These Are the Legos You're Looking For
I hate people who collect things, and classify things and give them names and then forget all about them. That's what people are always doing in art. They call a painter an impressionist or a cubist or something and then they put him in a drawer and don't see him as a living individual any more. But I can see they're beautifully arranged.
It was like the cabinets of foreign species in the Room at the National History Museum, you could see they were beautiful but you didn't know them.
from The Collector by John Fowles
Given that the original Star Wars films are largely responsible for the trend of mixing collectible merchandise with a film release, the genesis of Lego Star Wars seems an inevitable consequence of 21st century hypermedia.
For innumerable Gen Xers, the Star Wars trilogy represents their first experience of mythology, not merely that cultural benchmark that Lucas generated through the hero's journey of Luke Skywalker with all of its Oedipal echoes, but an embrace of the mythology of American consumerism leading to our own quest for a new Holy Grail running over with little stiff-armed plastic aliens made by Kenner.
Certainly, the newest American generation, too, is not unfamiliar with this mythos as they have already been told that they "Gotta Catch 'Em All!" and had that message reinforced by Cartoon Network as well as the film industry.
Thus, the transubstantiation in this era of film to toy and vice versa represented by the hybrid branding of a popular toy with a popular film series. If the correlation between the art form and its merchandise was only hinted at in the Kenner products, there is no longer any need to hint at the relation between art and merchandising; the spirit of consumerism has been enfleshed in a single collectible brand for the nostalgic Gen Xer or the Pokemon-bred Millenial.
It is no surprise then that Lego Star Wars: The Video Game sets its goals -- not as many licensed games do in retelling the story that they are based on -- but on the goals of the "story" of the player, the collector.
It is true that the game does retell the stories of Star Wars: Episodes I through III as a means of giving its many Lego characters some goals to accomplish. But with no dialogue and very few cutscenes, these stories are largely ornament to the real goal of the game itself, which is to collect all of the characters from the films. From the short, squat Lego Princess Amidala to the short, squat Lego Darth Mall -- both of whom look as hilarious as one might imagine -- collecting little Lego "studs" is the means to that goal, since these studs can be used to unlock more characters back at the game's hub, a "truck stop" in space of sorts called Dexter's Diner.
I do not want to sell the folks creativity over at Traveller's Tales too short, though. As abridged as the plot is, the lack of dialogue leaves the cutscenes reliant on some very clever sight gags to make the more significant events clear to the player. In particular, I admire the transformation of Qui-Gon's fatal wounding at the hands of Darth Maul in Episode I into a riotously funny image of a fallen Lego Jedi Master with his Lego block torso pulled just askew from the pegs holding him to his Lego feet to represent said wound. Believe me, you have never giggled so much at a heroic death scene. This understatement is at the heart of the brevity of the plot.
Indeed, the game is notably short if your goal is merely to play through the shortened versions of the latter trilogy's episodes, but the collection of studs and ultimately the collection of unlockable figures is the true goal if you wish the sense of "beautiful arrangement" afforded by a complete Lego collection. The player is encouraged to play and replay the various abridged film narratives in order to afford the more costly and more desirable figures like Episode III's new villain, the quad-lightsaber wielding General Grievous, or an Episode IV version of the original Sith Lord himself, Darth Vader.
Never has a game's rating seemed more appropriate to me. The game indeed invites "everyone" with its "E" rating into the obsessive realm of the collector. From its simple button mashing lightsaber and blaster attacks to the inability of your characters to die (they always respawn after they run out of health), the game is friendly for kids, spouses, and your Luddite, video game hating parents. Anyone can pick up and play without feeling too challenged by the controls or too alienated due to the familiarity of the game's setting and goal.
I have discussed the notion of collection in its relationship to power in games before (see my reviews of Champion's of Norrath and The Bard's Tale), but my reductionist view there largely suggested that collection in games merely represents a form of consumption whose end is power. I say reductionist because playing Lego Star Wars reminded me (as well as my own recent revisiting of Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball) that collection is not always about consumption, sometimes it concerns itself with aesthetics both in terms of individual collectibles -- "seeing" what Darth Maul looks like as a Lego or what one of the characters in DOA looks like in a newly acquired swimsuit -- as well as the broader aesthetic notion of a "beautiful arrangement" of such collectibles alluded to in the above quotations from John Fowles' The Collector.
While such arrangements are satisfying in their completeness, they are also (as Fowles quote suggests) scientific, allowing us to know something fully, completely through our identification of the "species" we have collected. Yet (also as Fowles quote suggests), there is something distant about this beautiful science, something made more distant in these newer virtual collections available to the video gamer.
Historically, collectors have valued items for their uniqueness, their scarcity as antiques and relics of a history of a culture. Yet, everything earned and unlocked in the Lego toy collection or any more contemporary toy collection is anything but unique. These collections do not mark the physical survival of antiquity but the virtual survival of the carbon copy of "everyone's" collection who bought the game, which in essence came with its collection complete, just waiting to be unlocked. Completing them is satisfying, but do we really know anything more than the satisfaction of completion from collecting them?
Perhaps that homogenization of collectors, though, is the only real appreciable result of mass markets and mass merchandising, which seems to largely be what the game represents and which is where I began this review. And, in the end, I may only be able to suggest this game for the serious Star Wars collector anyway.
After all, it is needed to complete your collection.
3 June 2005