels, and my own creative power. So far though, I think that my highest point was when, after the loading had finished, I was transported directly from my ‘pod’ to the first level, with no in-between screens. This served to heighten the immediacy and impact of the triumphantly expositional atmosphere of the first area, as I waltz about, enjoying the ‘floaty’, but incredibly graceful movement of my sackboy.

Low point - Watching the ‘thermometer’, which indicates the amount of free ‘space’ available when in create mode, rise far faster than I had expected, considering the relatively small amount of ‘stuff’ I was creating.

WTF - I'm afraid i havn't spent enough time with the game to witness a WTF moment worth mentioning. Sorry.

The subject matter of focus in a videogame is often made clear in the games’ controls. In little big planet, the player can make their sack-person run, jump and grab, as well as move between the 3 planes. The first two of these commands, positions Little Big Planet firmly as a ‘platformer’ (the meaning of which we will explore later), while the ability to grab, and to move between 3 2D-ish planes, opens up a world of possibilities for new gameplay experiences, some directly integrated into the platforming, and others which could branch out in drastically different directions.

Given the wealth of potential for largely unexplored gameplay, it is surprising the extent to which Media Molecule stick to basic platforming in their levels. Platforming itself acts, at its core, as an abstract expression of human movement. It isolates elements including momentum and self projection (jumping), to present a focused experience on these elements which are of intrinsic interest to us, as humans. In keeping with the tradition maintained by countless other platforming games, the experience in Little Big Planet is shaped, most of the time, by a goal, which turns ‘hard’ jumps into challenges in which the player can succeed or fail. This brings into play the ideas of human mastery and reward, while at other times, also similarly to most other ‘platformers’, the play on movement is left in pure form; challenge reduced in favor of conveying the simple joy of this abstraction of human movement. Both of these elements of ‘platforming’ are directed by the assumption of rightward progression (and some times leftward); this is simply a practicality which Mediamolecule adopts in keeping with the tradition.

In spite of what has been said by other critics though, I think that Mediamolecule restates those same old concepts of abstract movement, mastery and reward, with considerable flair. The jumping is ‘floaty’ in that your sack person moves relatively slowly through the air, and in-air manipulation of horizontal direction is slow to accelerate, but the controls are very responsive nonetheless (while the manipulation takes time to ‘accelerate’, it begins accelerating the moment you move the stick). For this reason, these mechanics can’t be seen as ‘wrong’, or ‘not as good as Mario’, on the contrary, they are simply different design decisions, which have a different effect on the player. Aimless platforming is joyful, and platforming for the sake of mastery is master-able. Nevertheless, despite this small variance, the platforming side of the game doesn’t communicate much new, that is, to the player who has already played, say, 2D Super Mario and N.

The main progression to the platforming form of expression of movement is rooted in the ability to grab. The utilization of this ability, as far as platforming is concerned, is as you’d imagine. Many challenges involve swinging across gaps whilst holding onto a small object suspended on a rope or, ‘string’. Slightly more inventive ones involve rotating circles which your sack-person must grab onto before releasing at the right point on its circumference of rotation, so as to be propelled in the desired direction. Of course, similar mechanics have been used many times before, but not so much in a 2D platformer.

The ability to grab, though, could be used to set up challenges which require more careful thinking than quick judgment of momentum. Media Molecule do touch upon this, for example with a boss battle which requires you to drag explosives towards the boss to defeat it, along with a few puzzles which require some dragging around of blocks, but I feel they leave a vast amount of creative potential unexplored. In normal circumstances I may not have made a deal of this, but by emphasizing the inclusion of such a comprehensive level creator, the developers effectively challenged us to think as creatively as possible as to the possibilities within the given constraints, and so it comes as a surprise that they have done little to inspire with their carefully crafted levels.

Their creativity with platforming-related level design is slightly more inspiring. Large stretches of up-down-oscillating platforms, which throw your sack person about as you attempt to traverse from one side to the other come to mind. I also liked the use of rotating circular platforms. In these cases, media molecule has, arguably, innovated within the genre as a whole, but I still feel that more should be expected this far down the line. Certainly, I think that the community will be more creative at using the creation tools in this area.

I suppose that the main area of creativity that players will appreciate in Mediamolecules’ levels is in the visual design. Part of the visual appeal is in how ‘diagrammatic’ the graphics are. Since many of the textures and designs relate directly to the objects to which they refer, and in this case, the visuals essentially take on the value of the pure, gameplay-related level design; in the same way that many cars look good when their aesthetics correspond to their function, such as streamlined shapes, and engine-cooling vents.

The other part of the visual appeal though, is in the illusions which Mediamolecule create using only the basic, self-referential materials. Mediamolecule do a pretty good job here at skillfully creating meaningful visuals out of the primitive looking building blocks, and many people will appreciate the actual things which they create, but I personally find most of it a little tacky and cluttered.

Now I said at the beginning that a games’ subject of focus can often be figured out by looking what controls it gives you, and now we must consider whether the level creating tools should be included as an artistic subject, or simply as tools for creating an artistic subject. I would say, at this point in my writing, that they are essentially the latter, but Media Molecule are somewhat communicative in the restrictions implied by the tools. The restrictive qualities of the tools are far removed from a paintbrush and some colors (in which case the possibilities really are endless), in Little Big Planet, the artist is restricted to creating blocks of different materials on 3 parallel 2D-ish, planes. The biggest restriction of course though, is that as a game, the user created levels can only be interacted with by a sack person and must be designed accordingly (unless you simply design visually), in which case the restrictions wouldn’t be unrecognizably removed from those in painting.

Last edited by steamednotfried; 11-11-2008 at 05:57 AM. Reason: forgot to include high, low and WTF
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Old 11-10-2008, 09:10 AM   #2
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Little Big Planet (part 2) - please Rate This Review

PART 2! - Please read part 1 first!

In the sense that the tools are, in fact, expected to be used with the sack person in mind though, the level creation tools could be seen to be expressive of the same fundamental platforming ideas as the rest of the game, as enforced by the control the player is given over their sack person. Perhaps the ability to create levels with these restrictions in mind actually acts as a deeper exploration of those basic platforming concepts. If we view it like that, than we can see the inclusion of the creation tools as the developers’ most compelling contribution to the platforming genre.

Unfortunately, while the creation tools have strong premise, with convincing physics and ‘2.5D’ space, there are numerous problems with its execution which prevent it from being as persuasive as it could be in opening the player’s mind to the possibilities of platforming. One of the detracting aspects of the create mode is the camera. It will follow you around when you move, but you can only control its level of zoom when you are in hover mode. This means that when you want to create something, you have to anticipate before hand where you want it to be (so you can move your sack person to the appropriate area), and also what sort of size it will be, because unless you go into hover mode before hand and get the right level of zoom, you may find that you’ll be trying to make something off the screen, or if it does follow you, you’ll be disorientated as to its exact size and position in relation to the rest of your level. Further more, if you’re making something which is big, but with small detail, you’ll have to exit in between these stages to change the level of zoom. Why didn’t they make the otherwise redundant square button switch the sticks between controlling material placement and camera positioning? And when the ‘popit’ menu isn’t up, why not use the currently unused buttons as hotkeys to go strait to the ‘popit’s’ sub-categories. Triangle to bring up the basic cursor would be sensible, and it wouldn’t be too outrageous to use circle and the unused shoulder buttons L1, L2 and R2 to bring up others.

A greater issue is that the game often inexplicably ignores your commands. Often you can end up trying to select an object to manipulate 3 times before it comes under your control. Even more frustrating is that often when you tweak objects such as bolts, with variable properties, it simply doesn’t register, so you have to open the menu again and repeat the laborious task.

The ‘thermometer’ which rises as you place more stuff down is also very disconcerting. It tends to rise a lot with the first few objects you make, which makes me personally feel very insecure, it feels like the game is opposed to my creativity. It’s not at all consistent though; different objects with seemingly similar attributes can take up drastically different amounts of thermometer space, while often even the same object can take up different amounts of space at different times of creation. Most of these problems are essentially minor, but together they make the creation tools feel far less encouraging.

So if we view little big planet as a progression of the art of a particular form of abstract movement which we call platforming; the main progression being the creation tools, which bring the concept of platforming to a heightened level of immediacy and encourage us to develop a deeper relationship with it. Indeed, if we view games in general to be a medium which is distinguished by it’s allowing the recipient to actively engage with the rules, while other art mediums simply present rules (where rules basically mean cause and effect, if this happens then this happens, where the artists choices their use of rules is the driving force of all art), then the creation tools could be seen as an interesting and indeed natural next step for videogames and certainly the platforming genre.

While many others disagree, the basic platforming template which they have made is very proficient and beautiful in my opinion. Further more, the basic design of the creation tools is very clever and compelling. Unfortunately though, a lack of attention to certain details in the creation tools hold them back somewhat from feeling like the powerful unraveling of platforming possibilities that I expected. And in my opinion, most of Media Molecules creations where far from inspiring, but this last point comes down largely to my taste and many people will enthusiastically appreciate their designs.

While this seems like a nice, balanced place to leave the review, I must say that I’m not sure that the platforming genre (and by platforming I mean this particular form of abstract representation, as opposed to all games which focus on human movement) is actually worth further exploration. It could be seen that the physics and ability to grab, change the game enough for it to go in a completely different direction. But in this new direction, which would be more about physics puzzles and the like, platforming would only be a means to transport your ‘object manipulator’, and this could possibly be replaced by a simple cursor. Clearly though, this is not the direction they have gone, since their levels are so centered around platforming, and since they have made such a proficient platforming system. While I still enjoy it to a certain extent, I can’t help but feel like this concept has had its day and the existence of this game really pushes the point a bit further than it needs to be pushed. I feel it’s time to move on to new forms of representation of human movement. I recently played ‘Mirrors Edge’, which of course is far more representational, and it felt very fresh concept worth exploring. Equaly I can imagine different sorts of more abstract representations of human movement which would be worth looking in to, but I think that the old form that we call platforming, put forward originally by Shigeru Miyamoto, has said what it needs to say.
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Old 11-10-2008, 09:12 AM   #3
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Little Big Planet (part 3) - Please Rate This Review

PART 3! Please read parts 1 and 2 first!

This is basically the end of the review, but just a little personal point here, is that around the time when I first started hearing about Little Big Planet, I was under the impression that they planned to integrate ‘play’ and ‘create’, which is basically what they said, but I was disappointed to discover, closer to the games launch, that the game, in reality, is no more than a game with a separate level creator. If they had integrated the two, then they could have had puzzles which would have required the player to create appropriate mechanisms, vehicles and such, to solve. A simple example may be to present the player, at one point in a larger level, with a large wall of bricks which couldn’t be passed un-aided. The player could then be given a limited amount of material, and perhaps a designated zone within which they were allowed to create, where they might make some sort of catapult. While platforming would still be a significant component of such a game, the main gameplay concept would be to do with building objects for practical purposes, similarly to ‘Crayon Physics’, or ‘World of Goo’, and this certainly is an area which games would do well to explore. Up until recently, average computers or consoles may not have been able to handle this sort of gameplay very well, but Little big planet actually has the ability as it stands, all the developers needed to do was to allow the player access to certain other ‘popit’ categories whilst in ‘play’ mode, and remake the levels accordingly. Overall, I’m disappointed in the vision and creativity that Media Molecule displayed in Little Big Planet, which ended up feeling to me like an unnecessary pressing of the last drops of the platforming genre.

Disclosures: This review was based on a PAL version of Little Big Planet, purchased from a local retailer. Upon writing this review, i have spent about 8 hours playing through the relatively small number of levels on the disk with some repetition of earlier levels. I also spent about 5 hours learning and playing with the creation tools, along with a couple of hours playing early community creations.

Parents: The only standard-type problem, is the potential for 'offensive' language when playing online, along with the potential for community levels to contain sculptures of penis’s or the like.

Apart from that, the only possibly concern which comes to mind is in the level design, which sometimes encourages the player to run around collecting 'points', with no challenge. This could cause temporary to mindlessness in some. Fortunately all of the audio speech is of a high quality; delivered with excellence by Stephen Fry, so you don't have to worry about your kids being fed trash in this sense.

Deaf and hard of hearing: Certainly audio is not necessary while playing through levels. However, while most can be sussed out, allot of the tutorials for the creation tools relies somewhat on audio.
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Old 11-10-2008, 10:46 AM   #4
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Re: Little Big Planet (part 3) - Please Rate This Review

Wow, you wrote a lot! You must feel strongly about LBP to have spent that much time on this piece. And I think you're off to a great start on a review.

You cover the game quite thoroughly, but it's too long for a web-based review. You should be able to fit a review in a single post on the forums. Although this game could almost justify two separate reviews to be thorough: one for create mode, and one for play mode. Alas for the reviewer who must cover both!

A good way to be more concise is to identify where there is too much detail for the reader, and our style. For example, in part two you have a para about the camera frustrations; that could be summed in a sentence or two, and would likely suffice to convey your message. Jumping doesn't need quite so much detail either (although I'm glad you mentioned the floaty jumps!).

You did a great job of keeping in first person. You could avoid the use of single quotes though, I don't think those are at all necessary. (And if it's appropriate, normal double qoutes would be fine.)

Good references to Crayon Physics and World of Goo.

We try not to "laundry-list" the features in our reviews; I had to break that tendency myself when I started.

I think the last para in part 2 would make for a better opening, and set the tone for the rest of your review. Incidentally, your feelings match mine after playing the beta (you can find my blog about it if you're curious).

Your very last paragraph (part 3) seems key; and I'd focus more on it than controls as the content of the review. Again, this is tricky, because you could also write the review and have the extra thoughts as a later follow up.

I hope this was helpful.

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Old 11-10-2008, 11:33 AM   #5
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Re: Little Big Planet (part 3) - Please Rate This Review

Yes, it was useful, and thanks allot for taking the time to read, but I don't feel you quite got the main point of my review. You pointed to my listing of features; but each of the 'features' I describe is only discussed in relation to the overriding thread, a very interesting one as well if I may say so. Nevertheless, I don't feel that my ideas where particularly well communicated, and thus I cannot blame you for slightly misinterpreting my approach. Naturally, I find it hard at this point in my development of ideas, to write clearly, because I am so caught up in simply coming up with them in the first place (because the videogame medium is so young, so we don't have a rich backdrop of assumptions which we can build on in our writing). I will try to communicate more clearly in the future. Thanks again for your time.
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Old 11-11-2008, 06:25 PM   #6
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Re: Little Big Planet (part 1)- Please Rate This Review

Hi S.N.F. -

just wanted to say that I basically echo Jason's comments pretty much down the line.

Primarily, I think it's too long and the potency of the points you make get lost in the sheer volume of the article. More than anything else, I think the strength of your arguments would only be amplified if the piece was about half the length that it is now.

I like your approach and I liked what you had to say, and I think this would be a great counterpoint piece to all of the cheerleader-type reviews out there with just a little work.
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Old 11-12-2008, 03:30 AM   #7
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Re: Little Big Planet (part 1)- Please Rate This Review

Yeah i think i sort of agree, i might re-make it and re post, but to be honest i don't feel particularly enthusiastic about this review (primarily because i feel neither here nore there about the game), and so i might just move on to something else.

Thanks allot for taking your time to read it though.

Last edited by steamednotfried; 11-12-2008 at 03:31 AM. Reason: forgot my manners
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