A Look at Traveller's Tales Lego Video Games
The practice of making video games that are based on a licensed property--be it a movie, TV series, cartoon, comic book, or toy line--is almost as old as video games themselves. Yet when you add more than one license into the mix--such as when a video game is based on a toy that is based on a movie--what's the end result? A Traveller's Tales Lego video game, that's what.
The Mrs. and I have been playing the licensed Lego video games as soon as Traveller's Tales started making them, beginning with Star Wars and continuing through Indiana Jones and Batman. We're currently working our way through this year's Harry Potter game and we're eagerly looking forward to the upcoming Star Wars: The Clone Wars game, which promises to expand on the game play options that were introduced in the previous Star Wars games. (Of course, our devotion to these games largely hinges on the two player co-op feature that's been included in every Lego game so far.)
What's remarkable about these games is that each have to serve two different sets of requirements: the requirements set by the Lego license, and the requirements set by whatever the other licensed property is. One would think that each game would be a logistical nightmare to plan and produce, yet Traveller's Tales has found a way to create a series of consistently engaging and satisfying games that fit their respective combination of licensed properties. Read on for a more detailed reflection on what makes Lego the perfect fit for license-based video games.
Licensed games are rarely the source of video game innovation, with developers being content to earn a quick buck off of a popular license without investing much in terms of creativity. Most of the licensed video games that I've played over the years simply took an existing game style--usually a style derived from a popular non-licensed video game--and cosmetically altered it to fit the license. For example, I've lost track of the number of licensed arcade games that were released during the late 80s and early 90s that imitated the game play style of Double Dragon. Even the first video game adaptation of Alien, one of the scariest movies of the 1970s, was patterned after the scare-free game style of Pac-Man(!).
What makes Traveller's Tales approach to Lego a consistent success is that it never forgets that the players are essentially playing with Legos (albiet computer-generated versions of Legos), and thus the game environment--the characters, the vehicles, and the settings--must adhere to the logic of Lego-based play. In other words, items within the games must not only appear to be made out of Lego bricks, but they must also (to some extent) be able to be assembled, disassembled, and/or reassembled into new items. With that rule in place, additional details (such as Force powers, Bat-gadgets, wizard spells, and so on) can be introduced into the game that fit the secondary license but still apply to Lego logic. This may seem like an obvious approach to a Lego-based game but it could just have easily been done differently, with the games heavily favoring building over narrative-based game play or vice versa.
Looking back, it was probably useful that Traveller's Tales started their line of Lego games with Star Wars, arguably the most toy-friendly license in existence today. Unlike the many, many other Star Wars video games, the Lego Star Wars games capture the complete Star Wars fan experience: Not only can you play a game that fits the narrative logic of the Star Wars movies, but can also "buy" Star Wars action figures and vehicles as the game progresses until you have a complete virtual toy collection. Thus began the formula of narrative-based gaming and simulated toy play that resulted in more fun Lego games. (In fact, the only other video game that I can think of that comes close to this formula is the recent Toy Story 3 game's expansive Toy Box Mode.)
Of the Traveller's Tales Lego games that have been released so far, the Lego Indiana Jones 2 game is an interesting deviation from the standard Lego game formula. All of the other Lego games that were produced prior to Lego Indy 2 have levels that alternate between third-person adventures and vehicle-based missions, each connected by a "hub world". The hub worlds are environments where players can buy characters, vehicles and game play options and customize characters, but the hub worlds themselves are not meant to be played like a game level itself. In contrast, Lego Indy 2 features expansive hub worlds that contain various unlockable minigames in addition to the narrative-based levels. In terms of entertainment game play, these larger hub worlds are a mixed bag. The hub worlds devoted to the first three Indiana Jones movies, with each hub world devoted to a single movie, are fun, diorama-like re-creations of the movie settings. (The first three hub worlds remind me of the modular micro world playsets from the short-lived Star Wars Micro Collection toy line.) On the other hand, the remaining three hub worlds were devoted to the fourth Indiana Jones movie and each felt stretched thin to provide new challenges.
Yet for all of its flexibility, Traveller's Tales approach to Lego gaming would not work for all toy-ready licenses. Judging from the Lego game titles that have been released so far, the license would need a large cast of playable characters, a number of drivable vehicles, and a wide variety of playset-ready locations. Thus, licenses such as Star Trek and Stargate would work very well as Lego games, but licenses such as Godzilla would have too many restrictions to fit the Lego gaming format.
Click here to see a complete list of Lego video games, which includes games made by companies other than Traveller's Tales. This list also features Lego Universe by NetDevil, a massively multiplayer online game that was launched last October and features game play similar to the Traveller's Tales games.