If there’s one infallible calendar to track your gruelling trek into adulthood, forget facial hair and cracking voices – apathy towards Christmas wins every time.
Once a magical day filled with surprise and elation, presents and cards, sausages wrapped in bacon and sausage rolls glazed with egg, this once joyous (and apparently over-porked) holiday has slowly crept into mundanity with each passing year. My brother and I no longer bounce down the hallway at 6 a.m, tug at our parents’ bed sheets and race downstairs to marvel at the array of gift-wrapped boxes and curiously shaped lumps. Heck, my brother doesn’t even live here anymore; he usually swings by around noon with a handful of crudely wrapped but thoughtfully purchased gifts.
But it’s not just fewer presents and England’s distinctive lack of snow that dampens the mood; it’s the realization that your parents practically kill themselves every year to make December 25th special. Ok, Santa doesn’t exist – that comes early. But knowing that your mother toiled away well past midnight wrapping presents, that your father stood in queues for four hours to buy some disappointing Game Boy Color game and that your parents also bought presents on behalf of your grandparents, uncles and aunties, and even forged their handwriting on the labels for authenticity – well, it kind of takes the magic out of the whole event.
For Christmas last year, I wanted to let my parents know I noticed and appreciated their sacrifices. I wanted to present them with a gift that required more consideration, time and effort than a Hallmark card and a packet of chocolate truffles wrapped in glitzy gold paper. I wanted to create the dry-macaroni picture frame for the 21st century, a gift so thoughtful and personal they’d remember it for years to come. So, with three weeks until Christmas Day, I booted up my PlayStation 3 and threw in LittleBigPlanet.
LittleBigPlanet is a hodgepodge-platformer world filled with challenging and colorful levels, most created by the game’s extensive fan base. Some players rip off Super Mario Bros., some use the game to tell simple stories and some just want to put you through a torturous series of near-impossible jumps and dodges for the creator’s malevolent amusement. One level chuckles at the Xbox 360’s “Red Ring of Death” hardware problems; another is a wardrobe of Marvel superhero costumes and instructions on how to construct them for your Sackboy avatar. My level would be different though – special and private, a Christmas message to my parents that incorporated family photos and personal objects into a digital collage.
I chose LittleBigPlanet for a specific reason. Sure, it has an extensive level editing suite and the ability to import custom images and text, but that’s not particularly unique – I could have toiled away at a custom Counter-Strike map based on the Nativity scene or spelled out the words “Merry Christmas” with Far Cry 2‘s mountain paint brush. More importantly, my mother adores Sackboy. Whenever she watches me play LittleBigPlanet, she’ll make me change his clothes and accessories, assembling suitable outfits from his array of quirky hats and meaningless props. She’s quite literally pained whenever he’s squished, burnt, electrocuted or pricked by spikes. And she loves the world that Media Molecule designed, with its upholstered mountains, lollypop-stick flagpoles, cardboard architecture and sticker decorations.
Up to that point, watching me play was as far as she’d go. LittleBigPlanet is the latest evolution in a long line of 2-D platformers, so having absolutely zero prior knowledge of Super Mario Bros. or Sonic the Hedgehog outside of faint name recognition was quite an impairment for her. And then there’s LBP‘s baffling three-lane depth system, its not-quite-perfect jumping physics, the overwhelming number of inputs on the PS3’s controller and the sheer difficulty of many of its levels.
My present wouldn’t be a passive experience, though – if I wanted to sit my mother down and demo a LittleBigPlanet level for her, I might as well have written a poem or made a video. No, I wanted her to play, and I wanted to be in the backseat for once, the one saying “Aren’t the graphics getting good?” “Wow, you’re good at this!” and “I think you should put him in the Santa hat and sunglasses.”
The first step was taking out the extraneous Z-axis by creating icy mountains out of snowflake-print cushion covers in the two background layers. This left only one level of depth for traversal – a way to avoid unnecessary complication, I hoped. Then I added information on how to navigate the level in the form of in-game buttons that triggered instructional tooltips when stood upon, which precluded the need for tutorials or invasive “let me show you” moments.
I tinkered away in my digital workshop for weeks, tweaking corners and adorning every wall with Christmassy stickers and decorations. Finally, after hundreds of play-throughs and iterations, I was happy with the design. I dragged my PS3 into the downstairs living room to hook it up.
On Christmas morning, the slick black console was almost hidden under a sea of shiny boxes and reflective paper. When it came time to open presents, I dug it out, loaded up LittleBigPlanet and searched the game’s knitted globe for my level. The family, limited to just my mother and father at that early hour, gathered around the screen to see Sackboy pop into a winter wonderland.
I passed the controller to my mother, who tentatively wiggled the sticks and fumbled her thumbs across the face buttons. After shuffling about aimlessly for a few seconds, she ran into a giant, smiling snowman looming outside an ornately designed house, who told her that she must save Christmas by helping him make the final preparations. My mother wrangled with the gamepad a little while longer, but quickly gained control of the squat burlap creature, sending him careening down a hill on a tiny sledge.
Finally, she opened the door to the centerpiece of the stage: a complicated contraption made of switches and levers culled from dozens of my unfinished levels, a device that never had a purpose – until now. On the floor of the in-game living room sat four gifts, which Sackboy had to grab and drop onto an X-ray machine for examination.
Up to this moment, it could have been anybody else’s level – just holiday decorations and wintery scenes, nothing special or personal. But as my mother dropped the first present onto the X-ray machine and the image slowly flickered into view, she beamed with delight: It was her favorite antique teddy bear, which I had snapped in my impromptu photography studio using the PlayStation’s camera peripheral.
From that point forward, it was one surprise after another. Each present contained a different personal object, and each stocking hanging above the fireplace was ornamented with a different family member’s photo. I even added pictures of the pets my family had loved and lost over the years above the fireplace’s mantle.
As my mother made her way through the level, she lingered over every personalized tooltip and looked around to make sure everyone else was smiling as much as she was. She accidently broke the makeshift crane intended to drop a Christmas turkey into an oven, but we all laughed as she nudged it in with the broken claw. Finally, she guided Sackboy up the fireplace to escape before Christmas morning. As soon as she finished, she passed the controller to my dad and had him play it all over again. When my brother stopped by around noon, she gushed to him about her “new computer game.” I knew my gift was a success.
Christmas has always been about one thing for me. The decorations come and go, the food is forgotten by New Year’s Day and, at least for us secular folks, the concept of Jesus’ birthday is deemed irrelevant by age 12. But the holiday has always included my favorite hobby: gaming. Whether it’s playing Pokemon at Grandma’s house, challenging my brother to Super Mario Kart races or even roping my father into a cooperative match of Call of Duty: World at War, I can’t remember a single Christmas where videogames didn’t play a prominent role.
But there’s always been one person missing, sitting in the backseat and turning down offers to have a go: my incredible mum. That year, however, she was the first person to hold the controller on Christmas morning.
Mark Brown is a freelance writer living in the U.K. and can be contacted at mcbacon[at]gmail[dot]com. He wishes all readers of The Escapist (and his mum) Happy Holidays and a Merry Christmas.