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Revisiting the Long-Forgotten Proto-Open World of Lego Island

An excerpt from the latest issue of the webzine Heterotopias explores the proto-open world of Lego Island.

Analysis by Cal Revely-Calder, .

The following is an extract from an article in the fourth issue of the games and architecture webzine Heterotopias 004, which is now available for $6.

Lego had existed for almost half a century when the company was approached by the video game studio Mindscape in 1996. Throughout those decades, the simple brick had reigned supreme; some rods, axles, and wheels were added in the 'Technic' range of 1977, but 'Robotics,' with its fully-formed and programmable consoles, wouldn't appear until 1998. The world of Lego was still something that you built from scratch, you moved by your own efforts, and you left to inertia when you walked away. With the exception of the Japan-only Lego Fun to Build (1995)—a series of cartoonish minigames for the educational Sega Pico—playing with Lego had always been tactile, physical work.

Mindscape's ambitions for Lego Island were humble enough. The late Wes Jenkins, its creative director, said that the team had tried to design "a fun, engaging experience for kids to play, to learn and to interact in a Lego-eye-view world of make-believe." The game was never meant to be intricate, and the environment bears this out. Lego Island is a single, flattish rectangle, bounded at one end by a gentle rise with a tower on top, and at the other by a wide plateau with a few lonely houses and a backwoodsy crest. In the middle, there are some generic urban landmarks—a gas station, a bank, a medical centre—and (more unusually) a racetrack that loops around them then dives underground.

Though these sound like the elements of today’s sandbox games—the state of San Andreas, the islands of Panau—Lego Island is barely a sketch towards those sprawling worlds, worlds that seem to deserve the title 'worlds,' or begin to approach what it could mean. Here, playing as one of five first-person characters with identical movements and skills, all you need to do is get familiar with a mouse, or four arrow keys, and soon you'll be gliding from one end of the island to the other. As you potter about, you find places to build a few vehicles (four), and go on a few sidequests (five); these include jet-ski racing and driving an ambulance. If you play as Pepper Roni, pizza delivery boy and '90s poster-child—'The dude with the food!' 'Way cool!'—you can also complete the game's solitary mission. When you bring him an especially spicy topping, a criminal called 'The Brickster' melts the lock on his jail cell, and begins to unbuild the island—"to take apart this town brick by brick!" You foil him with a helicopter that drops doughnuts for the cops, and shoots pizza at the Brickster to hold him up.

The mission provides no test and earns you no reward. The true vibrancy of Lego Island is all in its drift; it has little to do with purpose. You just amble about, listening to the catchy soundtrack (over 90 minutes, says the box), intermittently accosted by the islanders, who appear from nowhere. Often you crash right into them; they explode, horrifically, all over the ground; then, after a beat, their bricks silently reassemble, and they blithely stroll away. There's no damage in this place, no change for the worse. A shark coughs up the man it has swallowed; ghosts pop out of the ground, bob around, vanish. The side-games are all candy floss, forgettably easy to win and hardly different no matter which character you are. Everything happens over and over, as endless repetition. It lasts for as long as you care to play.

For a child, the anarchy of Lego Island has few downsides, because its whole world is just a playground, and what could be better than that? For an adult, by contrast, the island is harder to judge. It repeatedly cocks a snook at purpose, the drive that gives adults the structure they expect from a video game. Quirky sideshows can distract us for a while, after all, but are ancillary and limited: their fun isn't meant to last forever. And this island, so safe and comfortable on the surface, begins to seem restrictive, because the layout cramps your movements, boxes you into its mad little world. You shuttle around the same paths, meeting the same people, saying the same lines. With the side-games exhausted, all you can do is explore, but the map is a primitive grid of roads that turn at 45 or 90 degrees, and not only can you not step outside these paths, walk on the grass, or climb the cliffs, but you can only move in poker-straight lines. The game was designed for arrow keys, not some fancy tilting and banking controller. So, wherever you're walking—or cycling, or driving; it’s all the same motion—you can't gather much speed before you meet the edge of the road at an angle. All those edges are lined with invisible walls, and they have a total friction that stops you dead. It's especially infuriating on the tight paths along the cliffs, or the switchback trail down from the Information Centre. You keep being reminded that you’re moving in predetermined channels.

In her 1979 essay 'Grids,' the art theorist Rosalind Krauss wrote about the visual implications of regular, contained shapes. She uses the example of an artist's square canvas. There are two ways of seeing it, she suggests: one is “centrifugal,” one is "centripetal."

"Logically speaking, the grid extends, in all directions, to infinity. Any boundaries imposed upon it by a given painting or sculpture can only be seen—according to this logic—as arbitrary. By virtue of the grid, the given work of art is presented as a mere fragment, a tiny piece arbitrarily cropped from an infinitely larger fabric. Thus the grid operates from the work of art outward, compelling our acknowledgement of a world beyond the frame. This is the centrifugal reading. The centripetal one works, naturally enough, from the outer limits of the aesthetic object inwards. The grid is, in relation to this reading, a re-presentation of everything that separates the work of art from the world, from ambient space and from other objects."

So, Krauss asks, "is what we see in a particular painting merely a section of an implied continuity, or is the painting structured as an autonomous, organic whole?" Does the grid gesture out to infinity, or is it the internal division of a finished world? The question has no answer. A duck-rabbit isn't something to solve; it teaches you how to understand points of view.

But one of them has to come first: you spot the duck, or you spot the rabbit. At first, playing as a child, the grid of Lego Island seems expansive. The build-a-car games are diverting enough; they don't have the wild variety of a real Lego set, given their limited colour palette and rigorous step-by-step method, but kaleidoscopic colour can give you somewhere to dwell for a while. (Besides, we expected less from open-world maps in 1997.) But once you've exhausted the grid, reached its outer limits, you see the island in the round, and now it seems to contract. So much of it is redundant, forgettable. There's nothing to do in the residential zone, for instance: the view from the hill is poor—its pixels have only coarsened with time—while none of the houses up there are accessible. They don't even look the right size; they're like cubicles, or architectural follies. So your feet draw you back down the hill, onto a long spit of sand. From here, the promenade and pizzeria are visible only metres away, but thanks to the iron grip of the predetermined pathways, they're inaccessible without looping back round the island. As a child, you wander these lifeless zones puzzled; as an adult, they’re frustrating, even eerie, and you need to get away.

Sandbox games are like canvases that try to disguise their limits. They pretend they've done away with borders, in an anarchist's dream, but these worlds are artificial; unless the map is an entire planet, there has to be a single, world-defining limit, often an 'invisible wall' hidden under the auspice of uninhabitable territory or a single unstoppable foe. Islands are naturally suited to sandbox play, since they resemble sandboxes already: all your tools are inside the grid, since humans don't build at sea. Take to the air and fly off the map—as in the Grand Theft Auto and Just Cause series, and Lego Island too—and physics will push you back to where the fun is. Some 20 years ago, the technology didn't allow for anything more than a tiny island—let alone a planet—and so you could print the Lego Island map in full detail on a single sheet of A4. Still, as a child, I was happy to inhabit its grid, believe in its centrifugal energy. Every street implied another one, as if Lego Island were Manhattan, and since the colors and simple events were peppy enough, the island gave me more than enough material to explore.

But today, having outgrown that small scale, you can immediately see too far. With an adult's skill, you can traverse the map in seconds, chronicle all its locations, see how the AI scripts clunk along. Perspective has been transformed, diminished; the grid has gone from implying an expansive future, out there, to revealing a restrictive present, in here. Now the island resembles a model built for smaller eyes, like the one Wes Jenkins and his (adult) designers made of it during the development stage. This object was a labor of love, using thousands of Lego bricks and measuring several square metres; the team "would have focus tests with kids to ask how they would play" the game. Not only that, but as Jenkins admitted, "the team kind of played around on it when [they] wanted to." Surreptitiously pretending to be kids for a day, they were trying to retrieve the perspective they badly missed. They wanted to see the grid centrifugally again, to believe that its limits could promise endless worlds—to forget what they knew, that the invisible walls already marked the end.

You can read the rest of this article in issue 004 of the games and architecture webzine Heterotopias. Launching today, the issue also features stories on The Witcher 3's lush forests (along with interviews with key members of the CD Projekt Red team), Kentucky Route Zero's sceneography influences, Night in the Woods' uncanny depiction of ecohorror and mental health, as well as much more.

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