December 1, 2021

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The Lego Games and the Glory of Not Being Challenged

Voll concurs. Positive collaboration can be good for a gaming community. “Game mechanics that reinforce trust and social norms that are based on mutual respect all can help,” she says.

The Lego games can be played alone, but the player is always followed by a trusty second character, ready to help out. It also makes it easier for a second player to join in. When they did so before the use of split screen, trust was the only thing standing between you and getting pulled halfway across the room.

Some bigger, more difficult games also suffer from overpromising and underdelivering, which riles fans up even more. It also rarely affects games with smaller scale and more manageable expectations. A fiasco on the scale of Fallout 76 or No Man’s Sky is yet to trouble the Stardew Valley community.

Humor

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The final area where unchallenging games thrive is comedy. Meatier games can have a sense of humor, as Portal and 2018’s God of War demonstrate. However, from a writing perspective, games that take themselves less seriously are able, shockingly, to take themselves less seriously, which leads to a specific kind of entertainment. The world would be a different, darker place without Untitled Goose Game. The Ratchet and Clank games see supervillain Dr. Nefarious broadcast the soap opera antics of Lance and Janice whenever he loses his temper.

The audience for a lot of these games tends to be children, which means getting a laugh without offending the parents. The solution a lot of game developers reach for is silliness. Here is where the Lego games shine once again.

Throughout their heyday in the late ’00s, the characters in the Lego games didn’t speak, which created the need for a particularly visual type of comedy. Slapstick abounds, and what can’t be communicated through speech has to come through body language. Watching Indiana Jones and his dad squabble by pointing, glaring, and hitting each other is a particular highlight.

The same daftness pervades even the later games, where talking did get introduced. LEGO The Lord of the Rings lifts often heavy dialog straight from the films, but it lightens the tone with evil eyebrow raises and tavern-frequenting pigs.

There’s also something incredibly funny about serious moments from some of the best respected films of all time being redone in Lego. Jonathan Smith, strategic director at TT Games, tells WIRED that part of the Lego games’ success lies in reimagining classic characters and stories as something more “charming and playful.” Everyone knows the plot twist in The Empire Strikes Back, for example, in which Darth Vader reveals himself as Luke Skywalker’s father in James Earl Jones’s iconic basso profundo. In LEGO Star Wars: The Complete Saga, though, the characters still aren’t talking. Without James Earl Jones, Darth Vader has to make do by grunting at a photograph of Anakin and Padmé.

Annus Horribilis

The appeal of not being challenged became even clearer last March. New Horizons was released just days after the UK and US went into lockdown, and it became an instant hit. Part of why it was lauded was its ability to provide an escape, which is to say almost no challenge.

Andy Phelps, director of American University’s Game Center, tells WIRED, “I think in the midst of the lockdown people felt challenged enough or even ‘challenged-out.’”

“We needed spaces that purposefully provided the antithesis of the constant challenge of pandemic life, spaces that allowed us to accomplish something but that were low risk, easy engagement. Animal Crossing fit that perfectly.”