Perfect License

It may not come as a surprise that I was a huge fan of Legos as a kid and spent countless of hours putting them together and fantasizing of making ambitious structures that never ended up realized, just like every other kid. As the time has gone by, I’m starting to see increasingly clearer not only the connection between the fascination of video games and Legos, but the structural similarities in the mediums as well.

The first and most obvious similarity is the “Legos as pixels” parallel, which can be seen, for example, in The White Stripes music video directed by Michel Gondry. Of course, using physical objects as pixels isn’t solely a Lego-specific exercise, since a myriad of other house hold items will do as well, such as Rubik’s Cubes, Post-it notes, or cross-stitching, to name but a few.

There is, however, more substantial similarity of a higher order, if you will, that has got to do with reuse and recombination of a certain set of base components. This is most apparent in sprite-based games of the 8/16-bit era where the effect was quite in-your-face, but the concept still exists even in modern graphics systems such as of RAGE that is indeed celebrated, and partly marketed, for its non-tiling nature.

The Lego brick-ish nature of video game graphics is more often than not an inescapable fact that stems from the limitations regarding system memory and workload of the artists. And as I concluded in an earlier post, this phenomenon of tiling and reusing makes the unique assets or “blocks” appear so much cooler and precious than they perhaps otherwise would. But that’s beside the point.

The point is that in the light of everything said above, the Lego games of recent years, such as LEGO Star Wars or LEGO Harry Potter, developed by Traveller’s Tales make so much sense that it’s almost ridiculous. In a way, Lego is a perfect license for a video game, and actually one of the few that doesn’t exceedingly compromise the original concept that is Lego. Obviously a strong movie IP doesn’t hurt, but the real magic lies not in the IP, but the aforementioned correspondence of video game graphics and Lego as mediums. As a fan of both, it makes at least my imagination run wild of the possibilities.

And on top of it all, plastic, the sole material of Legos, must be the most straightforward material to simulate with real-time graphics. There’s just no need for sophisticated shaders, and for once the often-used derogatory term “plasticky” works in favor to the title, not against it.

In the end, the brilliance of the Lego license comes down to the advantages of a low-fidelity visual principle I previously wrote about. Consider, for instance, how little effort it must go into creating Lego versions of Harry Potter or Indiana Jones once the generic base character is done, in contrast to more realistic approaches. Minecraft says hello, too.

Of course, I’m not saying the Lego games by Traveller’s Tales are good, as they have generally been, merely by the virtue of the Lego license. I’m saying in the right hands a license like Lego is an enormous benefit and an asset to the production on the whole, especially in the case of a smaller studio.