There's a scene in the film Hook where Peter Pan and the Lost Boys sit down for a glorious feast, pungent vapour wafting from pots and pans piled high on a table before them. The lids come off and the children stuff their big satisfied mouths, but Pan, the adult, stays still. He's forgotten how to use his imagination: he can't see the food. He no longer sees the magic.
That's how I felt playing Lego Dimensions at Gamescom in August: disappointed, like I was missing something. It's a shame, because I love Skylanders. I've seen expressive toys brought to life so convincingly that my five-year-old son plays with them long after the TV is turned off. I've pored over posters making wish-lists of Skylanders I would like for my birthday or for Christmas, if Santa thinks I've been good enough. I've invented new ones with crayons, discussed powers I would personally like - and, of course, I have gone into shops and I've bought them. But as more games and figures came out and my bank balance was eroded, so too was my enthusiasm. The magic faded away.
I looked at Lego Dimensions and saw only what was literally in front of me: an expensive toy set and a game too complicated for my son to play alone. If I couldn't figure out the puzzles and positional portal placement mechanics, how could he? But something changed last week when I took a copy of the game home - and it started the moment we opened the box. The first thing we found inside wasn't a video game but a Lego set - a proper one, a set like any other we've built together, destined to be displayed briefly then broken into pieces and amassed into one big, jumbled box. Toodleoo Avengers Tower, cheerio Batcopter - you were fun for a weekend!
So out of the Lego Dimensions box came bag upon bag of intricate plastic pieces we needed to squeeze together in accordance with the manuals' instructions. Only then would we have our great portal, and only then would we have our characters: Wyldstyle, Gandalf and Batman. Only then would we have our small Batmobile (although the instruction booklet for this is in-game only - a neat touch reinforcing the bond between toy and game). There's a lot in the box; I imagine similar would easily cost £50 from the Lego Store.
Piece by piece, and with all the frustration of a five-year-old boy concentrating for a prolonged period of time, we build our portal, our combined efforts enchanting it with meaning: "That's something we did, m'boy." We didn't need to build the portal; we could have plugged in the base and it would have worked with the Dimensions characters just fine. In that sense, it's just dormant decoration. But to use the base without building the portal would have been to break the spell, the idea that this is something more than your typical video game or Lego set.
We turn the game on - we've earned this - and our reward is a delightful cinematic, not far off the quality of an animated film. It features one of my favourite British actors, Gary Oldman, and when Batman and his Batmobile gatecrash Gandalf's fight with the Balrog I'm all a-giggle and my son giggles with me. There are some great one-liners that brilliantly send up the licence-mashing premise. It reminds me of being young and laughing along to 'Allo! 'Allo! and Only Fools and Horses, not really sure what I was laughing at, but simply enjoying the sound of my parents' laughter and company. Such a powerful thing, shared family enjoyment.
The game having endeared itself to me through all this, I see it differently. The positional portal placing mechanics, which are unusual and awkward: I begin to think of these less as a task for him and more as something for me to help with. What if the whole point is to bring parent and child together in a way few games do? This isn't a digital nanny while I cook or clean, but an activity for us both. Hence the humour, hence the trickier puzzles - they're there to keep me entertained.
I used to look at the many licences featured in Lego Dimensions through cynical eyes and see only marketing greed: a net cast wide to catch as many fans, and sales, as possible. But when we're spat out in the beautifully realised Land of Oz and my son blurts out, "Hey dad, it's The Wizard of Oz!" - all excited because we read a lovely illustrated version of the book together - I'm forced to think differently about Dimensions again. What if all the other people playing this game have experiences like ours too? Suddenly I'm thinking about whether he's seen Back to the Future yet, how much Doctor Who can he handle, and Ghostbusters - when did we last watch that? I'm excited about exploring these childhood favourites of my own with him, thinking about what I will be able to show him next.
But it isn't until we're floating through an inter-dimensional portal rift that something truly magical happens. Unaware I'm looking, my son very slowly extends a finger and very timidly pushes it towards the Lego portal's centre. He hesitates, eyes flicking between structure and screen, and then plunges his finger through. My heart melts, obviously, and then I'm slapped by a realisation, just as Peter Pan is slapped by a dollop of fluorescent pudding in the film Hook: I can see it. I can see the magic: that Lego set has been brought to life. It just took a child, as it took the Lost Boys for Pan, to help me see it.