VIDEO: The trailer for LittleBigPlanet
It helps to think of LittleBigPlanet not as a game but as a toy — more like digital Legos or Lincoln Logs than a typical narrative-driven experience. It comes in the guise of a traditional side-scrolling platformer, but there's no point to it, really: you just mess around with the tools it provides and see what happens. The single-player experience is threadbare, designed mostly to showcase some of the possibilities of the meat of the game, which is a robust and user-friendly level editor.
And the editor is something to behold. It's not technical or onerous to learn, though the sheer number of tutorial videos you have to wade through in order to do anything can be a pain. (There's some compensation in the droll narration of the British comedian Stephen Fry). Every function is driven by a simple, graphically pleasing menu tree that's simple to navigate. You can switch from editing to play-testing your new map almost instantly. I was surprised at how absorbing level building could be — and how easy. Within two hours of starting the editor, I had created a functional world. It was ugly as sin and no fun to play, but my objective — to create a level centered entirely on the mechanic of swinging from one platform to another — had been met.
I didn't upload my awful level to the public servers — which is just as well, because it would have been buried immediately. LittleBigPlanet has been out for only a few weeks, and already users have created some real gems. I played a level that captured the look and feel of the classic PlayStation 2 game Ico as well as one that was a dead ringer for the brand-new Mirror's Edge. Original creations outdid some of the developer-created levels, like an escape from Alcatraz and a gorgeous underwater maze. These are mixed in with plenty of forgettable levels, but the community rating system disposes efficiently of the losers.
Still, LittleBigPlanet's gameplay isn't nearly as successful as its level editor. No matter what maps I played, my reaction was often the same: first awe at the ingenuity and artistic acumen on display, then annoyance at the lackluster play control. Said control is truly terrible. One assumes that a sidescrolling game will be as tight and responsive as Super Mario Bros or Mega Man. LittleBigPlanet's protagonist, the cuddly and customizable Sackboy, moves with all the grace you'd expect from a stitched-together lump of cloth. He's slow and plodding and has an irritating tendency to tumble off things at the worst possible moments.
I feel like a grumpy old man to be harshing on such a bubbly, cheerful game. Sackboy is the cuddliest video-game mascot to mince down the pike since at least Bubsy the Bobcat, and depending on your perspective, LittleBigPlanet's cobbled-together æsthetic is either unusual and refreshing or insufferable and twee. It's fair to say that there's nothing on the market quite like LittleBigPlanet, and there's no doubt that creative users will continue to craft ingenious levels for a long time to come. But how many people will stick around to play them?