Oh, LittleBigPlanet 2. What the hell am I going to do with you? You are a game that is difficult to quantify, much less qualify—larger perhaps than any single console experience out there, built as if by hand by extraordinarily, terrifyingly bright people and brought to life with a kinetic sensibility. An ode to joyous, chaotic motion, you are the toy box and the toys wrapped into one, the Rube to my PS3’s Goldberg. You have music in your soul. You are a spectacularly groovy game.
I’m at a bit of a loss as to how to proceed here, so I’ll just do that which man has done for thousands of years when faced with the vast reaches of his own imagination: I’ll cling to what I know. In this case, that’s LittleBigPlanet 2’s predecessor, 2008’s LittleBigPlanet. I had to eventually concede that the phrase that best encapsulated Media Molecule’s first game was “admired more than liked.” I liked it, sure, in the way we all liked that goofy, bright kid in our fifth-grade class, the one with a whiff of homeschooling about him, who was perpetually building amazing class-projects and leaving school to attend renaissance faires. He was cool to talk about, but also a little overwhelming and not that much fun to actually hang out with.
At times it seemed as though the appeal of LittleBigPlanet wasn’t so much the actual game as it was the fact of the game. Its adorable characters and Gondry-esque world stood apart from the verisimilitude of Uncharted and Killzone, and its wide-armed embrace of user creativity was all but unprecedented on the console scene. There was a certain classiness about it; a Britishness, for lack of a better word. Perhaps that was due to the presence of narrator Stephen Fry (who returns in fine form for the sequel), but LittleBigPlanet had an inclusive, global sensibility that went beyond its world-tour story mode. It was a game that Barack Obama had no trouble including in his national STEM initiative, a PS3 exclusive that really felt like a PS3 exclusive. Apologies to 360 fans, but PS3 owners know what I’m talking about.
But the game itself… well, therein lay the rub. LittleBigPlanet was primarily a two-dimensional platformer, and despite all of its occasionally literal bells and whistles, it just wasn’t a particularly good one. The game was designed around its admittedly wondrous physics engine, but as a result the objects in the gameworld felt heavy and imprecise. Worse, Sackboy himself felt ungainly and frustratingly unpredictable to control, cute though he may have been.
Fortunately LittleBigPlanet 2 is much, much more fun to play than LittleBigPlanet. What’s interesting is how the designers at Media Molecule went about making that happen—rather than tighten up the game’s physics or redesign its platforming, they simply added more mechanics to the core game and in doing so circumvented many of the first title’s more frustrating elements. Unfortunately, that does mean that the platforming in LittleBigPlanet 2 is still a bit loose and can be frustrating in parts, but for some reason I didn’t mind it as much. It certainly helps that death feels far less punitive than it did in the first game.In any given level of LittleBigPlanet 2, Sackboy (now referred to by the non-gender-specific “Sackthing”) is granted all manner of cool powerups, from a super-strong throwing arm to a riotously fun grappling hook to a menagerie of differently powered, rideable animals. A surprisingly small percentage of the game is spent doing unadorned platforming, and the overall experience is undoubtedly stronger for it.
It’s during the plentiful mounted “vehicle” segments that LittleBigPlanet 2 really sets itself apart from its predecessor. Players are given all kinds of new locomotive abilities—a rabbit that leaps and crashes through the air, a spinning hamster-ball that sticks to walls, a wandering camel that shoots lasers, a flying bee, a zooming caterpillar, a barking dog—the upshot is that LittleBigPlanet 2 changes its gameplay gears with a surprising regularity. Peppered into the Mario jumping and stomping is a wide range of references to other classic titles—Sonic Spinball, Galaga, Contra, Bionic Commando, Shadow of the Colossus, Lemmings, Pong—all of which zip by without overstaying their welcome.
Of course, the story mode is only half the story, so to speak. LittleBigPlanet 2 comes bundled with an entire level-, world- and game-creation toolkit, giving users some remarkably intuitive tools with which to create incredibly complicated work. Fifty well-produced and informative tutorials guide players through all manner of creative activity—building and editing objects, manipulating the environment with the Playstation Move, taking photos and inserting them into the gameworld, designing complex multiplayer RTS games… it seems like a cliché to say that the only limit is a player’s imagination, but in this case it is actually true. The only addition I would’ve liked to see is mouse and keyboard support in the level editor. With such a wealth of options, it remains a bit of a hinderance to attempt to build levels using either the Dualshock controller or the Move.
It’s worth bearing in mind that all of the levels in the single-player game could theoretically be re-created in the level-editor. Occasionally I became so boggled by the resourceful creativity of the folks at Media Molecule that I almost couldn’t bear to set foot in the level-building room myself, Stephen Fry’s dulcet coaxing be damned. Fortunately, players who don’t want to make their own levels will still have a ridiculously massive game. LittleBigPlanet 2 is fully backward-compatible with the more than 2.5 million user-created levels that are already available for free online, and lord only knows how many new creations will pop up once the sequel has had a while to percolate amongst the user-base. The rest of the game’s online functionality works seamlessly as well; up to four players can tackle co-op or competitive challenges together, play through the campaign, or even head into the level-editor and build a world together. LittleBigPlanet 2 also supports casual drop-in/drop-out multiplayer a la Demon’s Souls. (Yes, I just compared LittleBigPlanet 2 to Demon’s Souls.) At one point during my first playthrough, I was battling a difficult boss when a box popped up asking if another player could join my game. I accepted, and a second sackgirl bounced onto the screen and helped me fight my way to victory. The day was won, and so she waved and took off, presumably back to her day job as a reporter for the Daily Planet. It was, suffice to say, pretty cool.There’s an actual story to the game’s story mode this time around too, and it’s a surprisingly epic one. It’s light and never feels truly consequential, but it’s heartfelt and contains some moments of genuine drama. At the narrative’s heart is the conflict between negativity and positive creativity, which informs the game’s meta-narrative as well, for LittleBigPlanet 2 is nothing if not a celebration of creativity. Though it must be said that as much as the game’s designers want their players to feel creatively empowered, on the balance it felt a bit more like a celebration of their creativity than of my own.
But if the levels feel more like showcases for Media Molecule’s supremely talented level design team than they do approachable templates for user-designed levels, it’s only because they’re so damn good. They run the gamut in terms of length, style, look and feel, sprawling across six different worlds, each with its own distinctive visual and audio palate. Gooey confections bounce and melt across a tea-party wonderland while mosquitos and bees hum about the entrance to a tropical psych-ward and tiny robots mount a revolution in a Soviet propaganda-tinged factory. One level, set within a dark cave lit only by wandering fireflies, is one of the most abjectly lovely things I’ve seen in recent memory—flickering shadows, silently glowing flames and ghostly, reverberating music.
And oh, the music. For all its talk of building, jumping and making, LittleBigPlanet 2 has a musical soul. The visual hodgepodge of each level is reflected in its soundtrack, which is comprised of one of the more eclectic collections of licensed music I’ve encountered in an entertainment product. Prokofiev transitions seamlessly to Ladytron, stank elecronica by Lorn is replaced by ripping boss-battle metal from Nightwish. A jaunty platforming level is backed by the old standard “Limehouse Blues” and then suddenly I’m bouncing along to gorgeous dream-pop by Ochre before a crashing, epic boss encounter scored by Dimitri Shostakovich. Dimitri Shostakovich! In a videogame!As I made my way through each level, I noticed that the music was layering, growing more and more complex as I progressed. Sparse motifs in early sections would give way to deep basslines and pulsing beats, mirroring how each level was growing in complexity. It’s a surprisingly effective way of adding momentum, each level ending in a stomping, grooving situation reminiscent of Wile E. Coyote’s Acme workshop. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention LittleBigPlanet 2’s outstanding original score, composed by a group of talented writers led by Paul Thomson and Kenneth C M Young, with Winifred Phillips contributing a favorite track as well.
There’s so much more I could say, and I suppose that’s the challenge with a game like LittleBigPlanet 2. It feels infinite, and that may well be a turnoff for some. Beneath the leaping and the bounding, there remains the nagging sense that the game—and by extension its developers—actually expects something of me, that if I don’t go onto my private moon and build something spectacular, Stephen Fry will hang his head and all of Craft-World will be very very sad. But despite that, LittleBigPlanet 2 kept me engaged with just the right blend of super-fun level design, great gameplay twists, raucous multiplayer and smashingly great music. I started the game a skeptic, but by the time I hit the second world I was utterly won over.
“Do not take lightly your dreams, your fantasies,” advises LittleBigPlanet 2. Work with them, believe in them. Build them into something more, something wonderful. Or something stupid, or daft; ugly or hilarious. Far more than most modern videogames, LittleBigPlanet 2 feels like the end-result of an actual human dream, a labor of love stitched together and sparked to life by real people. It possesses the beautiful madness of a rarely gifted teacher, who walks fearlessly into her classroom and gives her students all the tools in the world. Listen up class, she tells them. With time, talent and faith, together we can make anything.
LittleBigPlanet 2 was developed by Media Molecule and published by Sony Computer Entertainment America. It is available exclusively for the Playstation 3.
Kirk Hamilton is a musician and writer in San Francisco. He can be found at Kirkhamilton.com and on Twitter @kirkhamilton.