Until just a few days ago, I couldn’t tell you the last time I played with Lego. It was probably sometime in the early ’90s, before I was in my teens. The moment I became a teenager, Lego (and really, any kind of physical “toy”) became far too uncool to play with. Despite this, I’ve always harboured nostalgic feelings for the brand, and as I have grown older, I’ve marvelled at the organisation’s remarkable ability to continually remain relevant and — dare I say — cutting edge. Even though I went for years without so much as touching a Lego brick, I’ll happily admit to stopping and browsing Lego products whenever I pass a toy store; even if I have no intention of buying them, I find the various confections endlessly fascinating. I’m particularly interested in the more expensive, elaborate (adult?) Lego sets, which appear less like humble toys and more like complex engineering projects.
The Lego Creator series is maybe the greatest example of just how sophisticated these projects can be. The Sydney Opera House, pictured above, contains almost 3,000 bricks and I’m sure it would take several hours to complete, even with a group of builders.
My years of out-loud musing about Lego has obviously been absorbed by those around me, because I received this beauty for my recent 35th birthday:
On one quiet afternoon, my partner and I sat around a large circular coffee table, opened the box and poured the contents into a large container. It may sound silly, but it had been so long for me that I couldn’t easily remember what the process of building Lego felt like. Without any real deliberation, we immediately assumed the roles of parts supplier and assembler. As we progressed through the build, we’d take turns wearing these hats. One of us would be a step ahead in the instructions, calling out the pieces we needed, as the other lined them up ready for construction.
After maybe three or four hours (with a break in between), we were finished. There was our lovely little New York that we’d built together. I remember feeling genuinely relaxed at the end of the process. I felt happy. Afterwards, I began to ponder what it was about the whole experience that left me with such a sense of satisfaction. After all, we hadn’t built Lego that we were actually going to play with. The combination of being adults and the nature of the project itself meant that, once completed, there was really nothing to do with our little New York other than look at it and admire it.
This led me to making an obvious-yet-important observation: the fun we both derived from the Lego project had very little to do with the promise of some eventual payoff. We hadn’t simply rushed toward the end with the expectation of a reward. Rather, the journey, from beginning to end, was itself the reward.
Racing to the finish line
I want to put the experience I have just described into some broader context. After all, you are reading a video game magazine; I play — and write about — a lot of games. Video games, like Lego, are inherently interactive entertainment experiences. You could argue that the similarities go pretty deep; both kinds of experiences typically involve some sort of goal, and both tend to encourage player creativity to one degree or another.
And yet, one thing I’ve noticed about games recently — not all games, mind you, but definitely some of the current heavy-hitters like Fortnite — is that they are increasingly being designed around a very tight feedback loop that involves frequent rewards (usually in the form of some kind of loot, like special items/weapons, armour, new characters, new hairstyles, etc…). There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, and it’s not something that I take issue with per se. But it does mean that a lot of modern video games make me feel like the proverbial hamster on a treadmill; the faster I run, the more rewards I get, which makes me run faster still. I’m constantly being encouraged forward with a sense of immediacy and urgency. So much of what I do is about ticking boxes on a reward tier, with ever-more-appetising rewards dangled just in front of my nose — close enough to appear achievable, but far enough to incentivise running even faster and grinding even more.
I notice, too, that as these kinds of games become popular, the moment-to-moment experience of gameplay seems to blur before one’s eyes and become obscured. For example, I tend to browse the Destiny subreddit (despite not being a highly active Destiny player these days), and I notice a lot of the complaints about the game being centred around drops and rewards. I also notice a lot of players critiquing new content almost entirely on the basis of both the kind and the drop-frequency of loot on offer. Some players — at least from what I’m reading on Reddit — appear to care very little about the quality of the game’s design beyond its ability to simulate a fancy poker machine.
As much as I like to think that I never demonstrate these attitudes myself, I have to admit to being just as susceptible to hamster wheel design as anyone else. This is probably one reason why I enjoyed the slower pace and deliberate emptiness of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild —the idea that I could play a large, open-world game without being constantly bombarded by stuff that needs to be done right now or the world will end was refreshing to say the least.
All of this context is important, because I think it has explanatory power in terms of my gut reaction to that Lego session.
As someone who plays a lot of video games — many of which consist of large, complex interactive machinery that requires constant attention and action — Lego felt like a quiet refuge. Nobody was harassing me to go faster. It didn’t matter when I paused to take a break; that half-built New York would sit there waiting for me as long as I liked.
It wasn’t just quietness and travelling at my own pace that I loved, either.
There is something truly wonderful about rummaging around for just the right brick or connection; the feeling of each different shape in my fingers; the satisfying click as bricks effortlessly connect to each other; even the ability to assemble small components, rotate them in my hands, and view them from any angle.
From a product design point of view, it is remarkable how deeply interactive and intuitive Lego can be. The shape and texture of each brick — and of a collection of assembled bricks — communicates something of value to the builder. The repetitive action of connecting bricks, and the sensation of their weight in my hands, is soothing and kept me grounded to the present moment; rather than running faster on the treadmill to achieve an imagined future goal, I found myself entirely and consistently focused on now; the brick that was in my hand at that very moment, its next immediate connection, and the connection I had just made seconds ago.
The minimalism of Lego is one of its greatest achievements; the idea that each single step is itself intuitive and easily understandable, and that lots of tiny local steps lead up a gently-rising ramp that culminates in what feels like a grand feat of engineering.
As I describe the moment-to-moment experience of building Lego, I’m reminded of some of my favourite video games. In a sense, they do very similar things, and they achieve satisfaction through these simple, elegant, repeatable principles that are both individually and collectively fun.
Labo through another lens
It just so happened that as I was building my little Lego New York, I had also just purchased the Nintendo Labo Variety Kit. The timing was perfect; I felt Lego had given me new insights, and I was keen to try a product that sought to merge my love of digital entertainment with my new-found appreciation for building physical objects.
So far, I’ve only built one single item in the Variety Kit: the RC Car (pictured above). It’s the simplest — and quickest to build — Toy-Con within the set.
(By the way, if you want a primer on Labo and its place in Nintendo’s product history, I recommend checking out my related story: Nintendo Labo’s Lineage.)
As with Lego, there is an ostensible goal to completing each Toy-Con build. What you end up with is a physical object that the Switch console interacts with, enabling you to do various activities. Some activities (like, say, fishing) are certainly video game-like in their function. Others, like this little RC Car, feel a lot more like driving around an actual remote-controlled car.
On the surface, that sounds pretty straightforward. And when I look at reviews of the Labo (like this IGN review of the Variety Kit), I notice something interesting: a large part of the review is spent praising the ingenious nature of the Toy-Cons, and the fun experienced when building them. But then, the review ends by lamenting the shallow video game experience at the end of each build. We’re left with the impression that Nintendo Labo is a brief-yet-interesting diversion, with little more to offer than that.
Without being too dismissive, it feels almost like having an awesome vacation and then complaining about the flight home because that was the bit that came at the end (or, that was the last thing you remembered) — or, slapping a lower rating on a book because you didn't like the footnotes. Just watching that review, I got the sense that, somehow, the point was being missed — at least, to a degree. But I couldn’t be sure until I got my hands on Nintendo Labo myself.
I don’t mean to pick on IGN specifically, they just provided the most relevant example I could think of. What I’m saying is simple: don’t judge Nintendo Labo entirely against traditional video games. If you want to compare it to anything, compare it to Lego — that feels like a closer and more relevant fit, for the most part.
When you start up the Nintendo Labo software and view the various Toy-Con building instructions, you’ll notice little time estimates against each one. The estimates are telling you roughly how much time you should set aside to build each one. When added together, it’s possible for you to spend a good 5–7 hours building out the Variety Kit — depending largely on who you are building it with, and how many people are involved. It’s worth noting that some entire video games can take that long to complete.
To put it another way: you might spend 5–7 hours building Labo, but you might spend no more than 1–2 hours playing the accompanying video game experiences.
Of course, all of those hours combined will factor into your enjoyment of the product, as they should. But if you view Nintendo Labo as 5–7 hours of work in order to get 1–2 hours of actual entertainment, then you’re simply doing it wrong; the product just isn’t for you.
Journey as a goal
Our Nintendo Labo review is coming, so I don’t want to spend a lot of time discussing the overall experience in detail. Also, the review won’t be written by me, so it will naturally come from a different perspective.
But I do feel it necessary to point out something that may sound obvious initially, but that only really becomes clear when you go hands on with a product like this. In some respects, Labo is like Lego on steroids — it takes the concept of Lego’s wonderfully intuitive instructions and lifts them off the page, turning them into utterly delightful interactive walkthroughs that you can pinch, rotate, reverse and fast-forward right on the Switch’s screen. The choice to use strong cardboard is a practical one, but it also has the effect of being immensely relaxing and satisfying to manipulate in the hands — it feels nice to touch, and the sensation of bending the pieces along pre-folded lines and then firmly snapping said pieces together is deeply satisfying.
And, like Lego, there is a sense of undertaking very simple steps that culminate into something larger in an unpredictable way. Even though you know you’re building an RC Car, there’s something genuinely marvellous about seeing it suddenly appear in your hands after a sufficient number of folds and snaps.
I’ve never been an especially crafty person; to some degree, I’ve lacked the patience. But my recent experiences with Lego and Labo have been eye-opening; I’ve found a form of entertainment that has forced me to slow down in a way that feels wholly therapeutic.
If you need a break from the video game equivalent of the rat race, I recommend checking out Nintendo Labo. Don’t worry too much about the video gamey bits; instead, take pleasure in the cleverly-designed cardboard journey, as you give birth to these fascinating little creations with your own hands.
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