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My brief hands-on with LittleBigPlanet at the Penny Arcade Expo several weeks ago left me extremely impressed. I didn’t get to see the level-building features, but what I saw of Media Molecule’s upcoming title was smartly designed, graphically stunning, and irrepressibly adorable. Still, as I downloaded the beta last week I couldn’t help but wonder whether it would win over PS3 owners en masse. It is, after all a sidescrolling platformer — a game type that reached its peak during the 16-bit age. Can LittleBigPlanet hold its own in an era of games built around cinematic narratives and wide-open exploration?

After four days with the beta (and they were very full days), I can answer with an unqualified Yes. Contrary to my initial impressions, LittleBigPlanet‘s humble 2-D roots are far from its defining feature. And they’re certainly not a liability.

I completed the developer-built levels of LittleBigPlanet‘s first story section, worked my way through dozens of beta users’ creations, and spent about ten hours building my own levels. It was only an hour or two in to the story mode, though, before I realized how much I’d underestimated LittleBigPlanet‘s gameplay foundation. It’s not about run-and-jump 2-D platforming. It’s about a system of intuitive physics, and their implications for community content.

You don’t have to play LittleBigPlanet to see that its physics simulations are front and center. A few minutes of gameplay footage makes that clear. What isn’t immediately clear is how these physics simulations are at the absolute heart of the game. Every element in LittleBigPlanet functions as an actual, physical object with lifelike properties. Glass breaks, rubber bounces back, and metal is indestructible. Simple winches, levers, motors, and springs work exactly as you’d expect. The infinitely variable contraptions and structures I saw in every level, user-built or otherwise, didn’t rely on mysterious technologies. They were built from the simplest of tools and materials.

In LittleBigPlanet‘s shrunk-down world, all this stuff is up close and personal. If you’re hopping across a forest of plush, cloth-covered trees you’ll see the stitches in their seams. You’ll notice the corrugated edges of your cardboard house and the woodgrain in your pinewood derby racer. Even your Sackboy, zippered and stuffed, is a comfortingly familiar physical object.

The end result is that LittleBigPlanet doesn’t feel like a world created from polygons and texture passes. It feels touchable and explorable. Its levels don’t seem like they were built with software, they look like they were arranged by human hands. LittleBigPlanet seems more real than other games, and it makes sense in ways few other games do.

These fundamentally realistic, familiar qualities make a big difference when you’re working with LittleBigPlanet‘s level creation system. It’s easy to create and place physical objects, stickers, tools, and the like. You can try out your creations in real-time as you build, and assembling a simple platforming level is a snap. More detailed levels, especially those that employ hand-built machinery, take a lot more effort. Thankfully, the game includes a robust set of tutorials that slowly unlock the more challenging tools.

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LittleBigPlanet‘s physics ensure that there’s an element of unpredictably to any scenario that involves balance, momentum, and moving objects. In other words, every LittleBigPlanet scenario. I built levels – and played levels built by others – that didn’t always work as intended. The unexpected results, which may have involved incinerated, smashed, or catapulted Sackboys, were often hilarious. Sometimes, though, they were frustrating. I once made it most of the way through a challenging level, died, and then respawned in an area that had been so altered by collapsing and exploding structures that I couldn’t find my way back to where I’d perished.

In other games, these design flaws are bugs. In LittleBigPlanet, they’re something more. They’re opportunities. Because every time you send your Sackboy through a LittleBigPlanet level – any level – you see what’s possible. And what’s not. You see what works, and what doesn’t. What you should do, and what you shouldn’t.

Playing LittleBigPlanet‘s levels isn’t just fun, it’s educational and inspirational. When I encountered another user’s mechanical dragon, I thought, “Hey, I can make that.” And then I jumped into the level creator and tried to build a better dragon. That’s a big part of LittleBigPlanet‘s genius: If you see it, you can build it. There’s no arcane, behind-the-scenes programming magic to contend with, either, just the game’s believable building blocks.

This player-creator feedback loop, in which playing informs building and vice versa, virtually guarantees the emergence of a stellar subset of community content. Nearly all of the beta user levels I downloaded were entertaining, but some were astounding. My assumptions about what users could accomplish with the level creator (and by extension, what I could accomplish myself) were blown away with surprising regularity.

With regard to my original concern, LittleBigPlanet‘s dimensionally compressed, sidescrolling presentation is, if anything, a huge asset. Managing the unforeseen and sometimes complex effects of its physics-based gameplay would be vastly more difficult in three-dimensional space. Perhaps more importantly, everyone’s familiar with side-scrolling games. It’s an easily conceptualized and unintimidating format that still provides room for boundless experimentation.

Media Molecule’s biggest challenge may be in managing and organizing the massive amounts of content users will upload and share. LittleBigPlanet‘s charming content selection system provides level descriptions, statistics, and keyword-based ratings and searches, but it doesn’t include robust options to narrow or sort search results. Browsing user content seemed like a slightly random affair. LittleBigPlanet will also depend upon a YouTube-like community input system to flag mature or inappropriate content.

LittleBigPlanet looks to be as brilliant as it is beautiful. I can’t wait to see how the user-shared content possibilities play out after its release next week. Which, as far as I’m concerned, can’t come soon enough.

Adam LaMosca is a writer and researcher in Portland, Oregon. He’s currently trying to convince his wife to knit a fill-size Sackboy suit he can wear to the office.

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