Repetition, Nostalgia, and the Obsessive Joy of LEGO Video Games

Curator's Note

Since 2005, Traveller’s Tales (TT) has produced 14 LEGO video games based on LEGO-licensed properties, including Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Batman/DC, Harry Potter, Pirates of the Caribbean, Marvel, and Lord of the Rings/Hobbit titles. These games all follow a similar gameplay style, structured around destroying and rebuilding LEGO environments, collecting LEGO studs, and unlocking hidden characters. The narratives of the games are humorous takes on the franchises on which they are based, and players are invited to relive these films and characters through the lens of LEGO nostalgia and wit.

The question I want to explore here is why, given the games’ extraordinarily repetitive gameplay and design structure, do I (and many others) find these games so appealing?

For me, the pleasure derives both from the comforts of repetition as well as the nostalgic aspects of engagement with the franchises. The joy of LEGO bricks, in part, comes from the process of creation, destruction, and rebuilding. The video games are built on a similar logic, sharing the same core activity of building and destruction. They are also strongly interactive and focused on puzzle completion and obsessive collecting. And like the different sets of LEGO bricks, the games offer a variety of LEGO worlds to inhabit. I liken playing the games to following the instructions in a LEGO set. As with a set of building instructions, the games are generally quite linear (though they do require multiple playthroughs to complete all of the puzzles). Like the games, the basic “gameplay” of the bricks doesn’t change: one simply assembles bricks in different orders. The pleasure comes from the process of this repetitive activity, from seeing how a different arrangement of parts can produce a new whole.

The games also allow a Gen-X/Millennial player like me to re-experience movies and characters from my youth. Both LEGO and the films/characters the games reference are saturated with nostalgia, and the games produce an irresistible combination of these twin forces, all infused with LEGO’s brand of humor. The games also give me something that, for example, the Marvel cinematic universe is unable to provide. Free from film studio licensing agreements, TT’s Marvel LEGO game can have Spider-Man team-up with the Hulk and Wolverine play nice with Iron Man—something currently impossible at the multiplex. If TT ever produces a Marvel/DC crossover game, it will have almost completely satisfied my fanboy dreams.


This question is less analytical and more simple curiosity, Drew, but since I don't play video games regularly... I wonder if how gameplay in a LEGO game compares to gameplay in another game where the characters are humanoid and therefore (I'd guess?) have a fuller range of motion. Or is the limited "body" of the player part of the fun?

Nedda: The animation of the games is a lot like the animation in LEGO MOVIE. Much of the fun and humor comes from the characters' blocky bodies and jerky motion. The games are less "stop motiony" than the movie, but the characters break apart, reassemble, and move around like LEGO figures. In other words, the games don't strive for realism; they're very stylized. It's funny to see, for example, a blocky Yoda jumping around with a lightsaber. Below is an example of gameplay from a bunch of the games. Even though the tech has changed considerably in 10 years, the animation remains largely the same.

Drew, you highlight several rich autoethnographic insights into what enables LEGO's TT video game union continue to proliferate. Clearly, LEGO met a number of FAN-tasies when they successfully launched tie-in brand merchandizing with the mother of all toy titans, Star Wars. I remember telling myself as a kid that "if only they would make _____ LEGO I could die in peace." Well, they have. Over and over. I think you draw upon two of the largest key terms here in "repetition" and "nostalgia". I am reminded of a key chapter from Eric Gordon's book The Urban Spectator: American Concept Cities from Kodak to Google (Dartmouth, 2010). The chapter, aptly titled "Rerun City: Nostalgia and Urban Narrative" examines the interwoven ways in which the television rerun has repeated in other cultural forms. I see an important link here where Gordon observes that, "The repetition of historical memory [is] profitable" (164). Indeed, LEGO has found great profit in the collective memory of consumer nostalgia both for their product and now those produced by Hollywood. I might add one more suggestion through what Genre Studies theorists identify as the tension between imitation and innovation. The video games seem to wholly imitate these movies that reach us as audiences, yet they also provide innovation (slightly) by conjoining these cinematic narratives with the yellow brick ontology of LEGO's constructed look and "humor" as you note. Nice work bringing these rich terms into play with your topic theme.

Thanks, Garret, for the great comment. The parallels you draw between TV reruns and the LEGO video games are quite apt. There's a certain comfort in (re)experiencing the safe and predictable, and TT's LEGO games certainly draw on this. The relationship to genre is also a fruitful area of exploration. Like episodes of TV procedurals (and their franchise spinoffs), video game franchises are both imitative and (slightly) innovative. And it's not just TT's LEGO games that do this. Each year major game publishers produce iterations of, for example, CALL OF DUTY, ASSASSIN'S CREED, and MADDEN FOOTBALL. Each yearly update of these games is fundamentally identical to the previous version. However, each new game is just different enough to persuade fans to purchase the updated version. As a fan of the ASSASSIN'S CREED series, I'm fully aware of this manipulation, and yet, every November, I contribute $60 to Ubisoft's bottom line. Like ordering a Big Mac at McDonald's, I know exactly what to expect from the game. It's a safe expenditure of time and money, and while I probably won't be blown away by the game, I also probably won't be terribly disappointed. In this way, TT's LEGO games are operating according to a larger logic of the media industries, and they are a part of the recycling and rebooting that runs rampant in expensive and high profile media properties. For me, anyway, the LEGO games hit just the right mixture of predictable fun, recycling of beloved media properties, and enjoyable gameplay. I know very well that I'm being manipulated, but...

Drew, this is a really interesting topic. I just watched The LEGO Movie the other day and I hadn't experience any of the LEGO superhero texts before so I was presently surprised that even with the repetition of characters that a new element of comedy was present. I had no idea that the characters would be this comical. It's clear that the inclusion of these story lines in the movie will generate interest in these other games.

As a fan of all things superhero--movies, TV shows, books, games--I've found that, particularly in the case of Warner Bros/DC, the games offer some of the best representations of those characters. DC's films and comic books (less so the TV shows) are dominated by a dark and gloomy style and narrative construction. The games offer a bit of humor and fun that is almost completely missing from the films and books. Plus, the flying mechanic for Superman in LEGO BATMAN 2 is probably the best version I've played.

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