It's becoming almost a cliche to say how much fun and how cute LittleBigPlanet is. But each time I play the game I'm surprised to find that my already absurdly high expectations aren't just met, they're exceeded.
The game is fun, and it's cute—no, strike that, it's fucking cute—and last week I got a chance to sit down with Alex Evans, technical director for the game, and go to town with LittleBigPlanet's "Create" function.
We've all seen the sped up videos of someone whipping out custom levels for the game in less time than it takes to start most games up, but I wanted to know just how easy or hard it was for someone with no experience.
After quickly walking me through the basics of design, Evans set me loose in the world.
My first step was creating a rag doll. The rag doll is one of the few things in LittleBigPlanet that have any sort of limitations on them. The sorts of things you can select to decorate and animate the sackcloth figure is limited to what Media Molecule provides, but they provide a lot.
I, for instance, created a blood-red doll with devil horns, a devil tail, a stitch for an eye, a patch over the other, a pointed goatee, a shock of long hair and a puppet on his left hand. (Later I discovered that you can use the game's control to have your rag doll open and close the mouth of the puppet on his hand.)
Evans stuck to a simpler looking doll, but then placed a piece of cardboard on his head, like a mask, and used a PS3 camera to take a picture of my head, which he proceeded to stamp onto the piece of cardboard, so the doll had my smiling face.
Once we created our dolls we hopped over to "My Moon" which is essentially your PS3's hard drive, the place where all of the custom maps are stored and where you go to start with a blank slate.
Evans dropped a background down for me, one featuring a forest scene, and then I got to work. First I selected the material I wanted to work with, I selected sponge so the rag dolls could grab them. Then I choose to make it a circle. Initially I just dropped a circle of red sponge on the floor of the map, but then I used my controller to drag out a shape of sponge that sort of looked like a large oak tree.
Evans then dropped down sections of rock wall. Since physics effect everything in the game, you can't just float objects in the sky, ala Mario, but have to start with them embedded in the ground.. After Evans placed rock walls next to and over my tree in the shape of a giant upside down L, I created a second section of rock connected to his, holding down a PS3 button and painting the rock out with a thumbstick.
Next, Evans used the same square shape he had been building with to cut out stairs in the rock. Removing chunks of things is as simple as pressing the X button.
Then Evans decided to show me how you can create moving objects, placing a spinning wheel of sponge on the rock. While he was talking I grabbed a hold of the spinning circle of sponge and then let go, sending my rag doll shooting straight up into the air. Evans was intrigued. "Let's create a vertical level," he said.
So we did, in about five minutes, copying the spinning sponge shape, we pasted more of them up the wall and then dropped down a starting line for a race at the base of my red tree and a finish line up top on a precipice of rock.
Next we through down some rock off to the right and turned it into ice. When touched, ice objects freeze your rag doll into a block of ice until you can break them free by vigorously shaking your controller. You can also set things on fire, touching these objects will turn your doll into a puff of ash; or electrify objects which also destroys your doll when touched.
While Evans was busy turning peripheral objects into ice, I decided to go ahead and set my pretty tree on fire. Now we had a level.
Saving the level we created Evans dropped out of the create mode and let us play it. The starting line includes a little countdown that starts once both dolls stand on it and a gate that pops open when it's time to start racing.
The level, it turns out, was painfully difficult, so difficult in fact that Evans was growing increasingly frustrated trying to get to the finish line. Nothing feels better than frustrating a game designer with your diabolic game design... nothing.
We ended up going way over the amount of time I really supposed to be on the game, as the two of us kept vying to make it up the rock construct without either falling on the flaming tree or getting shot into the ice blocks.
Finally I managed to reach the summit and the race was over.
Evans reminded me that while user-created and shared maps are a big part of the game, they're certainly not the only part. In fact, LittleBigPlanet is going to ship with it's own robust, story-driven campaign which can be played solo or with friends.
And the game continues to impress on the cute level too. I was able to catch a glimpse of the menu interface for the first time last week and it's just painfully adorable. You and your friend's rag dolls are hanging out in what appears to be a cardboard cut-out rocket ship. The ships three windows will eventually, I suspect, all show options, but I only saw out one window.
The window neatly framed a hanging moon, the My Moon of your personal content; a felt-decorated Earth, the Craft Earth where other users creations will be shown by location; and a chunk of material currently called the info fridge where you can track your friends and news.
Neatest part? There's a Playstation 3 controller sitting in the rocket ship with you and when you use your controller to move around between the menus your rag doll uses the almost-life size controller to do the same thing in real time. It's this loving attention to detail that lets me know this game is going to continue to impress through launch and beyond.