Smashing Toward Story

I’m moderately familiar with Harry Potter; it’s hard not to be, these days! I’ve read the books twice, and I finally watched all of the movies just this year. Yes, I know who Blaise Zabini is, but I certainly wouldn’t consider myself an expert.

I am, however, completely freaking obsessed with the Traveller’s Tales LEGO Harry Potter games. My husband bought me the second one for my birthday and it’s the only thing I’ve played in the last week.

“Can you call this research,” he asked me, “or do you just like smashing things?”

“Research!” I answered indignantly. “Narrative research!” Since Hermione was smashing her way through the Room of Requirement at the time, I’m not sure he believed me – but I actually meant it.

Don’t get me wrong – smashing things is awesome. You play as minifig Harry and his minifig friends, in a world in which most items are destructible and produce studs (the game’s currency) when you shoot them with your wand. The smash interaction is very nearly perfect*, from the zap of your wand to the satisfying sound to the effect on the environment. The studs burst out from the destroyed object and roll across the screen. If you don’t pick them up fast enough they fade away, in which case you might not get enough studs on the level to earn the True Wizard designation. It’s a lovely tension between goal-oriented action and the pure pleasure of destruction.

The problem is, of course, that I can’t turn off my researcher brain when I’m playing, even when I’m playing for fun – and that means I notice things. This time, I noticed that my husband kept asking me what was happening in the cut-scenes.  I was surprised at how often he was confused. I’d thought the cut-scenes were incredibly witty, and not hard to follow at all! Then I remembered: he’d read the books just once, back in 2007 when the final volume came out.

Watching the cut-scenes with more scholarly eyes, I realized just how interesting the Traveller’s Tales approach to story is. The minifigs don’t speak, so the designers were restricted to a language of gesture and physical comedy. It means that all the reasons why things happen have to be painted in very broad strokes. For example, the designers had to express the idea of “horcruxes” – and identify which quest objects were horcruxes – without using a single word. Instead of laboriously trying to explain, they created a visual element that makes sense to someone literate in Rowling’s world. A simple picture with six items on it, shown by Dumbledore to Harry in a private conversation, says “horcruxes” to the educated viewer – and leaves the novice completely lost.

Similarly, each cut-scene has to leave the story in a place where exploration, problem-solving, and blowing things up makes sense. This means they’re often compressing large portions of the story into a short cut-scene, and expanding or inventing sections that are more playable. For example, the dramatic confrontation between the Trio and Umbridge is elided, while their subsequent trip into the Forbidden Forest is filled with obstacles and puzzles. The balance in the book is, need I say, the opposite. Once again, the cut-scene briefly references the book’s events (Hermione waggles a picture of Dumbledore in front of Umbridge, temptingly) but can’t actually attempt to tell that story on its own.

At the same time, the games go beyond re-telling the story of the books, and develop their own visual and narrative language. Of course, there’s an instrumental aspect to this: if something is metallic and shiny, it can only be blown up by the Reducto spell. However, sometimes it’s just for narrative pleasure. Carrots and pumpkins are always funny. Ditto enormous versions of common household objects, like the shears you build to cut down a hedge blocking your path. The minifig faces and bodies are shockingly expressive, even outside the cut-scenes. It isn’t just a retelling of Harry Potter – it’s a retelling with its own particular style, one that’s been developed across the entire Traveller’s Tale LEGO line.

To “read” the Harry Potter games, therefore, you have to be fluent both with the source material and with the LEGO video game line. For my husband, who regularly watches me play, the LEGO elements were effectively comic, while the narrative elements often left him wondering what had just happened. I expect that my friend Abby, who knows the Potterverse quite well but has never played a LEGO game, would have the reverse experience.

I’m sometimes deeply bothered by the practice of shallow symbolic referencing, but the LEGO games do it with wit, craft, and charm. Unlike, say, Wil Wheaton referencing one meme after another, these games don’t just make references to reinforce group identity – they use Harry Potter in order to do an actual retelling of the story, with its own strengths and weaknesses and point of view. I’d go so far as to call these games a very successful parody series, and I recommend them highly to anyone who likes Harry Potter, smashing things, or both.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to smash my way to the bottom of a frozen lake and retrieve the sword of Godric Gryffindor!

* There are occasional auto-target problems when you’re trying to shoot an object that’s too close to you, but the game provides a manual targeting option for these situations.

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