What’s better – Lego Star Wars or Lego Batman? I’m talking specifically here about the 2005 and 2008 video games, developed by Traveller’s Tales and which spawned an unending series of sequels and spinoffs that have quickly come to dominate the company’s output. Lego Star Wars was the first, in 2005, and in the 15 years since, Traveller’s Tales have produced a terrifying 22 Lego video games. They’re mostly film tie-ins, including Lego Harry Potter and Lego Pirates of the Caribbean, with a couple of more general titles like Lego Worlds. Anyway – I picked up the Lego Batman games for free on Epic a while back. I’d played a bunch of Lego Star Wars back in the day, and thought Batman might be an entertaining nostalgia trip. Turns out it’s pretty terrible.
So there’s a few different things going on between these two games, and I don’t want to reduce the problem with Lego Batman to any one specific factor. For instance, all of these games are designed to be drop-in multiplayer, meaning that they’re playable by one person, but that a second can drop in and drop out at any time. In that situation, you want your two playable characters to be relatively comparable, or at least different in ways that increase the appeal of each. In Lego Star Wars, for instance, you get to play through Episode I as either Obi-Wan or Qui-Gon. They’re both pretty great. They both have Force powers and lightsabers and shit. Alternately, if you play as one of the shooty characters, like Amidala, you can kill enemies from a distance, giving you an edge over the close-range Jedi. In Batman, on the other hand, you get to play as either Batman or Robin. And nobody, given the choice, would be genuinely excited to play Robin. That’s not an asymmetric yet mutually reinforcing partnership, it’s a superhero and his fucking dweeb underpants sidekick. I’m not entirely sold on some of the level design in Lego Batman either – I’d show you some screenshots of shit that I don’t like, but I got the games on the Epic platform, and fucking Epic doesn’t have screenshot functionality. So put that to the side, just for now, and I’ll get to the thing I’m supposed to be talking about.
For me, probably the biggest difference between Lego Batman and Lego Star Wars is in the way they deal with parody. That distinction in turn rests on the different relationships that the two games have with their wider fictional canons, and really in part on the way those wider fictional canons operate in general. With the Batman mythos, for instance, we have a bunch of different iterations of the one core premise. There’s Adam West Batman and George Clooney Batman and all the others – they’re all different versions of one core story. In that context, Lego Batman is just one among the stable. It isn’t parodying any particular version of Batman – it’s just one more to add to the pile, with the specific gimmick being that this time it’s funny and it’s made of Lego. It’s not a bad gimmick, necessarily, but it doesn’t quite have the same novelty attached to the fact that it’s a reinterpretation of the Batman story, specifically because reinterpretation is already so core to the Batman franchise.
With Star Wars, on the other hand, up until the release of the new trilogy you were more or less dealing with one wide-ranging yet singular narrative world. All the books and comics and films and games (to the best of my knowledge, anyway) took place in one single fictional world. That process of reinterpretation is much less common in Star Wars, meaning that the parody of Lego Star Wars carries a lot more shock value. For example, when Princess Leia is trying to put the Death Star plans in R2-D2, she kinda pokes at him with this chunky CD, realises there’s no slot on the Lego figure that could receive the plans, and then pulls R2’s head off so she can chuck the plans in. It’s a familiar scene with a comic twist. What if Star Wars, but Lego? The unfamiliarity of that kind of approach gives the storytelling a boost, while for something like Batman it’s already a pretty standard narrative method. Lego Batman subsequently feels a little more exposed, if that makes sense. It’s less ‘haha they reinterpreted that scene’ and more ‘how does this interpretation stack up against all the other interpretations that I’m already familiar with’. That’s not a shift that does Lego Batman any favours. Anyway here’s a picture of Darth Maul driving a little car through the start of Episode IV.