Plastic Nostalgia

By Jamie Love - February 10th, 2009

Plastic Nostalgia

Looking over the screenshots for Traveller’s Tales newest Lego game, I started remembering how much I used to enjoy the Army Men Series. Granted my mind isn’t what it used to be, but there are some immediate similarities between the two franchises. Both are extensions of a toy line, harvesting a rich nostalgic soil to create quirky and humorous games that are dramatically distinct from other titles. Both have of course fed sequels, though it’ll be a long time yet before the Lego series catches up to the dizzying amount of games spawned by Army Men.

My favorite similarity is the way in which both games depict character deaths. The first time I played the original Lego Star Wars, blowing droids back into Lego bricks was the most satisfying experience imaginable. I’m shocked that it’s taken me this long to draw a comparison to the death sequences of the Army Men series – where the limbs of plastic soldiers snap, and the concept of “ashes to ashes” is replaced by “plastic to melted globs of goo.”

As much as these comparisons offer a temporary distraction, the rise and fall of Army Men as a franchise might have some guidance to offer the Lego series. It’s a cautionary tale, best summarized by The Simpsons.

Remember when Homer and the B-Sharps needed a name for their band? Something that was funny the first time you heard it, but less so each time after?

The story of Army Men takes place within the real world. These tiny soldiers have their own plastic world, and if they spend too much time in ours, they harden and become the lifeless toys we know and love. So game-play takes place in kitchens, bedrooms, and backyards. [The series briefly detoured into space, but so did a lot of other series’ that I’m not going to talk about today.] To play in the plastic world of the Army Men narrative defeats the quirky point of the series’ existence. But there are only so many ways in which this idea can stay relevant before collapsing under the weight of sequels and spin-offs.

Army Men only has one generally continuous story to tell. The rationale to keeping this narrative of plastic conflict fresh was to push the series into other genres. If developers could change the way we interacted with it, perhaps we could accept the limited and repetitious nature of its story.

Lego on the other hand, has no story whatsoever. Those iconic pieces are instead the building blocks of a story. The series takes well established franchises or scenarios, and gives us a different means of experiencing what we already know. So the game-play can take place absolutely anywhere that the absorbed story requires it to. But the style of each Lego game is the same, with only some subtle changes made from prior entries to suit the new story.

But despite this difference, both games appear as prisoners of the worlds they create, or in fact, don’t create.

Where the similarities return is with the fact that the conflict of Army Men was layered over the real world – specifically because there was very little interaction between the Army Men and that world. And this is something that the Lego series also suffers with. While each expansion of the series re-imagines new worlds, these games are no less layered over top of the worlds they create and depict. Every entry has allowed the player to interact with characters, vehicles, and objects. But the world itself exists only as a playmat for these adventures to take place on, rather than a tangible environment the player has a real connection to.

So one potential question is whether an entire world of Lego poses problems similarly to a world of plastic. Would a world built entirely from Lego lose a connection to the environments and scenarios, and thus the narrative it is exploring? Would it lose the same niche elements that kept the Army Men invading our world?

Does the idea of being able to so greatly interact with the environment defeat any notion of focused game-play? Or is it the only logical means by which the series can grow beyond something more than a temporary existence as a nostalgic niche franchise?

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