From Pixel to Plastic

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Atlas and P-Body Wedding Cake Toppers by Legohaulic

LEGO bricks and digital technology have become intimately connected. So much so, that trying to imagine a time before the two worked together is now unthinkable. The plastic brick and the digital pixel in a profound sense have become interchangeable.

An easy answer, which might explain this relationship, would see this connection reduced to prophetic business sense. Speaking with the former LEGO designer Bjarne Tveskov in 2015[i], he noted how his engagement with the early home computer scene corresponded with the company’s nascent project to harness digital technologies alongside more traditional building. This early investment has certainly proved important, whether it be through the highly lucrative partnership it has forged with the video game producers Travellers Tales[ii] or the development of the Mindstorms[iii] range, replete with its educational programming language; or its ability to link with innovative video games such as Minecraft[iv]. Today additional digital content is a staple of many of their ranges, from Nexo Knight power shields to the redeemable digital codes found in collectable mini-figure packs. Undoubtedly this is a trend set to continue.

Yet there is something resolutely material, real and grounded in the phenomenal experience of LEGO creations, that makes one ask how we got from the bricks we hold in our hands to the digital representation of  bricks on a screen. Are these two objects – one material, one not – even of the same type? Douglas Coupland, the Canadian, novelist, essayist and artist, put the problem succinctly when he suggested that ‘Aesthetic experiences and objects are now dividing into the binary categories of downloadable and nondownloadable.’[v] Taking Coupland’s thesis seriously the video game ‘experience’ of LEGO creations and the ‘objects’ that are built from ‘real’ LEGO bricks should gravitate to the polar axis of his binary distinction?

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Manic Miner by Dr Dave Watford

Yet, as is so often the case with proclamations that make extreme cases, in practice something else happens. It might in fact be possible to download the digital image in a unique way through the medium of LEGO bricks. For example Dr Dave Watford’s[vi] Manic Miner[vii] model of the eponymous 1980s video game produces a literal translation form digital to plastic representation, where one stud equates exactly with its associated pixel. Given the simplicity of Manic Miner’s 8-bit graphical style, where each pixel is easily definable, it  becomes a code that is effortlessly understood and replicated. The rectilinear form of this aesthetic language allows it in a straightforward way to be recreated via the medium of LEGO bricks

What happens in this process of transliteration between digital and brick languages is a change in status from interactive experience to phenomenal object. The movement between pixel and plastic becomes one of making ‘real’ in the material sense something that previously existed in the virtual realm. This encounter repeats a non-digital experience all LEGO fans have previously practiced: building from instructions. Taking a visual code and using it to build an object in real space.This relationship has come full circle in one of the LEGO Group’s latest ventures. At the newly opened LEGO store in Leicester Square you will now find a portrait mosaic maker. A customer enters a small photographic booth, much like the one you find in post offices and railway stations for taking passport photos. Once inside a picture of the sitter is taken. With the help of a little computer processing this is subsequently rendered as a plan, which can be used to build the mosaic portrait.   A few minutes later the machine deposits a box containing the thousands of 1×1 LEGO plates needed to do just this. As was seen in the recent Channel 4 documentary LEGO at Christmas[viii] this provided hours of enjoyment for the shop’s retail manager, as he diligently demonstrated the fun of translating pixels into plastic.

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LEGO Store Leicester Square Mosaic Maker

What makes this process interesting is more than the fact that pixels translate easily into bricks. It is something that many of the best LEGO fan builders have discovered when building models based on video games. When one builds a model of an existent thing from LEGO bricks there is always a sense that it is a representation of the real and tangible object. As amazing as the piece is it remains a dissimulation of the thing which it copies. On the other hand, the unreality of digital subject matter means that copying it is no longer about copying the uncopyable, rather instead it becomes about locating the code initially used to create it. Once this code is identified it provides a set of identical principles initially founded by the computer programer, and that can now be approached through the medium of LEGO bricks. Solving this puzzle, in and for itself, is pleasing.

Matt De Lanoy’s[ix] Bob-omb Battlefield from Super Mario 64[x] ticks all the boxes when it comes to this form of building. A complete recreation of the fist level of the much-loved game, this has everything you need, from launch cannons to Chain Chomp straining on his leash. Putting its subject matter in context, Super Mario 64 saw Nintendo place its iconic plumber into a true 3D world for the first time; and unlike the 3D worlds of today’s video games it wore its limited set of polygons on its sleeve. As such the code that underpinned it was as visible as the simple pixels found in the 8-bit Manic Miner, but now added the extra qualities of space and depth that called out for it to be made in LEGO bricks. There is a satisfaction both in the building and viewing of this type of model – an ability to see the code at work in both the original game and it LEGO  double. In fact the code becomes more visible because we see how it differs yet remains the same across both media.

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Bob-omb Battlefield by Matt De Lanoy

The spatial and geometric references that make De Lanoy’s creation so appealing is just one way in which the LEGO brick formula can work. For example Iain Heath (AKA Ochre Jelly)[xi] has in a similar way reworked the first Doom[xii] game in LEGO bricks. His sprawling diorama recalls the original pixelated demons and texture mapped Martian environments, right down to the perfectly rendered gore splatters and ammo pick-ups. In this case, it is the LEGO bricks’ ability to provide sprite-like details that holds the attention, and reveals the shared code between model and game.

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Doom by Iain Heath

Surprisingly even when a game’s graphical presentation reaches a level whereby its code is hidden to the player, the process of being translated into a LEGO model may still perform this function. Imagine Rigney’s[xiii] epic model of The Bank of the Prophet from the game Bioshock Infinite[xiv] is perhaps one of the best ways to appreciate this.  From its vast scale complete with emblematic sky rails to the huge Song Bird that perches at the top of its domed roof, it renders the lead designer Ken Levine’s world in a form that reminds us of its coded origins. At a time where the gaming world appears to be pushing ever harder for absolute immersion through the development of virtual reality and the race for pure graphical fidelity, LEGO models that remind us of the human code that made them possible, play an important role.

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Bank of the Prophet by Imagine Rigney

Often the supposed retro-graphics, which hark back to a simpler era in gaming’s history, are summarised in terms of fashion. Like the shifts in music and clothing, these games are framed as a stylistic reappraisal of that which was great and authentic about a scene a generation or two before. However, with video games there is another reason why a simpler aesthetic appeals; because again it reveals the code that founds it.

As video games have increased in visual complexity, this relationship to a code has become ever more distant. This growing gap provided the catalyst, which finally provided the LEGO Group with the mainstream success it sought in the digital market place. By teaming up with the games developers Traveller’s Tales they found a way of referencing this fascination for the visibility of a code in a game’s aesthetic without compromising on production values. They achieved this explicitly through a representation of another code, the code of LEGO bricks, within a game.

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Welcome to ‘LEGO’ Jurassic Park

The Traveller’s Tales franchise of LEGO games do not reduce their style to a blocky or retro form. Instead they revel in the high level of polygons used in contemporary video game graphics. Their worlds choose to render glossy 3d recreations of actual LEGO bricks, and by doing so use these as an analogy for the actual code beneath the shiny surface. As players we read the world dressed in studs and populated by mini-figures as coded by the building language of LEGO bricks even when the way they operate flaunts many of these principles. In fact these games use many elements that are explicitly not formed from LEGO bricks in their presentation. The gameplay too has little to do with the build-and-play experience of creating with LEGO bricks, relying instead on problem solving, narrative structure and item collection. What the LEGO language offers the game is a metaphor regarding its created other-worldly nature; a reference not lost on the designers during the creation of the LEGO Jurassic World[xv] game, which translates the story of a forgotten genetic code found in an amber brick into LEGO form. A code which allows the possibility of bringing an earlier prehistoric time back to life. Splicing bricks and genes becomes inter-changable in the dinosaur lab and allows the player to create a huge variety of prehistoric monsters through the metaphor of mastering a code.

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However it is not the LEGO Group or Travellers Tales who have undertaken the most notable translation of brick language into digital form . In 2009 the developer Mojang released the genre defining game Minecraft. It took some of the recognised block building code from LEGO construction and inserted it into a new ontological context. Here the movement from plastic to pixels retained the creative aspect of the code but altered the rationale for building. Unlike building with LEGO bricks, where there is always maintained a perception of one’s inventions as models, in Minecraft a new status is established. In its biomes the player is completely immersed into to a block-built word and from this a new existential relationship arises.   The reason for building becomes innately connected to the world in which one finds themselves; and the competency of making and creating is as such tied to the needs of survival: building shelters from evil mobs and the elements, finding food and crafting tools and kit to better tame the environment.

The game through its use of code scratched many of the same itches that LEGO building does, and as such a link between the two seemed almost inevitable.   Starting initially with the LEGO Cusso Microworld range, The LEGO Group quickly developed its own assortment of mini-figure scale sets. These products effectively took the Minecraft experience, and once more through the sharing of a familiar code, moved the product back from pixels to plastic.

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Minecraft Micro World

As if to point out the truly symbiotic interaction between LEGO products and Minecraft, YouTube’s most popular advocates set about building the LEGO sets according to the logic of their game. In Grian’s 2016 video LEGO VS MINECRAFT – Which Can I Build Faster?[xviii] we see the difference played out in the construction of the LEGO Minecraft set The First Night, both in game and in LEGO bricks. The advantages and disadvantages of each are discussed and the nature of the translation between the two solidified. At this point, it has become apparent that it is next to impossible to decide whether the digital pixel or the plastic brick came first, but more importantly that searching for such an origin is unimportant.

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LEGO vs Minecraft -Which Can I Build Faster by Grain

LEGO bricks reliance on a code has meant that from the outset, whatever was built already invested in the building of ideas. In fact one cannot build with LEGO elements without already manipulating a code, and by proxy developing ideas. One could say, that the natural framing that a rendering of our world in the right angled form of bricks archives, is in fact already a digitisation of the world: an obvious ability that transforms the unknowable world of things into the instructions for representation. The thesis follows that LEGO bricks are already pixels – material pixels if you will – and our use of them requires a technological thinking that deals in the logic of coded manipulation.

In conclusion, whilst it was of course financially prudent for the LEGO Group to embrace the digital sphere, it already had a massive advantage over many of its competitors in the toy market. It had a language that did not so much need to be reimagined in digital terms, as it was already a code that a computer could manipulate. But perhaps more importantly it was also a way of thinking that aligned itself with our own technological evolution.

Endnotes

[i] David Alexander Smith, ‘Interview with Bjarne Tveskov’ Bricks Culture #4 (January 2016)

[ii] See Travellers Tales website http://www.ttgames.com

[iii] See LEGO Mindstorms website https://www.lego.com/en-gb/mindstorms

[iv] See Minecraft website https://minecraft.net/en-us/

[v] Douglas Coupland ‘On Craft’ in Shopping in Jail (Sternberg Press, 2013) p.2

[vi] See Dr Dave Watford’s blog Gimme Lego http://gimmelego.blogspot.co.uk

[vii] Play Matthew Smith’s classic Manic Miner here: http://torinak.com/qaop#!manicminer

[viii] LEGO at Christmas, Channel 4 (2016)

[ix] See Matt De Lanoy’s Flickr stream https://www.flickr.com/photos/pepa_quin/

[x] See the Super Mario 64 wiki https://www.mariowiki.com/Super_Mario_64

[xi] See Iain Heath’s Flickr Stream https://www.flickr.com/photos/ochre_jelly

[xii] See the Doom webpage http://doom.com/en-us/

[xiii] See Imaging Rigney’s Flickr stream https://www.flickr.com/photos/imaginebrickzone

[xiv] See the Bioshock Infinite’s webpage https://www.bioshockinfinite.com/?RET=&ag=true

[xv] See the LEGO Jurassic World page https://www.lego.com/en-gb/jurassicworld

[xvi] See Grain’s LEGO VS MINECRAFT – Which Can I Build Faster? video here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HUCr2UexTHo

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