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Little Big Planet 2 turns engineering into something understandable and electronics into an entertaining game. It's a technical achievement that schools and colleges should really be making more use of.
Little Big Planet 2 builds upon the delightful original by providing more of everything while keeping its homemade feel with sackcloth, sponge and cardboard. The story mode gameplay rewards cooperative play that inevitably leads to mini feuds and "co-opetition" as you accidentally grab hold of fellow players and drop them into pits of burning lava.
The part of Little Big Planet 2 that impresses from a technical perspective is the construction kit though. It's a build mode that lets you throw together a few pieces of wood and create your own run around level. Many people may just glance at this, build a little ramp and move on.
But I decided to test out how intuitive In Little Big Planet was with my six year old daughter - using it in construction mode for her school science homework. She built ramps of different inclines and let cars roll down them to measuring which went the furthest. Clever stuff.
Little Big Planet 2 expands this construction toolkit. The tutorial modes and descriptions are again voiced by Stephen Fry who explains every component with brilliant script and humorous delivery.
By breaking things down to digestible basic building blocks Media Molecule provide public access to their physics simulation. Materials float, drop, collide, slide, stick and explode depending on their basic parameters. The objects are live and interactive the instant they are created. They have collision detection, real time lighting and varied customisation options. They can be glued together, decorated or carved nearly as much as any expensive 3D modelling package.
The three lane isometric depth of the build space and the tight range of camera views means the objects have no back face but this doesn't so much restrict the creative building potential, as channel it.
What really made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up were the customisable logic gates.
The build palette also provides you with mechanical components. These are an extension of the physics engine, ropes, joints, springs, pulleys, cogs and motors. Each opens the way for a limitless array of contraptions to be made that behave in real time.
There are then an array of electrical simulations - switches and triggers. Every functioning object has an input and output. There are small cones of selectable areas around the devices. It is a simple point and click to join A to B. Allowing the output of one objects behaviour and state to be the input of another. Every special object also has a set of parameters that can be tweaked.
But what really made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up were the customisable logic gates. The fundamentals of all the computing we do today, all the programming and every digital device, is founded on the basis that you can build and entire computer with a collection of NOT and AND gates. NOT gates invert 1 to 0 and vice versa and AND gates responds with a 1 when all its inputs are 1.
This opens the door to all manner of technical fun, from a basic adding computer to more constructions that achieve complex maths. To avoid these logic circuits trailing around every level Little Big Planet 2 introduces circuit boards. These allow the creation of complex collections of digital circuitry, still laid out visually and linked, that can then be folded up into a mini standalone package and attached to other devices.
Little Big Planet 2 is an impressive piece of kit for anyone with even a mildly technical mind. It's a real time graphic design package integrated with a physics engine all joined together by mechanical, electric and electronic tools. Above all it is immensely fun and rewarding.
Having a look at other people's creations online I soon realised that an enhanced set of camera controls could then turn your creations into a set for a film. It is possible to create an entire piece of machinima using just these tools.
The fusing of visual design tools with programming and engineering should put this on the curriculum of every school
The fusing of visual design tools with programming and engineering in such an accessible and entertaining way should put this application on the curriculum of every school in the country. We need to encourage more kids into science and engineering, this can do that. I know people will say it's just a game, or is somehow frivolous, but I encourage any teachers to look at what is possible. Explore how rich a learning experience this can be with the right guidance.
Movie making, programming, engineering, art and design seldom come together so simply but we know that at the intersection of these skills is where great innovation happens.
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