I jump up and down on top of Cory's head.
He doesn't seem to be getting the point. So instead, I smile and wave my hands. Finally he stops his random wandering around about the small cardboard box we inhabit and seems to pay attention. I point to the collection of user generated worlds to explore. He nods. Smiles. And he starts scrolling through the options. On finding one that looks interesting he pauses for a moment and waggles his head back and forth. I smile more broadly, nod up and down, and jump up with cartoon glee.
My rabbit ears are exceptionally floppy.
Like visiting demigods we descend into this ersatz Eden. We step gently, knowing that a misstep as often as not leads to dissolution. Ahead of us looms our clockwork dragon. Rearing and pawing at the ground, it ejects a ball of bile at us. It lands on Cory, who disappears in an explosion of black smoke.
I run back to the entrance, where his blue-stitched sack body re-emerges from the god-chute. We tread more carefully this time, approaching what we now understand to be a cannon, clearly placed to defeat the dragon. We instinctively divide the tasks: I jump up and down on the trigger, launching the canon balls. Cory controls the angle of elevation.
The dragon is toast before our display of mad skills.
Returning to our cardboard box, we do a little dance, decorating each other with flowers and donkey tails. Cory returns to the controls and selects another world to explore.
We spend the next hour in this same silent exploration. We journey from world to world. We speak not a word, but communicate solely through body language, actions, and changes in appearance. We could, of course, be speaking - if we owned headsets for the PS3, an extravagance I'd never seen the point of until now. But really, there's no need for speech. I can communicate just as effectively with a wave of my Raggedy Andy head, or the flailing of my articulated stuffed fingers.
He takes the role of controller, and I act as the arbiter of good and bad, exciting and boring, clever and obvious. More than anything, I am filled over and over again with a sense of wonder. Wonder at the simplicity of the worlds, the complexity of the ideas, and the occasional startling beauty of the experience.
And the silence.
Some 20 hours later, Lindsay sits on the couch.
"What's this?" she asks, looking at my rabbit-eared sack-boy standing lonely in his cardboard box.
"Just play with it," I suggest, returning to the kitchen.
Five minutes later, I run back into the living room. The laughter from Lindsay and my wife is so intense that I'm afraid that a flock of chickens has errupted from the carpeting. They're curled up in tears on the couch.
I look at the screen. Two sack-people now, still standing in their cardboard box.
"It's just so funny!" Lindsay exclaims.
They're just running around the box. Jumping, waving, smiling, frowning, dancing. I explain to them that there are actually worlds they can explore, and they're gone. With no instruction, they've discovered everything there is to understand about the worlds of LittleBigPlanet. And they never, ever stop laughing. Not because someone was telling jokes, or because they were playing "funny levels," but because they were simply exploring like children in a garden, making up their own games and testing limits.
LittleBigPlanet lived in my house for two short days. In that time I became convinced that it's important. Yes, it's fun, and it's extraordinarily polished and well-realized. Yes, it oozes super-hot cuteness from every pore. It's Lego-games cute with a side order of puppies. And yes, it will succeed or fail based on how well the community content system is implemented, and on the quality of the levels from developer MediaMolecule -- two enormous unknowns.
But that's not why it's important.
It's important because it's a breakthrough in forming connective tissue. With both Lindsay and Cory, the LittleBigPlanet experience wasn't a game experience. It was a social play experience. In one case, I had a completely satisfying, social, interpersonal play experience entirely without vocabulary. In the other, while the two players sat talking, side by side on the couch, their interaction with the virtual environment was so well crafted that the most complex activities were instinctive within seconds, allowing them to simply play - play in the childhood sense of the word. The seams between players in real time, and between the player and the designer (who in this case is just another player who has gone before) are so smooth that it's easy to overlook how different this really is.
There are two great fundamental challenges of game design in the 21st century. The first is to break the wall between the experiencer and the experience. That's the point of all the fancy graphics and 5.1 audio. It's the first premise of the Wii. It's the reason designers spend agonizing evenings deciding whether to put "jump" on the A button or the X button.
The second great challenge is to bring groups of people - both living rooms and communities - into game spaces in a meaningful way. The entire MMO industry is predicated on the need to make these connections. The second premise of the Wii is to get people playing together. It's the reason designers spend agonizing evenings tweaking multiplayer levels.
LittleBigPlanet splits these challenges with a cute-sharpened axe.
I'm a terrible fortune teller. LBP could be the smash hit of the holiday season or go down in history as a game that pulls Okami and Psychonauts down a notch off the Billboard chart for Bankrupt Critical Darlings. The game-as-shipped might be riddled with unforeseen bugs. All of the user created content could be bland. But I feel safe in predicting this:
In 5 years, we'll still be talking about what LittleBigPlanet taught us about games.