On Lego Games

The LEGO games have always traded in parody, drawing upon popular iconography of a particular franchise and then heightening it for comic effect. However, their success comes not from the comedic undermining of the subject matter, but the distillation of its subject matter to the core values. LEGO Star Wars: The Prequel Trilogy‘s silent narrative captures the adventure, tone and thematic conceit of Star Wars arguably better than the movies on which it is based.

Traveler’s Tales have kept this up for over a decade now, taking an approach to adaptation which centers on identifying the essence of the source material and applying it to the established core design. Nowhere is this more obvious than LEGO Marvel Super Heroes, a far more effective way to understand the appeal of comic books the movies they draw from so regularly. The game revels in its characters, bouncing them off of each other in every puzzle and every cutscene, showcasing a incoherent cliff-notes Marvel Universe which embraces the ludicrous joy of its conceit rather than to (as is the trend in more mainstream adaptations) grapple with the logistics of its existence.

Whilst this element of the LEGO games is fairly widely understood, what struck me when playing is how this approach to adaptation remained true in terms of the game’s more formal design. In addition to adapting and distilling a fictional universe, LEGO Marvel Super Heroes is an adaptation and distillation of modern video games, with how it frames its open world, highly scripted level design, and a trillion-and-three collectibles.

It isn’t that the game has these elements – almost every AAA game contains one or more of them these days – but that LEGO presents them nakedly, without the need to burden itself with context. The open world makes no attempt tobe anything other than a constructed sandbox in which you may destroy and explore; even superheroes need to carjack every once in a while. The scripted level design is merely a series of explicitly colour-coded signs onto which you must move the correct character, ad infinitum. You are not collecting coins and completing side-missions to improve the effectiveness of your weapons, or your gang, or your war effort, you are doing it because the number is low and dangit, the number should be higher.

These design techniques are no less effective than in an Assassin’s Creed, or a Destiny, or a [insert 75% of recent AAA Games here], but they do feel a great deal less exploitative. A LEGOgame is a passive experience of consumption, wherein you follow simple instructions in order to get more things, which unlock more simple instructions to follow. But that treadmill stands honest and alone, rather than to motivate the player through a narrative, or to trap the player inside a marketplace.

Just as LEGO games serve as an accessible introduction to the appeal of their chosen narrative source material, so too do they serve as an accessible introduction to the appeal of their formal source material. Alone, neither of these elements explains the series’ cultural staying power, but putting them together makes it a lot easier to understand just why the LEGO games have managed to be one of the last kids’ games standing on consoles.