We know from our everyday experiences that familiar is comfortable. What we are used to just feels right. Our brains seemed wired to appreciate and fall into normative practices. Why, then, is jumping in LittleBigPlanet 2 so unsettling?
The plush, cutesy, Stephen Fry narrated dream world of LittleBigPlanet is back, now with more brain twisting and ingenious level design and an entire assortment of mini-game remakes built right in. Developed by British based developer Media Molecule, LittleBigPlanet 2 is a surprisingly controversial game considering its unabashed attempts at charming gamers everywhere into joyful submission. PopMatters’ own Kris Ligman accurately and expertly dug into the game’s contradictory gender messages this past Tuesday, specifically revealing how Media Molecule negated their own attempt at encouraging a playful understanding of gender and identity ("Sackpersonhood: Constructing a Rhetoric of Player Identification", PopMatters, 1 February 2011). It seems LBP’s cute aesthetic is to blame in more ways than one. Jumping, for example, in LBP 2 is largely unsatisfying, and despite attempts to blame players accustomed to jumping like Mario, Media Molecule has no one to blame but themselves.
The first iteration of LBP earned a fair number of complaints regarding its jumping mechanics, particularly the sackperson’s “floatyness”, for lack of a better word. Oli Welsh at Eurogamer complained of “the slightest lack of precision and definition to the floaty jump, a hint of stickiness, the timing's off by a fraction of a fraction of a second” ("LittleBigPlanet", Eurogamer, 12 October 2008). Many were expecting a fix to an ostensibly “broken” function with the release of LBP 2, yet the plush doll’s airtime remains frustrating to a large swath of players and reviewers. While she does not consider the jumping physics of LBP2 a complete “fun breaker”, Susan Arendt of The Escapist calls it “a frustration that never quite goes away as you play” ("Review: LittleBigPlanet 2", The Escapist, 27 January 2011).
When frustrated by the game’s jumping physics, LBP2 players naturally turn to the grandfather of all platformers as an example of success: Mario. Compared to its relatively ancient predecessor, LBP ‘s jumps feel weightless, almost comically exaggerated. When asked to weigh in on the “Mario debate”, Media Molecule Co-Founder and Technical Director David Smith has this to say: “The simple answer is that it's just very different to Mario. It's very awkward even comparing it to Mario. Some people really want that jump that's faster or more controlled, but it doesn't as easily fit the freeform physical environment of LittleBigPlanet” ("The Last Word on LittleBigPlanet 2", Eurogamer, 21 January 2011).
Is explaining LBP’s jumping problem really that easy? Are players just programmed to enjoy Nintendo’s precedent? It is certainly possible. Numerous platformers have reaffirmed the same basic jump mechanics of Mario Bros. time and again. Mario himself has followed us into the golden age of platformers and the franchise remains as popular as ever. We also know from our everyday experiences that familiar is comfortable. What we are used to just feels right. Our brains seemed wired to appreciate and fall into normative practices. It explains why we so often love food prepared the way that our parents used to make it. It also explains how elderly people on the verge of blindness can navigate their Bel Air through their local area with ease. Smith himself called switching from Mario to LBP a "shock-inducing phenomenon".
Still. Explaining how wrong LBP feels cannot be brushed aside that easily. Toying with gravity in Limbo was not so unsettling, nor does flicking around a screen to jump in Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manner feel completely alien. So what is going on here?
The answer is in the design of feedback loops. It turns out that we are used to something other than Mario’s leaps and bounds: the simple cohesion between action and response. When we take an action, we want validation and information -- validation that our actions matter and information about how our actions can be adjusted to achieve various desired effects. As author and game designer Jane McGonigal explains, the “variety and intensity of feedback loops is the most important difference between digital and nondigital games” (Reality Is Broken, Penguin Press, 2011). We players want to know how to best place ourselves in the sweet spot on the border of challenge and mastery. LBP 2's physics are not properly built to give us the psychological reassurance that we desire and the contextual information that we need.
The informational problem can be found in the world building tools themselves. The material, size, and density of objects do not adequately convey how those objects will behave in game. Button sensitivity is also a compounding factor that few players or developers have mastered. A feather soft, quick press will cause the sackperson to barely hop. Heavier and more prolonged presses will vary the height effect. If you have the game at hand, go ahead and lightly press the jump button while standing still. Can you hit the exact same height ten times in a row? Could you comfortably do it while running through obstacles? What about on springy or moving platforms? There just isn’t enough information available to feel one hundred percent comfortable with finely controlled jumps.
The extended air time is unsatisfying because it prolongs and obscures feedback. A time gap between action and reaction, of air time, is not inherently frustrating. Players quickly become accustomed to such delays in Battlefield: Bad Company, which incorporates ammunition velocity in determining when a fired weapon hits its target. Battlefield players can still move their character during brief seconds of wait, occupying themselves and taking further actions before receiving feedback. The titular character from Super Meat Boy can experience some extended air time but has plenty of mobility, thereby offering quick feedback. Sackpersons, on the other hand, have limited aerial mobility, providing little information between the act of jumping and landing.
I stand by Susan Arendt’s statement regarding jumping in considering LBP 2's physics: jumping is a perpetually annoying feature in an otherwise incredibly entertaining product. In fact, I admire Smith’s commitment to the dream world vision of LBP. The “floatyness” does convey a sense of jovial movement. Media Molecule has at least admitted that their preference is not universally shared. The sequel’s jump pads, which launch sackpersons great distances quickly, creating the impression of more aerial variability, seem an obvious work around intended to allay irritated players. LBP 2 also allows level creators to adjust gravity in the game, a feature David Smith revealed the team put in “sneakily”. LBP 2’s feedback loops might need tightening, but as far as Media Molecule is concerned, that is your responsibility. If you do decide to recreate a sackboy Mario, at least thank the development team for the opportunity.