[25 January 2011]
PopMatters Associate Multimedia Editor
Soviet iconography? In my LittleBigPlanet?
It’s more likely than you think.
I’ve been generally impressed with LittleBigPlanet 2 as at least a worthy successor of the original game, though I’ll withhold a full review for a later time and in the proper place. As with the first title, it’s a colorful bricolage of aesthetic and cultural reference points, always celebratory and never critical. It’s all about validating worldly curiosity, you see, from the perspective of unbiased childlike exploration, and in that way, it’s sort of magical. I’ve never seen grown men’s faces split into boyish grins as quickly as when I hand over control of these games to friends. Maybe it’s because we’re all children of the ‘80s, and there is something part Lego, part early MTV, part pillow fort, and part Saturday morning cartoon about these games, but nothing seems to get my fellow twenty-somethings nostalgic like a bit of well placed historical specificity.
Still, why communists?
Let me explain. (And this may be considered a small spoiler for the story mode of LittleBigPlanet 2, so if you’re concerned about that, proceed at your own discretion.) In the game, you are asked to liberate an army of generic Sackbots being held captive in a rusty manufacturing plant. The levels are chock full of suspect imagery, little of it explicit, but most of it so clearly referential it hardly requires interpretation. There are the gearpunk puzzles, the stylized fists, the generic smiling workers swinging hammers, the giant red stars . . . and then comes the basketball minigame with the word “COMRADES!” emblazoned across the far wall.
What is this? Are we rescuing Soviet robots from the belly of their mass-manufacturing overlords? Is the lemmings-like way in which they follow any positive stimulus some sort of comment on their terrible living conditions? Is the fact they ultimately break from their brainwashing to embrace you as their savior an analogy for the ultimate downfall of socialism? Am I reading much too far into this?
Well, yes. Undeniably. I have a difficult time believing Media Molecule intended anything with these levels (titled “Factory of a Better Tomorrow”) beyond some cool aesthetics and a few quirky historical nods. But therein lies the danger of applying too much of a textually analytical viewpoint to anything to do with video games—especially those possessed first and foremost by their mechanics. These levels are intended to teach the player about the functionality of the Sackbots that he’ll be using in Create mode; as such, the levels’ context could have been anything and the content would have remained the same. It’s only by the incidental coalescence of signifiers and systems—mainstream, capitalist conceptions of historical Communism meeting NPC herding logarithms—that produce a perceived semiotic pattern.
This was my contention toward the Medal of Honor controversy as well. Poor taste though I believe it was, to call one side the Allied forces and the other side the Taliban is ultimately an arbitrary aesthetic choice, which when all is said and done, is as meaningful as assigning one team the color red and the other team the color blue. The fact that this is the ludic reality of gaming as it stands and as it has been for three decades now should potentially steer us away from including problematic or controversial imagery as more trouble than it’s worth, but instead, the design of many games seems to be going in the opposite direction: more graphical realism, more referential visuals, but arguably not always toward a greater thematic coherence.
To underscore this with yet a third game I’ve been playing recently, consider Enslaved: Odyssey to the West. It’s based upon the Chinese novel Journey to the West, a novel about a monk and his disciples as they travel to India to retrieve sacred Buddhist texts with the intention of spreading Buddhism to China. Enslaved, meanwhile, is about white, American-accented characters in a post-apocalyptic North America for no reason that I can fathom besides to show off some New York architecture. We may read anything thsat we like into the game with regards to post-modern narrative universality or white appropriation but really it’s still about navigating a space, and that space could as well be anything that the designers wanted.
“You can’t have a retro number without a hammer and sickle in the background,” a theater friend remarked to me, looking over a draft of this article. It’s a fair point. Even if many of my generation were too young to really understand it at the time, the Cold War was a persistent backdrop to the media that we consumed as children. In some respect, the return of an ‘80s aesthetic can’t avoid referencing that—with varying degrees of self-awareness. For LittleBigPlanet 2, sticking a Soviet-styled factory in among pastry castles and Star Trek nods can’t really be argued against, but as with Enslaved‘s rather arbitrary take on Chinese literature, it’s hard to argue for it either.