In 2005, Lego Star Wars: The Video Game initiated what would eventually become an industry staple: the annual Lego game release. The acclaimed franchise, developed exclusively by the folks at TT Games, has successfully translated some of the world's most popular characters and film series' -- including, but not limited to: Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Harry Potter and, most recently, The Lord of the Rings -- into charming and hilarious platforming adventures for a younger audience.
Nicholas Ricks, executive producer at TT Games, says the ability to re-tell Hollywood's best tales for young gamers is what drives the developer to make such intricately honest re-imaginings. But how can such a deep and complex narrative, like the one we see in Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings film trilogy, be compounded to fit into a game only a few hours long?
"Whilst we tell the story of all three of Peter Jackson’s epic movies in a fashion that will excite fans of our games, it’s LEGO Middle-earth that best demonstrates the game’s ambition."
This interesting design direction is evident in all of TT Games' Lego titles: rather than hitching onto the source material's tale word for word, the games tell an irreverent story reminiscent of the original narrative. TT Games doesn't ditch the darkest of themes, but it never treads too far away from the slapstick-esque comedy the Lego games are loved for.
The Lord of the Rings was arguably the developer's toughest gig. With decades worth of information, Tolkien's empathically-designed Middle Earth and a large fanbase, TT Games had to stay true to the source material while still maintaining the distinctive Lego charm.
"We wanted to ensure that we exceeded everyone’s expectations with LEGO The Lord of the Rings, and I think we have achieved that goal," says Ricks. His confidence in the Lego brand and its capacity to hold onto the mythology of iconic tales like The Lord of the Rings is important: inspiration comes from everywhere, but telling a complex tale for a casual audience is no easy feat.
One of the biggest challenges the developer faces with every new Lego game is adapting the popular gameplay from early games to fit the tone and direction of the source material. With Star Wars, combat, sound and appearance all played an important part. In Indiana Jones, a sense of an adventure took center stage, so the designing process had to adapt to fit that mould.
"We wanted to ensure that we exceeded everyone’s expectations with LEGO The Lord of the Rings, and I think we have achieved that goal." - Nicholas Ricks, executive producer at TT Games
"Whenever we approach a new game the team attempts to distil what unique elements it brings to invigorate and expand existing LEGO gameplay," says Ricks. In the case of LEGO The Lord of the Rings, questing and a sense of travelling suddenly became a focus during development. "We wanted to go further and provide tangible rewards for the player to encourage them to explore the massive LEGO Middle-earth we have created for them."
As with other games, TT Games added in side-quests and missions that, while separate from the main story, fit in well with the source material. "I guess you could say that these features are common to RPGs, but they provide the game with its own identity, whilst still having it sit comfortably within the pantheon of LEGO games."
One of the most impressive things in LEGO The Lord of the Rings is the world itself. It's a game world that seems big and is big by Lego standards, but is still limited enough so the game isn’t quite as intimidating as the books or films.
"Conceptually it was simple, we’ll include it all, but this presented significant technical challenges as you’d imagine," says Ricks when asked about the complexities of adapting lengthy material for a short game. "The journey is authentically re-told, but a little condensed to ensure it's suitability for our audience."
"Condensed" in the world of Lego games isn't necessarily a bad thing: they're revered for their simplicity and challenge, and their ability to tell such intricately detailed stories through silence, body language and sound.
"The humour is indeed an integral part of their success. We’re immensely privileged to be able to blend such cherished and well-loved properties together, and we do so with real reverence."
The Lego brand has for decades put smiles on the faces of children and adults alike. The games must replicate the pleasure of building (and disabling) an item to truly feel like a Lego experience. It's great then that Ricks and his team share the same love for the brand, something they eventually put into their development.
"So many of us grew up playing with LEGO toys, they remind us of happy and creative times.This juxtaposes humorously with the more serious elements of the story that we’re telling." Ricks nails it. The humour, blended with the seriousness of the source material, is what makes the perfect LEGO game.
But can LEGO enhance how an otherwise already-dark story can be told? Apparently, it can. "We often find that it’s the darker or more scary moments that work most successfully when re-told through the prism of LEGO."
Can TT Games continue to retell iconic stories in the Lego universe? It's done a great fan service with so many thus far, and it seems like it can only get better at the job. But we can only hold out for Lego Jurassic Park: The Game for so long.
By Gaetano Prestia