Looking over the plan at the start of the day, our Super User, Barra, looked a little uneasy. Michael's level was an ambitious design: not only did it call for vehicle sections, with the ketchup rocket and the Bananamobile, it also featured a panicky scramble over some burning hamburgers, timed leaps from one orange to another across pits filled with spiked cocktail sausages, and an opening section where you get across a bowl of water, log-rolling on beakers. But Barra, like Michael, had a strand of steely resolve running through his character. "We can do this," he said, eventually sitting down and picking up the controller. "You can actually do pretty much anything with this game in the end if you think about it right."
Interestingly, Barra describes LBP as "Brechtian", because in most finished levels, people opt to let you see all the wires and cables and switches that made the design possible, and also because he's got a background in acting so he would say that kind of thing. (It's probably good that he didn't do our review.) But maybe the theatrical angle holds up for Media Molecule's game: in Sackboy's world, you certainly spend a lot of time improvising.
Take the beakers that roll across the bowl of water at the beginning of Michael's level. I think we'd naively assumed that there would be a menu somewhere called "Glassware", where we could select the exact sort of thing we had in mind. LBP may be amazing, but it isn't Habitat: if we wanted those beakers, we'd have to make them ourselves. And that was only half the problem: LBP features fire and electricity, but it doesn't have any water to speak of. Seconds in and we'd already hit a snag.
Luckily, Michael's mind was fresh and alert, and after a few false starts, he'd created an alternative - a bowl covered with electrified glass which has to be navigated using toilet roll tubes (glass beakers would be too heavy to roll, and we couldn't be arsed to make them, anyway). Fall off the tube, and you get zapped: a classic bit of videogaming beckoned.
One obstacle down, and Michael was onto a prolonged hot streak. With only a handful of short hiccups, like losing the rocket or trying to create a believable cheese-grater to work as a launch pad, both he and Barra never let up until the very end, when Sackboy has to run the gauntlet of the Burger Monster's flaming projectiles, before knocking him off the top of the barbecue with a boxing glove. You know, like in Call of Duty 4.
I'll admit - there were moments when it seemed impossible. Getting the spacing right for the flaming burgers was a nightmare, and working out how to dispose of the corpse of the Burger Monster once he's been punched into oblivion posed some serious challenges. And, when I saw Michael creating weird creatures from twitchy disembodied doll limbs and photos of his best friends, I started to seriously wonder what sort of person I was spending the afternoon with. But in the end, his level was a triumph: inventive, quirky, constantly surprising, and just the kind of thing that should win competitions.
"It takes a lot longer than I expected," admitted Michael, summing up his first taste of both game design and prolonged exposure to LBP. "But it's been a really good experience. When it all comes together, everything's perfect. The game just gives you so much opportunity to be creative."
Before we left Covent Garden, I asked Michael to provide a twenty-five word mini-review of his own level. "Twenty-five words? That's too many," he said modestly. "It's just awesome. Just think 'awesome', twenty-five times."
At the end of a long day, Michael headed back to Basingstoke with his level on a flash drive, and presumably spent the next few days perfecting the design, fixing the bugs, and removing all of those troubling references to the Qur'an that had crept in along the way. And that brings us to the real treat about LBP: buy a copy, and you can try out Michael's award-winning stage for yourself. Friendly advice: just watch out for the Bananamobile section.
LittleBigPlanet should be available in the UK from 5th November, and you can also play Michael's level at the Eurogamer Expo this week.
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