I distinctly remember loving two forms of play as a little kid. One was to grab any cardboard container big enough for me to crawl into and, with a few well-placed holes and a bit of crayon, make it into a fort or jet plane. The other was to join the world of my miscellaneous toys by hitting the ground and getting my young mug down on their level. That way, a sandbox could stretch out like the Sahara in front of a Matchbox car and a grassy mound would be ripe for an action figure's jungle safari.
All it took was the proper amount of cardboard, or the right combination of toys, and a fertile imagination. And outside of a fort-soaking rainstorm or the occasional misguided roll over an anthill, great fun was always at hand.
LittleBigPlanet for the PlayStation 3 reminds me of those dewy-eyed escapades. In fact, the creative team behind the game must be made up of playful imaginers who never fully grew out of their own fantasy-filled childhood days. For they've built an absorbing and winsome game that, at its heart, is a simple and fun platformer, but in truth is a whole lot more.
A Beanbag by Any Other Name
Gamers play as a rough-stitched rag doll avatar called Sackboy—a beanbag character who can take on almost any fun look his/her controller desires. He's cute when you dress him up as a happy Jurassic dinosaur. She's adorable as a pouting bunny in a tutu. And he's precious as a pompadoured Elvis. (And this is coming from a guy who never uses the words cute, adorable and precious without a baby's presence and a wife's prodding elbow.)
Sackboy starts the game out as the pilot of his own "pod," a cardboard outer space-trekking craft that hovers above a fabric-covered planet. The narrator makes plain that this is a world where our untapped creativity escapes when we're asleep or daydreaming. A land where imagination becomes reality. So when Sackboy chooses a spot on the globe that contains a Creator Curator's set of differently shaped seals he's instantly transported down (along with up to three friends) to rollick through those thematically designed levels.
The game contains eight different lands ranging in style from a great metropolis to an African savannah to a collection of Japanese islands. One boasts swinging monkeys. Another features graffiti-covered benches. Still another has ninja-hiding shadows. But don't let the ninjas and spray paint fool you: all are very toy-like and wildly engaging. So even when players fall into fiery or poisonous hazards, run into the numerous skulls and skeletons in the midst of a Mexican celebration, or discover bikini-clad dancers in a Hindu Temple, it's all reminiscent of Styrofoam cutouts and a grade schooler's oversized wooden puzzle pieces rather than anything that would smack of scary, creepy or sexy.
Building Your Own Fun
Sackboy seeks to find ways to swing, jump, climb and then grab visible and hidden prizes that litter the landscapes. These prizes consist of new Sackboy outfits, a bunch of fun character features (eyes, tails, ears and teeth), stickers and decorations (to beautify the landscape and your pod), special keys that unlock minigames and a wide variety of building items. And here's where that "whole lot more" I mentioned comes in:
This is a game that's designed to be changed and customized at the player's discretion. Not only can you impact and reshape the levels you've played through, but with the game's creation tools you can go to a nearby moon and become Creator Curator of your own imaginative worlds. The easily accessible creation menu allows you to start with a blank page and literally design everything from scratch, or begin with a background template and choose bits from other levels in the game to transplant to your own.
LittleBigPlanet makes it clear that taking your nearly limitless creations online and joining friends to play through levels designed by other Creator Curators is where the real fun starts. And that can be an amusing experience. Contributing online creators have put up an assortment of homemade, puzzle-filled levels and even tributes to other games. One contributor re-created the first level of an old spaceship shooter called Gradius that's a sight to behold.
But caution should still be the first rule. For even though the game asks that participants keep the online world "as clean and respectable as possible," and states that "No Sweary Marys or Antisocial Cyrils are allowed," determined individuals can get around the rules until someone reports them.
And since players can incorporate pictures of their own choosing in their games, it's possible for young ones to stumble upon something they wouldn't normally decorate their own cardboard spaceship with. And that would ruin the fun faster than sitting on the wrong anthill.