Released in the US under the title Relentless: Twinsen’s Adventure, this widely overlooked masterpiece is capable of single-handedly changing the minds of those who think of games as being brutal and futile exercises in spasm-inducing time-wasting.
Note: This game review focuses on the use of writing in video games.
And yet, this humble game reviewer has never played them. And it will take all my rationality as a professional to play a Little Big Planet game. Why? Because it broke my heart. Because it claimed to be a sequel to a game, so dear to my heart, I could not bear the realisation that they had only stolen the title. All the hope of seeing another Little Big Adventure (LBA) game, shattered.
Now, why is LBA such a great story, told in a medium believed by some to be incapable of storytelling? Follow me, and I’ll explain…
LBA and its sequel are widely acclaimed among game connoisseurs, yet comparatively unknown among gamers. One reason: they are old. 1994-old. And yet, they can still be played on modern operating systems, because a devoted community keeps them alive. And rightfully so.
The story of LBA in a nutshell: you are Twinsen, you live on the planet Twinsun. Your dictator: Dr. FunFrock. Your wife: abducted by aforementioned dictator. Your goal: get out of prison, rescue your wife and while you’re at it lead a group of rebels to victory against the evil Doc. And of course, fulfil a prophecy, you are the chosen one, and so forth.
Although not a particularly inspired plot, it is quite a sophisticated storyline for a game clearly aimed at and presented for children (Twinsun is populated by humanoid Bunnys and Elephants etc.). What makes the game truly stand out is it’s use of narrative techniques, adapted – consciously or not – for game purposes.
When it was released LBA was a pioneer in open-world design and use of dialogue. It lets you explore the whole beautifully designed planet and roam its islands freely.
It involves loads of speaking to other characters who react differently depending on which quests you chose to accomplish or where you chose to go in what sequence.
The open-world or sandbox approach poses one major problem in terms of storytelling: how do you structure a story, when the player should be free to choose what to do and when to do it at all times?
Common solutions that can also be found in LBA for this problem are to make the game world accessible step by step (e.g. you have to get a boat, then you can proceed to another island. But first you have to help the captain in order for him to agree to lend you his boat etc.). This can be used to introduce major plot-points into the story. But what about all the time in between?
Sidequests? Tend to feel disconnected from the main storyline or, if closely related to the main plot, appear to drag the story along, making it feel lengthy.
Plot-related missions? Again, dragging, lengthy. Unless…
And here is where film screenwriting techniques kick in. A very common concept in films is to have a protagonist with a trauma in his/her past. At some point in the film we will find out that e.g. the detective’s daughter died years ago. This means his greatest fear is to loose a loved one again – the repetition of the initial trauma. The greater the trauma, the greater the “height of fall” for the protagonist and he will do anything humanly possible to keep his trauma from happening again. When in the course of the movie the detective’s love interest will be in danger, we sympathise, because we know how hard it would be for him to loose another loved one.
The trauma is usually set before the beginning of the actual story and doesn’t actually have to be shown, oftentimes it is just told through other characters or pictures or the reactions of the protagonist. We just have to know about it.
If used in games the trauma is usually presented as a cut-scene at the beginning. We see the detective loose his daughter. Then the game starts. And we take over the role of the detective. And somehow it doesn’t work like in the film. We quickly forget over hours of playing about that touching cut-scene at the beginning and are emotionally disconnected from the story and its characters.
The problem lies in the fact that we haven’t experienced the trauma ourselves, but we experience the game as the character.
In LBA we start out in prison. This is our trauma and the protagonist’s trauma. He is helpless, incapable of helping his wife, just as we, the player, are inapt to escape, because every soldier of the dictatorship is stronger than we are and we are just learning how to play the game. Finally we manage to escape the prison. Throughout the greater part of the game there are soldiers everywhere. If they spot us, they stun us and put us back in prison. The trauma is always present, even if there are no soldiers around there are flags and statues of the dictator representing the continuous threat.
Later in the game we will become part of a group of rebels who aim to overthrow Dr. Funfrock. This again reflects the initial concept of operating in the shadow of a greater threat.
The trauma in a video game has to affect the protagonist as well as the player, who is in a sense the second protagonist. Ideally it affects both in a similar way. At the same time a game has two antagonists: one in the game story and the game designer, because he is the one putting obstacles in the player’s way. In LBA the game antagonist, the dictator, hinders Twinsen on his journey from island to island. Just like the game designer hinders the player with missions and riddles. Thus the two antagonists pull together, as do the two protagonists. And this, alongside all the other assets of this great game, make it such an immersing story experience that will have you return to it again and again.
There are a lot more things to be said about this wonderful piece of art, but those are better experienced than read.
As for me, I will force myself to get Little Big Planet 2 and try and make peace with it.