For the better part of two years, I have been catching up on Traveller’s Tales’ series of LEGO games.
I was turned off by their simplistic and repetitive gameplay when I originally tried LEGO Star Wars years ago, but my opinion changed many years later when I played through and thoroughly enjoyed LEGO Marvel Super Heroes.
Though rarely transcendent, the games are all immediately playable and quite relaxing. The perfect game to play while listening to a podcast or unwinding after a long day.
The LEGO figures make for cute caricatures of their film or comic book counterparts. Each game plays slightly differently, introducing new and interesting mechanics to keep the core formula just fresh enough to make each adventure worth exploring for those who get along well with the established formula.
The most exciting aspect of the series for me though, is its versatility. The team in charge of licensing intellectual properties has consistently done a stupendous job in bringing a diverse assortment of properties into the LEGO space.
Even ‘rival’ properties such as Marvel and DC, are seen in parallel to one another in LEGO’s ever-growing catalogue. Though each set of characters and locations are confined to their own games, it is odd to play as Batman and Iron Man in the same engine, developed by the same creators.
The walls between the worlds is the biggest frustration in the LEGO series, though. I would certainly never claim that TT Games under-delivers on content in any of their titles – quite the opposite in fact – but there are so many times when I see a hidden treasure just out of Frodo and Sam’s reach and think to myself, “Hulk could lift that rock out of the way”.
There are times, roaming the halls of Hogwarts, when I want to do battle with Voldemort’s forces as Darth Vader, a worthy opponent for He-Who-Should-Not-Be-Named if ever there was one.
2014’s The LEGO Movie addressed this feeling directly. Critiquing the artificial barriers established by strictly-enforced copyright laws, it depicted a utopia free of such miserly withholding.
Though necessary in the real world, as quality control, brand management, and overexposure would be difficult to mitigate in a world without copyright protection of intellectual properties, The LEGO Movie posited, in no uncertain terms, that, despite the necessities of the adult world, artificial walls go directly against the spirit of play.
Children seem to have no such reservations about keeping universes separate and contained. Action figures have given kids the opportunity to pair the Ninja Turtles, Han Solo, and Optimus Prime to fight against the combined forces of Skeletor, Bowser, and the Spice Girls.
Play is about imagination. It is about creating exciting and impossible hypotheticals that could never come to fruition in the real world. It is about breaking the rules and letting your fantasies run wild.
In one sense, videogames allow for a ton of freedom in this regard. Compared with books and films, which have one unalterable way for the story to play out, player agency makes each play-through of a game unique and fresh.
In one adventure, Link can be a mysterious hero, emerging from the ancient Temple of Time to save Hyrule from the demon king Ganondorf. In another play-through, Link could be a bratty menace, throwing pots at his neighbors and cutting rude designs into their gardens.
Compared with other forms of art, videogames allow for a tremendous amount of audience interaction and freedom.
Compared with other forms of play, though, videogames can be stiflingly limited. The rules are firmly established, and the walls between properties are non-negotiable.
Unlike action figure play, parts and pieces cannot be mixed and matched. The Prince cannot take his Katamari ball to Los Santos, and Tony Hawk cannot shred through Princess Peach’s Castle. Everything belongs in its proper place.
Certain properties, such as Super Smash Bros., give us a taste of the walls being broken down, which is exciting, but it still plays well within the rules that Nintendo has established.
Robust character creators can aid in this, although it is always disappointing how ‘janky’ my SoulCalibur V Solid Snake ends up looking.
Easter eggs and cameos can provide fun deviations, such as the Captain Falcon costume in Tekken Tag Tournament 2 or Mortal Kombat X’s inclusion of Jason Voorhees and the Predator.
Games that do act as truly open toy boxes, such as Garry’s Mod, have less structure and polish than their professionally-produced contemporaries and always feel like they are walking on a tightrope over the rough seas of sketchy legality.
This is why LEGO Dimensions interests me. Pitching itself as more of a ‘platform’ than a standalone game, Dimensions could unify LEGO’s various property acquisitions and allow them to interact in fun and interesting ways.
The list of properties that they have acquired so far, including Back to the Future, The Wizard of Oz, Portal 2, Doctor Who, Scooby-Doo, The Simpsons, and DC Super Heroes, among many others, is as diverse as a list could be.
Characters, level packs, and items are being sold piecemeal instead of all-inclusive (yet disconnected) packages as has been the case in LEGO games past. Characters will be interchangeable for the entire future of the Dimensions brand, as they will be purchasable as toys-to-life figurines (a la Skylanders, amiibo, Disney Infinity figures, etc.).
At this early point, before we have all of the information that we need to know the direction that this will take the series, I have some excitement and some concerns about the prospect of creating LEGO games in this way.
On the positive side, this will allow the games launched under the Dimensions banner to be immediately unified and connected. They will have a continuity of experience that encourages mixing and matching between various play-sets.
It will give franchises as far reaching as Portal and the Ghostbusters a chance to interact in a meaningful way, and this opens all kinds of doors for dream teams that would otherwise be impossible.
My worries stem from the breadth and depth of gameplay experiences moving forward. The LEGO games, thus far, have been immediately rewarding to fans of established series. It makes me smile to see all of the scenes that I am familiar with from the Pirates of the Caribbean films reenacted in the LEGO space, and the amount of research and care paid to even the smallest details demonstrate a real love for the source material.
Though concessions had to be made for the format of the game, I am very impressed by the references and nods to in-crowd knowledge demonstrated throughout LEGO Lord of the Rings. Much research has gone into every aspect of each title, and this is most apparent in each game’s extensive and exhaustive playable roster.
Switching to the toys-to-life format is going to drastically scale back the roster of Dimensions and lock each character behind a paywall that casual players may not care to invest in. Instead of 70+ characters at our disposal, we may be stuck with three or four unless we care to invest our life savings into collecting the whole set.
Meaning no disrespect to the LEGO franchise, the games have always benefited more from their quantity of characters and items than from their quality of play.
Even more troubling is that this will limit characters to only the most popular of characters from each franchise. I have always valued the LEGO games as a learning experience, a sentiment many games writers reflected upon the release of LEGO Batman 3: Beyond Gotham.
The extensive roster means that the LEGO team is able to really reach into the most obscure corners of each respective universe and pull out some things that casual fans of may have never learned about otherwise. Now that each character is a standalone toy, though, we can expect to see fewer Uatus and more Captain Americas.
When franchises like The Simpsons are confirmed for Dimensions, it feels a bit wrong. The Simpsons is a franchise fueled by its ancillary characters, and if any franchise deserves the careful love and attention to detail that the LEGO team routinely gives their properties, it is The Simpsons.
Ultimately, what I am afraid of is the reduction of LEGO adventures to shallower experiences. Something as large and monumental as The Simpsons could have been mined for a quality LEGO game experience, in the traditional sense.
While it’s too early to make judgments about the level of sophistication that Dimensions will introduce to each of its properties, the bite-size nature of the adventures in competing franchises (such as Disney Infinity) is worrying.
I also fear that cut-scenes, typically high points in the LEGO games, will suffer from the interchangeability of characters, as the writers won’t know who is going to be in the scene in the first place and have to write a script that could plausibly fit every character in the Dimensions roster (probably precluding voice acting, as that would be a monumental effort, recording every possible line with every possible character).
What I would prefer is for Dimensions to unify the LEGO engine, allowing the open sharing of digital content between games in a library, like the Rock Band track-list export.
All future (full-sized) LEGO games unified under one banner. If you own LEGO Harry Potter and LEGO Lord of the Rings, you can play as any of the characters in either game. Over the years, your roster would accumulate to levels that physical toys would discourage.
This would provide a great incentive to buy new LEGO games, as, not only do players get a full LEGO adventure with a colorful cast of miniature characters, but they also fundamentally change the way that their previous and future LEGO games can be played and interacted with.
I am still hopeful for what LEGO Dimensions can bring to Traveller’s Tales’ ever-expanding series, but I am also nervous. I don’t want to play the only LEGO Simpsons game and only have the choice between two Simpsons characters, in an adventure that I can complete in one sitting.
So long as they are still able to deliver exciting and humorous adventures, Dimensions could mix up the formula and add a new … dimension … to the LEGO series.