I mean, of course. It's so obvious when you think about it, but it still manages to give me a teeny thrill when it's said out loud. "Yeah, you saw the Riddler riding on a Balrog, but the development team were like 'Oh, we've got Gollum as well, so who would win in a riddle fight between Gollum and the Riddler? Why don't we put that in the game?'" Well why not indeed, though I'm still undecided over the outcome of that particular showdown.
John Burton, co-founder and creative director of TT Games and producer on The Lego Movie, says he's been wanting to make Lego Dimensions (not to be confused with PC world builder Lego Worlds, announced yesterday) for around eight years now. "Very early on, we wanted to make an experience where you could take all these amazing IPs from around the world and crash them all together. But, the technology wasn't available and the methods we needed weren't available, so we've been building towards it, adding features to our games, trying new things, doing lots of research and development of technologies. And we've really taken our time to come to the market when we feel its right for the game that we wanted to make all those years ago."
Market research, intellectual properties, and technology development are ugly, adult words to describe what feels like it could be a very fun game, appealing to that special kind of chaos that kids excel at, even if the licenses that TT has announced so far read like they've been carefully curated to appeal to the 25-35 age bracket too. So far we've got The Simpsons, Ghostbusters, Portal, Back to the Future, Doctor Who, Jurassic World, Scooby Doo, Lord of the Rings, The Wizard of Oz and DC Comics, amongst others. With all of that, you'd be forgiven for wondering how the developer can possibly manage to throw them together and form a cohesive story that doesn't unravel into a series of branded nods, but if the hands-on I experienced is any indication, TT knows exactly what it's doing.
With Lego Dimensions' starter kit, you'll get three minifigs - Gandalf, Batman and Wyldstyle - and a vehicle, the Batmobile, along with the Lego gateway that speaks to your games console. One of the lovely things about Lego Dimensions in comparison to other toys to life games like Skylanders and Disney Infinity is that Dimensions' physical components are totally functional as toys. Take them to pieces, take them away from the digital game and they can work just fine with your existing Lego collection. That'll cause parents to groan, no doubt, at thought of the bricks destined to be lost less than five minutes after being taken out of the box, but it's a sweet prospect that feels like a genuine attempt at making the game more kid-friendly. They can even add their own pieces to the gateway and minifigs if they like. I'll be covering mine in LEGO pirate parrots and palm trees, for example. I might even give Gandalf a new hairstyle.
"You know, no disrespect - what Activision and Disney have done is just phenomenal and it has opened doors - but we think we're the first true toy to life experience," Mark Warburton, production assistant at TT tells me. "You have the game, but if you turn the game off, you take your minifig, you take your build, they interact with all your other Lego and then it comes back into the game. so it really does merge the line between a toy and a digital experience." It's a fair comment; the other games may have had physical components, but taken away from the digital game they were statues; hard, immoveable plastic. Lego is, and has always been, about freedom. Chaos. Stepping on a lone, lost brick in your bare feet.
What makes the customisable nature of the toys that much cuter as a concept is the fact that when certain items, like the vehicles, are upgraded in the digital game, you can also upgrade them in real life. One part of the demo I played took place in Vorton, the home dimension of the game's antagonist Lord Vortech, who has left it in "kind of a sad shape." This dimension houses the in-game version of the gateway the characters use to traverse the multiverse, only when we encounter it, the power has been shut off and the generator is blocked by a bunch of blue sonar bricks. The regular Batmobile can't help us, I'm told, but by popping the physical Batman figure onto the gateway platform, I can bring up a menu in-game to upgrade the vehicle into a Bat-Blaster, which, handily, comes with the ability to destroy sonar bricks. Choosing to upgrade brings up a digital version of an official Lego instruction manual, which step-by-step teaches you how to take apart the Batmobile and rebuild it into the Blaster using the exact same number of bricks. It's immensely satisfying, like the sound you made plunging your hand into a bucket of Lego pieces as a kid; a dash of old-school physical Lego building right amidst the digital adventuring. Apparently, every vehicle in the game will be have three different forms, each using the exact same number of pieces. Finally, placing the vehicle's tag back on the central console will rewrite the data of the vanilla car into a Blaster. Simply put, the whole experience feels like a natural way of bringing the game and toys together.
"A few of the guys were saying well. what if you don't want to [physically rebuild the pieces]?" says Warburton. Well, firstly, you might be playing the wrong game, I reply. "Exactly. But you don't have to do it either. There will always be people who want to make sure the stickers are exactly where they need to be and follow the instructions like "oh, that's wrong," they take it off and put it back on again and just keep going and going. But there'll be others that are like "it kind of looks right if I squint and look at it from this angle." So you know, we cater to that in the game, If you want to build them, great, if you don't, you just want to enjoy the experience, that's all good as well. We provide the instructions, we tell you what to do, we give you all the tools, but it's your playbox - go and do what you want."
There are other ways that TT is trying to bring the physical and digital realms together. The bulk of my hands-on takes place in the land of Oz, where Batman, Gandalf and Wyldstyle find themselves on the quest for missing pieces of the gateway portal which, John Burton says, will add new abilities to the toy pad itself. The scene is further proof that merging a hodgepodge of licences can work - Gandalf and Wyldstyle are quite taken with Oz, where colourful animals roam around, butterflies flit among the flowers and Somewhere Over the Rainbow twinkles along in the background. Batman, however, is distinctly uncomfortable, mumbling that "We're not in Gotham anymore." Following the sounds of singing, the gang come across Dorothy and company, whereupon Batman attacks the Scarecrow, proclaiming all of Oz to be one of his hallucinations. "What are you missing?" Dorothy asks Batman sympathetically. "A sense of humour," he growls back, before shouting "He's a heartless villain!" in Scarecrow's direction. Of course, the Tin Man replies. "No, I'M heartless, he's brainless!" The playful sequence culminates in a fight with the wicked witch, who spots the gateway piece and tries to take it for herself. The fight is more or less a back and forth of blows between the witch and Gandalf or Batman, both of whom have long-range attacks that can reach the witch on her broomstick, but she has one attack that can paralyse them instantly. The only way to break that spell is to look to the physical console, which is divided into multiple sections. If the character is trapped, their section will be flashing red, so you need to pick them up and place them on a different section to release them and finish the fight. It's a simple diversion sure, and maybe some adult players will view this as an annoyance rather than a feature, but I can see kids, their limbs not yet atrophied from years spent behind a desk, really going for it.
There's another example of this interaction later in the demo, when we're taken to a dimension inspired by Scooby Doo. It's the exterior of a haunted mansion, and the art style has changed to reflect the new IP; it looks cell-shaded, cartoony, almost hand-drawn. The original characters are playfully jibed too; Fred and Velma do the majority of investigating as Shaggy shivers and Daphne poses in the background like her life depended on it. While I switch out Gandalf for Scooby in this section, I'm assured that you can play through the entirety of worlds the game has to offer with the original starter pack characters; additional figures will grant you new items and interactions, like the ability Scooby has in this instance to call upon Charlie the Funland Robot to open a garden shed and net some extra studs. As with previous LEGO games, different characters have unique abilities that allow you to access new areas, solve puzzles, and obtain new quests and items. While Batman has a grappling hook, Wyldstyle has the ability to pull in characters from another dimension. As we were exploring the Scooby map, magenta lights began to flash over her head. Looking to the physical portal, one of the sections was flashing the same colour, so by picking up the Wyldstyle figure and placing her on that section, the Wyldstyle in the game was able to open up a rift in dimensions and summon a Munchkin gardener to water the dead flowers in the mansion grounds and gift us with one of the skeleton keys needed to unlock the mansion front doors.
There's a very pure enjoyment to be found in witnessing characters and franchises you never thought you'd see share a screen mashed together and treated with good humour. It's like a weird fever dream; you often find yourself wondering how TT managed to pull it off, how it got all parties to agree to everything, even how it chose exactly which franchises to feature. "A dartboard!" jokes Warburton. "Nah, not really. Our designers have been doing this for so long now that they have ideas flowing out from all over the place. So when the story started getting locked down, someone says, 'wouldn't it be really cool if we had this character come in?' But you're like no, there's no way we're going to get them on board. Then they do and you're like really?! They said yes!? But looking at all our other games - we've treated some huge licenses, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, DC Comics - we treat them with love and respect and authenticity, but we do it with this filter of LEGO that's funny and humorous and it allows everyone to come in and enjoy. So when you go and approach these licenses it makes it an easier proposition. They know we're not going to take the mick. They know we're not going to go ok well we're just going to do whatever we want. We're gonna treat it really well. We're all fans. We all have the posters and the comic books, so it makes the conversations that much easier."
Speaking to so many license holders must have been a lengthy and somewhat complex process, however - so which came first, the story or the licenses? "The story kind of came first. Then the licenses came in and the story kind of gets merged with what they are. It's really interesting; John came up with the idea for the story, he's been working on this for eight years - where does the time go? - and then it all just sort of fits together. We sit down with the finished script and you start turning pages, just going yeah that's pretty good, that's really good! We've managed to make a story that doesn't feel like it's been tacked on. It doesn't feel like an excuse. So many times you see a cool idea with a story stapled on; here it feels like the story is good, and it opens all these possibilities to add on extra things all over the place.
"It comes down to the fact that we're fans. Our creative director John loves Portal, so it was just a no-brainer that we were mashing all these licenses together and we wanted that in. So the conversations were had, and Valve have been terrific. They get what we want to do, so we're really thankful for them. They are like the master storytellers of video games, I don't think anyone can question that, so for them to allow us to take their IP and put it into our world, it's just terrific. We get to have a lego Chell running around, doing Test Room puzzles in a Lego universe, it's just brilliant!"
The game feels like a natural progression of last year's Lego movie, which at heart carried a sweet message about feeling free enough to mess up your playsets and toys in one glorious jumble and allowing your imagination to take control, to spill out and over the confines of brand loyalty. What does a child care that Doctor Who is owned by the BBC and therefore shouldn't be allowed to play with Bart Simpson or Superman? "The Lego Movie opened so many doors; this mash-up actually does work now. It's cool, you see the Turtles and the Lord of the Rings guys in the film and yeah, the game had to be that and had to go down that route. It had to be special. It would have been very easy for us to say 'OK, here's a spawning device, here's your minifig, enjoy.' No - it had to be something new, it had to be something fresh and exciting. It was taking a hard look back and seeing how we wanted that to interact with the game world."
Most importantly, the kids that TT have gotten in to playtest seem to be giving good feedback. "You hope they're not just high on all the sweets and candy we've given them, but they seem to be enjoying it," says Warburton. "Scooby Doo on top of a Delorean - where is that going to happen anywhere else?"
This article is based on a press trip to Los Angeles. Warner Bros. paid for travel and accommodation.