This is a cross-post from my game design blog. You can find the original article here, as well as more like it.
Our fondest childhood memories tend to be those spent with others. Be it creativity or mischief or moments of shared serenity, bonding is what builds us.
Building Legos is exactly that pivotal bonding experience for many kids. It’s how the company has endured as a physical media brand for the better part of a century. Yet I’ve never found their forays into video games (of which there have been many) to quite capture that interpersonal and self-explorational magic. Most have tied in with films or the company’s original brands to create action romps in the Lego aesthetic. The recent Lego Worldstried more literally to take the physical product into the digital realm but lacked a strong identity in the shadow of the ever-present Minecraft. The other problem with trying to replicate Legos digitally is that the magic of building is the tactile experience of placing bricks. An approach that captured the spirit of Legos was needed more than a sandbox.
Lego Builder’s Journey is that approach. This puzzle adventure has no multiplayer option yet expresses the emotional essence of “irl co-op” through a purely single player experience. The dialogue-free story starts out with a boy and his dad playing on the beach, taking turns placing down Lego bricks to build a sand castle. Your dad helps you in building the base but as the boy you’re given autonomy over where to place the final details. In other words, as a kid you’re being taught the foundations and then given the freedom to start expressing yourself from there. We can all relate to similar experiences where a parent/parental figure taught us with training wheels so that we could ride anywhere when they took them off. A game like Lego World may let you build whatever you want but to me it’s the emotional aspect of the building process that’s the foundation of the Lego brand, and that’s exactly what Builder’s Journey is entirely about.
This philosophy of a foundation giving way to creative license permeates the entire game’s design. After finishing their sand castle, the duo trek through the woods to their house. The bricks you place down in each diorama-esque level guide the boy across it. Most levels offer you freedom within limitations. It’s about finding a makeshift solution given the pieces you’re provided, not painstakingly stacking them in some exacting over-designed ultra-puzzle-y formation. Even in levels where the game designer’s hand can most be seen, these semi-bespoke solutions still feel like self-ingenuity, the same kind of satisfaction that a kid has when their ramshackle Lego tower they ignored the instructions to build doesn’t come crashing down. If I’m to really push for deeper meaning, the way the player approaches solving a puzzle could be interpreted as them following the opening scene teachings of the dad. But putting that aside, it’s emotionally relevant in whatever memories it arises in you.
Upon reaching the house, the son and dad begin co-building an even larger castle. It follows a similar structure to the opening with one major exception: the dad starts to get constantly pulled to his mundane job in the midst of their fun, leaving the kid to build the castle on his own. You’ve been given complete creative control but the collaborative process that tied the building all together has been ripped away. It really hammers home how the shared experience of Lego is its greatest strength. The rest of the game has the boy (and robot pal) saving his dad from endless work so they can get back to togetherness time. I’ll leave it there as to not spoil the ending, but this is the gist of why Builder’s Journey really showcases what makes the Lego brand special in ways that action game recreations of blockbuster films don’t. Yes, that’s not the point of those games but it’s refreshing to see the Lego company starting to create smaller experiences like this one.
The closest parallel I can think of to Builder’s Journey is 2014’s The Lego Movie wherein Will Ferrell’s dad character has to learn that allowing his son to play with his precious delicately-crafted Lego city — and at that playing alongside his son — will bring them closer. In Builder’s Journey, the duo start out close. I find a lot to value in this. Interpersonal conflict is necessary in a film script but by doing away with it, this game puts more emphasis on the perspective of the kid who we all once were, not an adult who never grew up (that we all might be?). We aren’t at odds with our fictional Lego dad but rather taught by him, just like we were taught by adults we looked up to as youths. The Lego Movie resolves in a positive message but I feel Builder’s Journey does nostalgia better by espousing that positive message from the get-go. The son grows his own creative identity throughout the game whereas Ferrell’s son is really just playing within the creative identity fostered by Ferrell.
With a run time somewhere between one and two hours, Builder’s Journeyis a quick must-play if you’ve got Apple Arcade. Hopefully it eventually finds its way to other platforms for those without the service. I’m excited to see what Light Brick — a new studio founded by Lego for which Builder’s Journey is their debut title— does next. Lego’s in a unique position to explore the process of self-expression and growing up because the nature of their product speaks exclusively to those principles.