The Surprising Art, and Eerie Death of LEGO Harry Potter

It's an incongruous notion: Making a video game set in a LEGO world of children wizards dark and gritty.

But that's what the folks at developer Traveller's Tale set out to do with LEGO Harry Potter: Years 5 - 7, designer Wil Evans tells me.

"Years five to seven, that's where the really cool stuff happens," Evans tell me. "It gets a bit darker, we get to play with the darker side of the story."

To show me what he means, Evans drops us into year seven of the game, a portion of the Harry Potter end-story that features a father and his kidnapped daughter.

In the fiction of the movie and book, Harry Potter and his schoolmates are visiting the house of Xenophilius Lovegood when the eccentric newspaper publisher tries to betray Potter to the Death Eaters, who have kidnapped his daughter.

Things are not quite so abrupt in the game. First, Harry and his pals need to knock on the front door and in classic LEGO game-style, you need to find the pieces for the knocker and build it before you can do that.

Doing this relatively simple task involves solving some basic puzzles that have you using a spell that sort of turns your wand into a watergun. It also involves casting lumos, a spell that sort of turns the wand into a glowing flashlight.

It's here, with Harry walking around with a glowing wand, that I first notice just how much better the graphics look in this latest LEGO game. Weather rolls by in the background of the level, smoke drifts from pipes in the Rook-shaped house. And the lighting is spectacular.

"We have new lighting in the game," Evans points out. "It's real-time dynamic lighting. Lumos looks great, it casts shadows around Harry as he moves, the light shines on his face."

It's impressive, so impressive that the developers built entire levels around this new lighting effect just to showcase it, he says.

There are plenty of gameplay additions to this latest LEGO title as well. The characters all have lots of spells they can cast. My time with the game and its makers was relatively short, so they tried their best to cram in as much as they could. They showed me plenty of new abilities, like the Quibbler spectacles that allow you to spot hidden LEGO. There's the diffindo spell that allows you to cut into a wall of LEGO and create your own pieces on the fly, not needing to worry about shapes or patterns. There are also times in the game when you can use a mind-control spell to take control of other minifigs.

Some of your minifigs can switch between the LEGO character and their familiar (owl, cat or frog). Hermione gets a bag this time around, a sort of bag of holding that can carry a city's worth of items. She will pull items out of the bag to comedic effect throughout the game, Evans said.

Right now she's pulling a giant ice cream cone out of the bag to attract a nearby hovering LEGO bee.

Ron Weasley also gets a new skill: the ability to open joke boxes left around the game by his brothers. Inside players will find helpful tools, like an instant swamp, fireworks or a pair of shoes that allow him to walk up walls. If someone other than Ron tries to open a joke box, they'll get punched in the face with a giant boxing glove.

The game also features "dark objects," magical, forbidden items in Harry's world, but to use them you will need to control a character that knows dark magic, Evans said.

But that's not the darkest thing we were shown in the game. That moment came when Evans skipped us to the LEGO retelling of a fairy tale told in the book.

The Tale of the Three Brothers is a sort of fable told to children of the wizarding world, a cautionary tale about magic and morality. In it, three brothers escape their deaths with the help of magic. Death, angry at their near miss, offers them each a prize, one meant to lead to their deaths. The story is filled with gruesome deaths, suicide and the haunting figure of death itself.

To recapture the feel of The Tale of the Three Brothers, the developers decided to create levels that had players controlling the brothers as they proceeded through the story from left to right on a scrolling, two-dimensional screen.

This section of the game is presented like a sort of LEGO pop-up book, with characters that pop up from the landscape, and unfold in ornate sections of cut paper, created in LEGO pieces. Stark lighting and a gritty filter help complete the feel that you are reading a book as you play through the level.

"It's a really cool, really eerie artistic world created in an art style we've never done before," Evans said.

The Tale's Death, a towering cut-out creature of wings and serpentine neck, is a sight to behold.

When the team first started designing this level, they asked their LEGO designers to come up with a Death figure. The first one that came back was a minifig, but the team wasn't happy with it, Evans said, so they sent it back.

"Half an hour later they came back with a big model made of LEGO," he said.

This new Death had sticks for legs and arms, skeletal claws for hands, giant, tattered wings of LEGO and a long, serpentine neck. It's almost vulture like in it's appearance.

The Tale of the Three Brothers is a huge part of the game, Evans said, but it's not something you play through all at once. Instead players will return to the on-going tale as they make their way through the broader story of Harry Potter's final three books.

"We wanted to do it justice," he said.
The story within a story, while big, is just a small portion of what Evans said is a huge game world.

"Now you can leave Hogwarts," he said. "You can go to Hogsmeade, Hogsmeade Station, travel to London. You can go into the Leaky Cauldron, to Diagon Alley. The world itself is absolutely huge."


You can contact Brian Crecente, the author of this post, at brian@kotaku.com. You can also find him on Twitter, Facebook, and lurking around our #tips page.