There are two ways that video games might corrupt the people who play them.
There are two popular elements that two crowds of people detest, two elements that games usually have more of with each passing year.
Violence is the first. Collecting is the second.
The former — virtual killing and maiming and blowing things up — seems to critics who are not in on the fun of games as crass and amoral, maybe desensitizing, maybe damaging.
The latter — fetching and obtaining — gets low grades for nourishment, criticized by erudite game makers for enticing people to play games not for the fun of play but for the coercion to gather, accrue, horde and invest.
Welcome Lego Harry Potter to repel these dark forces.
The new game based on J.K. Rowling's boy wizard has less violence than its predecessors and less collecting.
Lego Harry Potter: Years 1-4 is an unlikely candidate to help nudge back some of gaming's most irrepressible trends. That it may do so, in even its own small ways, seems less the result of some noble goal by its design team but a happy convergence of licenses.
This Lego Potter game, a successor to Lego Star Wars, Lego Indiana Jones and Lego Batman games, will prevent its hero from busting innocent bystanders into their constituent Lego bricks simply because Harry Potter wouldn't do such a thing to his Hogwarts chums. "Harry Potter is a good guy," the game's lead designer, Arthur Parsons from TT Games told Kotaku during a recent demonstration of the game in New York City. This game, the developer told me, comparing it to previous Lego adventures, "is less about beating up goons." It's more about exploring Hogwarts and the scenes described in Rowling's first four Potter novels.
We can quibble about whether Harry Potter is more the good guy than previous Lego heroes such as Luke Skywalker or Bruce Wayne. They were men of action who could joyfully knock enemy and allies' Lego torsos from Lego heads with the glee of a five-year-old playing with the famous Danish bricks. Potter as a wide-eyed explorer rather than a bully sounds right. Plus, his opportunity for misbehavior is merely different and less violent, more the prankster than the jock brute: He can't knock a Hogwarts classmate apart; but he can point his wand at them and make them breakdance. Should Harry mess with a teacher, he might be turned into a frog. Parsons said that, should we play as a Slytherin, Harry's school nemeses, we might have more playfully violent options.
Mark it here: a video game sequel that may be less violent than its predecessors. That's the road never taken. And a sequel with less to collect? That's unusual too.
You don't have to be Jonathan Blow, a man who criticized the coin-collecting, virtual-material-reward-as-bait philosophy of game design, to recognize that games instill or reinforce an obsession to obtain. Lego games are guilty parties here. Past Lego adventures have had players collecting Lego studs, Lego bricks (gold ones; red ones), and more. You amassed this stuff in the dozens, the hundreds, the tens of thousands, bit by bit, more begetting a need for more.
But there's less to collect in the new game, Parsons said, despite its being a huge adventure. A player is still encouraged to clear the game's levels multiple times to collect studs and bricks. But while the game was made, some trinket quests were removed. A need to obtain points for your Hogwarts school house was dropped. The collecting was streamlined. This came from feedback of focus testers, Parsons said. They didn't understand why they had to collect so much stuff, and for what? The decision in this regard sounds like it was made not out of Jonathan Blow's ethical concerns but about the same essential question Blow's critique of other games boils down to: What's the point of all this fetching?
Lego Potter does have 170-something characters to unlock and play as, and dozens of levels. It seems plenty full even if it has "just" 200 gold bricks to win and nary a house point for which to vie.
Lego Harry Potter Years 1-4, which is being sold next month on all major gaming platforms, isn't intended to be a redemptive antidote to gaming's most notorious tendencies. Its gentle pushback against some of those tendencies may be invisible to most, a curiosity that only makes sense in comparison to other games. but It is nonetheless notable that a sequel can avoid the accretion of violence and trinket-collecting of its predecessors.
We could say there's hope for games yet, if we wanted to have that kind of smirk and disdain for the rest of the medium. But if we did, then we probably would be distraught by the deeper meaning of a mission in this next Potter game's Nintendo DS edition: A mission to shoot evil books, in a video game. But, no, we get games better than that. We don't always mind their dark tendencies, but let's also delight in a trend or two that gets bucked thanks to Harry Potter.