My generation is in the strange position of having almost every single pop-culture relic of our youth intact for our enjoyment as adults, as well as primed for dissemination among a new generation of consumers. Certain superheroes and cartoon characters survived throughout the generations before ours, but their enjoyment was always relegated strictly to childhood. While I can’t remember a time my father expounded at great lengths about his theory on the grand mythology of Howdy Doody, I can sit my child on my lap and provide her a sage and near-rabbinical treatise on Darth Vader and the nature of forgiveness.
This perpetuation is no accident, obviously. Conceiving a new toy line or mythology is time-consuming, costly, and comes with zero guarantee kids will care. And a parent’s own nostalgic relationship to some plastic googaw of their own childhood will greatly increase the chances of relenting to their child’s white-noise drone of want that blankets every visit to a department store’s toy section.
I try very hard to be mindful of this. In preparation for not forcing my daughter to assimilate my music tastes in a few years, I avoid steering her toy interests now. For the most part, I’m successful, except in one thing: Lego. I’ve attempted, not so subtly, to impress upon her the awesome creative potential of a toy you can build and rebuild to your own whims. When Gameological editor Matt Gerardi asked if I wanted to cover Lego Dimensions—the convergence of both a toy and video game recruitment tool—it was too exciting an opportunity to pass up. Is this an example of every pop-culture relic of my youth intact and primed for dissemination among a new generation of consumers? You bet. And that’s (mostly) okay.
Lego Dimensions is the newest entry into the toy-enabled video game playground already populated by Skylanders, Disney Infinity, and Nintendo’s Amiibo. The game comes with a platform accessory that registers Lego figurines as playable characters. Dimensions’ greatest edge over other entries in this genre is how the figures and vehicles are all compatible with other Lego components. The base comes with a giant Stargate-style portal that has to be assembled like any other Lego playset. When I first showed the set to my daughter, she promptly sat down, ripped open all the little plastic baggies, and gave herself over to studiously assembling the portal. It’s a cunning method of building a relationship with a game before you even place the disc in the system.
The whole crux of Lego Dimensions is the gleeful, chaotic intermingling of different worlds thrown together, and so the story is utterly perfunctory. Lord Vortech, who lives at the center of the universe on a primordial ocean of Lego, intends to fuse multiple dimensions together into one grand unified Lego mashup that he can rule. Vortech recruits assorted villains—The Joker, Dr. Who’s Cybermen, some Ninjago dude, etc.—to help him gather the artifacts necessary to meld the cosmos. By creating portals between worlds, Vortech inadvertently brings together Gandalf, Batman, and Wildstyle from The Lego Movie, who team up to stop him.
That messy co-mingling reflects the kind of unformed play we engaged in as kids. Creating any sort of massive set piece required pillaging from multiple toylines just to fill out the numbers. This was a creative solution to an economical problem. You could only reasonably procure so many toys, so at some point, they’re all going to have to leave the boundaries of their respective intellectual properties.
Lego Dimensions inverts that dynamic. You won’t be able to unlock the full insanity of multiple toy lines interacting without spending gobs of money. Other than the central story, the game features an area studded with various portals, each one taking you to a different licensed level. You begin with three unlocked portals; the rest are inaccessible unless you purchase the level expansion packs. It’s mercenary within reason, but frustrating when your child’s natural inquisitiveness hits the “not unless we buy something else” wall.
However, there’s still plenty to do with the starter kit. The central storyline and the different character-themed worlds succeed in creating a perfect environment for helping younger players learn the mechanics of playing video games. My daughter loves to play games, but most of her experiences are with touchscreens. She’s still not very comfortable with controllers—massive things bristling with buttons and knobs and esoteric nubbins that rest awkwardly in her tiny hands. And she has a hard time remembering how each interface corresponds with the onscreen action.
But Dimensions is a patient game. The character levels are open-ended and largely conflict free. They offer a large, generous space where your child can comfortably noodle around and just enjoy themselves. This freedom lets my kid get comfortable with her environment and tap buttons, consequence-free. The more intense main story levels still provide a generous amount of latitude for inexperienced players to figure out what needs to happen on screen and how to get their character to perform that task. I actually watched my kid improve at video games playing Lego Dimensions.
It also keeps younger players engaged by periodically making use of the real-world Lego toy portal for interactive puzzles—mostly simple color-matching sequences or placing the minifigs on the proper section of the pad to send them through a teleportation vortex. For my daughter, these puzzles were a welcome physical break from the game. She would hop up with a slightly exaggerated urgency and flit the little characters across the platform. Like the little exercise activity interstitials played on PBS between shows, it’s a welcome method to burn off at least some of the copious potential energy kids build up from extended periods of exciting but passive activities. The puzzles were far less fun when I was playing by myself. Unchallenging by design, one level has you use the portal to uncover the proper direction to travel through a maze. At every intersection, I’d have to lean over and shuffle figures, each time feeling my decrepit form creak as I reconfigured a tiny Batman.
Lego Dimensions is more satisfying for being a game my daughter and I can play together than anything the game itself does. She neither knows nor cares about half of the featured worlds, and that’s just fine. You don’t need to know the mythology behind Scooby-Doo to enjoy running through a level designed after the series. After one of our sessions, I turned off the game much to my daughter’s protests. Defeated, she took the Gandalf minifig, clicked it onto the tiny Batmobile and listlessly rolled it around on our coffee table. Sighing, she remarked, “This is better in the video game.”