[17 October 2008]
PopMatters Multimedia Editor
Throughout the series, my kids have pretty much been in love with the Lego games. For me, though, they have taken some warming up to.
I found the offbeat tone of the first Lego Star Wars to be charming, but it also had its aggravations. A plentitude of accidental homicides of your gaming partner, while amusing at first, tended to grate (as did a lot of unintended death dives in the platforming segments). Though, maybe it was just the focus on the latter day Star Wars mythos that failed to keep my attention.
The second game in the series, The Original Trilogy, fared better in my opinion if for nothing else because it focused on the version of the Star Wars universe that I prefer. The aforementioned frustration of sometimes wonky mechanics and controls still seemed to lead to incessant shouting matches between myself and whichever of my children muscled their way in to play alongside me (or I found myself listening to said shouting matches if they played without me): “Come over here, no, over HERE,” “hey, you pushed me off the cliff,” “stop hitting me!”
Lego Indiana Jones was slightly more enjoyable for me. The focus of the game was more on the puzzle aspects that the Lego brand allowed for in the first couple of games (but seemed to take a back seat to swinging lightsabers and trading blaster fire with the Empire). The idea of breaking and building things to proceed through the environment appeared to me to be a move away from simply whacking away at bad guys, which felt more appropriate given the source material (adventurous archeology, while made more exciting in the Indiana Jones films than it might really be, still retains an interest in solving puzzles and escaping traps) and seemed to provide a tighter, more focused way to play the game.
With Lego Batman, I feel like the series has finally hit its stride. With what appears to be tighter game controls that lead to less of a tendency to slaughter your ally rather than your opponent’s as well as a continued emphasis on the puzzle elements involved with manipulating legos (again, in keeping with the game’s source material’s interests—Batman may be a super hero, but he also is the Dark Knight Detective after all), the game is much more pleasurable and far less agonizing than some of the previous installments.
My own optimism about the series is frankly matched in the overall attitude of the game’s approach to puzzles. Given the licensed material that serves as foundation for the games, though, optimism makes sense. These three universes are all culled from contemporary American mythos. Icons like the Skywalkers, Indiana Jones, and Batman all tend to contain within them seeds of a belief in progress and inevitably positive resolution (even Anakin will be redeemed eventually) if one just has the “sticktoitiveness” to muscle through a problem.
Of course, the pleasure of a puzzle is dependent on its intended purpose, solving it. Generally speaking, puzzles, while meant to be solved, are also intended to baffle and sometimes confuse the person engaged in this quest for solution. Not everyone is capable (or willing, or patient enough) to solve some of the toughest Sudoku puzzles. A wrong answer in a crossword puzzle can set a player back or frustrate their effort at solution entirely.
In part, because of their broad appeal that includes (and, perhaps, emphasizes) kids, the Lego series of games chooses a more muscular approach to puzzling. Lego puzzles are puzzles in the context of a superheroic world like that of the Batman, are always solvable (Batman will beat the Joker eventually, after all), and only stall players (rather than baffle or set them back). Given a little perseverance and a fairly straightforward strategic guideline, such stalls are easily surmountable within the context of the series, since you can’t really build the “wrong” answer to a puzzle in the series (whatever object might move a player along most easily is inevitably what they will build). As I often tell my kids when they get stuck in a level of this game: when in doubt, break something.
This muscularity carries with it a spirit of anti-intellectualism and a nearly Whitmanesque or Emersonian belief in the power of endurance and a “broad shouldered” work ethic to eventually produce results and those results will be good; they will yield progress. This sense of positivity about solution is further supported by the inability of characters in these games to really die. The possible loss of earned lego studs is the only real “penalty” for death, and there is always the chance to gain more by replaying story levels in free play mode.
Be it childish play or American optimism, the might of Batman and Robin or of their foes (as you can take on the roles of the likes of the Joker, Penguin, and Catwoman in new story chapters after completing the “good guy” chapters”) becomes a form of muscularly-driven “intellectualism” that generates a spirit of authentic progressivism often very uniquely American. The heroes of American myth are deathless and good will win over evil if, as one of the great mythmakers of American culture, William Faulkner, famously pointed out, they are simply able to endure.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/lego-batman/