Lego Builder’s Journey is unlike any Lego game you might be familiar with. Launched in December 2019 as a surprise release on Apple Arcade, Builder’s Journey attracted immediate praise for its quiet, meditative nature – telling a story as players solve increasingly complicated puzzles with Lego.
It stands in stark contrast to the Lego games we’ve seen up until now. While the Lego brand has been branching out of late, with 2017’s procedurally-generated sandbox title Lego Worlds as a notable example, the phrase ‘Lego video game’ still brings to mind action-adventure titles spun off existing IPs.
Creative director and Light Brick Studios head Karsten Lund explains the game was a deliberate decision to take the Lego franchise in a new direction.
“It started with the idea of exploring new genres,” says Lund, “and trying to use the Lego brick in a way that is a little different than what we’ve done these past years. We wanted to look at the brick from a different angle. The action-oriented gameplay is very much part of the Lego idea and the Lego play promise in many ways, but there’s also that other side, the creative side where you’re expressing yourself with the brick. That was definitely where we were trying to go with this. The inspiration was to try and make an artistic experience, and try and put Lego brick-building at the core of that experience. We wanted to see if we could take brick building, which is fun in its own right, and turn that into a game mechanic.”
Artistic is certainly the word for it – the game has been justifiably praised for its art style, instantly bringing to mind the isometric work of Ustwo’s Monument Valley – a comparison that hasn’t been lost on Lund.
“We were definitely inspired by the movement of artistic games that we’ve seen in recent years, especially on mobile” notes Lund. “The games that I’m personally a huge fan of, such as Monument Valley, are definitely an inspiration. But we’ve really tried to find our own feet in this, especially because everything is brick built and we have the unique design language of Lego.
“We tried to come up with something unique, but we definitely drew some inspiration from those indie games out there that managed to show us new kinds of games, with new ways of playing and experiences with narrative and emotions.”
THE LEGO PILLARS
From these initial seeds of brick building, artistry, creativity, narrative and emotions, the team then needed to create a cohesive vision of the core experience of the game. To explain this, Lund runs us through the game’s key design pillars.
“We needed to put brick building at the core of the game as a mechanic,” says Lund. “It had to stay true to what you actually do, the decisions you make when you build with bricks. So to keep people in that kind of flow, you have to pick up a brick, you have to figure out where it sits, you have to rotate it in the right angle to place it exactly where you want to place it.
“Another pillar was the focus on the artistic – almost poetry, if you will. Trying to show what you can also build with Lego bricks, we were inspired by some of the indie builders out there. There’s a lot of people who are building amazing things in Lego that don’t necessarily have the look and feel like your everyday Lego model.
“We were trying to see if we could twist it a little bit in terms of how we portrayed Lego. We didn’t want to use a minifigure, we wanted to create our own little characters. Just to give it that artistic vibe, so you had to interpret a little bit into it. Which I think is the strength of Lego in general, there is a bit of abstraction around a Lego model in a cool way, right?
“We also wanted to blend puzzle mechanics with a narrative on top of it. Both to drive people through the experience as a challenge, wanting to get further in the game and onto the next challenge and solve it, and reward them in that way, but also to tell them a story along the way.”
AN AUTHENTIC LEGO EXPERIENCE
Light Brick Studios’ focus on making the game replicate the feel of actually playing with Lego certainly makes the game distinct from the action-oriented titles.
While those games certainly carry the Lego branding and aesthetic, they don’t particularly feel like playing with Lego. Any building in those games is an automated affair – Hold down a button and watch Hermione Granger build a motorbike, with no further creativity or input from the player. It’s not so much a criticism of these games – they’re proven to be undeniable successful in what they do – but they’re certainly more an exercise in playing with a particular IP, instead of replicating the traditional Lego experience of throwing together bricks as you play.
Arguably, Builder’s Journey chimes with the traditional appeal of the Lego System more than many of its cousins. Still, by taking the Lego franchise in such a different direction, it’s easy to see why Light Brick Studios might have been worried about how it would be received. When Lego games have such an expectation of IP-rich action-adventure gameplay attached to them, taking things into a more meditative, artistic direction could be seen as a real risk. But Lund shoots this one down, pointing to the heavy playtesting the game went through before it went live on Apple Arcade.
“I don’t think we were worried really – we tested so much, it’s probably the most tested game I’ve ever worked on. So we had a pretty good idea of what the players thought. Obviously a testing scenario is different than actually going live and people playing it, but we had a pretty good feeling that we were onto something that would appeal to a lot of different players. Of course, it’s always interesting to release games and then to sit down and wait for reviews to come in and hope that people like it. It’s not like we were totally confident about the game, but we had a pretty good hunch, from all the testing we did, that this would at least be enjoyable.”
ONE SIZE FITS ALL
An artistic vision, a respect for the traditional experience of playing with Lego and wanting to appeal to people of all ages are all certainly sensible goals to keep in mind when developing a game – But it’s also definitely easier said than done. Trying to marry an artistic vision inspired by Monument Valley with the need to have a puzzle-driven game which is easily accessible to all ages is a tightrope to walk.
“It’s never very easy to make a great game,” agrees Lund, “of course, there were challenges along the way. I think one of the big ones was our non-verbal approach, to try and tell a story and teach a game without using any words of guidance or any tutorials. That was definitely something that was that was interesting to test and iterate on until we had something that the players simply just got, without actually telling them what to do.
“We ended up putting a little bit of written narrative in terms of controls in the beginning, just a little bit of text. But after that, there’s nothing. Everything is taught through the play, which is definitely what we think the Lego idea is, in many ways. You try things, you experiment and you learn and then you put things together in a new way and new things happen. So that’s the way we wanted this game to sort of reveal itself. But definitely it’s a hard thing to get right. So that took a lot of testing.”
As Lund notes, the game’s development went through its own process of experimenting and learning. Builder’s Journey went through a significant testing period to ensure their non-verbal approach was working – and it was through this process that the team were able to fully form the meditative experience at the core of the game.
“Initially we had an idea of the game being a bit more challenging, but we realised through testing that the players really responded to the sort of zen-like, meditative play. So it slowly sort of smoothed itself out as more and more players came through and responded positively to that feeling of just building with bricks. So in that sense, it definitely took a little bit of a tonal shift thanks to our dialogue with the audience.”
Still, even if you have your strong artistic vision nailed down alongside the intuitive mechanics, it’s no good if the game can’t find its audience. While the Lego branding undoubtedly helped bring attention to the game, Lund credits Apple Arcade as being an excellent fit for more artistically-minded titles.
“I think there’s a lot of cool titles on Apple Arcade” says Lund. “I think the type of game that we’ve made, totally fits into the offering of games that they have. A lot of these games take a much more artistic approach, I think it’s brilliant. We really felt a lot of support for what we wanted to do – It’s been a great partnership.
“I think, in general, with the mobile platform there’s a lot of different types of players out there. And from our point of view, we want to try this experience out on a lot of different types of players because they know the Lego brick. Everybody knows the brick. And everybody kind of knows what a brick does and where it goes, and how it fits together in the system.
“So we’re doing something different, something new with a very well known medium. It’s a design classic, some of these designs are 60 years old and they still hold up. So we decided to make something new using something well known, and it was interesting to see if people responded to that, and I think they really have. We’re so, so happy with the reviews. There’s a lot of praise and a lot of people who really get what we were trying to do. There’s a lot of people wishing for more, which is always a good thing.”
And given the success Light Brick has seen with their inaugural title, we’re sure they’re going to be doing more creative building of their own to keep their new fans satisfied.