Near the end of Tearaway’s first act, you get a request from something that looks like a potted plant huddled inside a rolled-up piece of paper. This thing asks you to make a new snowflake. The plant lives atop a snowy plateau, and it’s grown tired of seeing the same white flurries over and over again. So I assembled something new: a combination of craggy shapes built from yellow and hot-pink construction paper. The plant was ecstatic, and in an instant, dozens of my eye-searing snowflakes took to the wind, flitting through the mountain air.
That moment is the purest expression of the game’s inspiring message. Tearaway, the new work from LittleBigPlanet studio Media Molecule, is a celebration of creativity. It puts the joys of creation on display and implores us to use that spirit—in our lives, outside the game—to break free from routine and enrich the world. The spirit-lifting potential of undirected creation has been a part of Media Molecule’s ethos since the first LittleBigPlanet in 2008, but that series’ means of creation—a complicated suite of game-creating tools with near-infinite possibilities—were too dense and abstract to articulate such a universal notion. With Tearaway, Media Molecule has focused on its own powerful imagination, while still allowing for player expression, and the message finally shines through.
The game begins with your face on the screen, courtesy of the PlayStation Vita’s camera. A couple of disembodied voices—let’s call them the storytellers—are talking about you. “What’s that?” one asks. “It’s a You,” the other replies. And then you catch a glimpse of their world, a colorful, living sprawl made to look like it's built entirely from construction paper. It’s a visual wonder. The paper trees sway in the wind, which itself is made visible with swift swirling scraps. Rain, in the form of thin blue strips, slams into the ground and splashes into smaller bits. The inhabitants are simple papercraft models, shapes cut from various colors of construction paper and folded together into three-dimensional existence. Everything wriggles with stiff stop-motion rhythm.
But this world, as wondrous as it is, is stuck in a rut. The storytellers say it’s a world of legends, tales that have been told thousands of times. Nothing ever changes. You, though, you’re different. You’re what’s needed to shake things up, literally. Shaking the Vita to snap the paper world’s inhabitants out of their routines is how you start the game. From that point forward, your world—that is, the real world seen by the Vita’s cameras—and their world are united. A hole opens in the paper world’s sky, erasing its sun and leaving a portal to our world in its place, basically turning you into that baby that lives inside the sun on Teletubbies. Then the storytellers present a sealed envelope, which falls to the ground and comes to life with construction-paper limbs and facial features. It’s both a secret message, meant to be read only by you, and the messenger that will deliver it, assuming you can help it reach your peephole. (The messenger can be named either Iota or Atoi depending on which gender you choose. I picked Atoi, so that’s the name I’ll be referring to.)
And so all the pieces fall into place for the paper world to finally get a new story. But while it can be freeing to break from tradition, it also comes with its own consequences. To spice up this new tale, the storytellers call forth from your world a swarm of squirrelly monsters they name Scraps. They pour through the hole in the sky, raining down into the paper world and wreaking all kinds of havoc. They’ll do plenty to get in Atoi’s way as you guide her to the story’s end, but at least she has a deity (you) on her side.
For the rest of the game, you control the messenger with the Vita’s buttons, having her run, jump, and throw stuff. Using the device’s tilt controls and front and back touchscreens, you use your godly powers to interact with her and the paper world. Many puzzles have you bringing your finger’s into the game world. When holding them against the Vita’s rear touchpad, they’ll burst through specially marked areas so you can move obstacles too large for Atoi to overcome. Other times, a tap of the back touchscreen will activate a drumhead, which can bounce Atoi high into the air.
These touch controls, both the front and the back, are Tearaway’s greatest weakness. Maybe it was on account of my big man hands (the game does ask you whether you have big or little hands and makes some changes under the hood), but during the more complicated puzzles and action scenes, I found that my fingers weren’t precise enough. The back touchscreen is especially troublesome. It can be hard to get yourself into the correct position, though the game does offer some visual cues, like having the special rupturable ground rise as your fingers slide beneath it. Even though they never worked perfectly, some of these touchscreen moments are also the game’s best. My bond with Atoi was at its strongest when my fingers cleared her a path through a waterfall’s deadly confetti cascade.
Your godly powers also allow you to bring new things into the paper world by crafting them with the touchscreen. Throughout the game, you’ll be asked to make crowns and pumpkins—and, yes, snowflakes. It’s a simple process. You pick which color construction paper you want to use, trace a design with your finger, and tap a button to have scissors cut it out. You can even mix and match colors to create more complex layered crafts.
That’s just one of the ways the game allows for expression in its world. You can also deck out your messenger however you’d like. Lots of prefab mouths, eyes, and graphics come built-in, purchasable with collectable confetti bits. But the camera activities are the most fun. Tearaway enhances your in-game photography with various lenses and filters à la Instagram. You know the kind—high contrast, sepia, “vintage.” I found myself constantly snapping photos of anything attractive or absurd, always doing my best to compose the shot and pick out the best filter. And since it’s always the end for any modern, populist form of creative expression, you can share your photos online at a special Tearaway website. (I’ve uploaded a handful of my favorite photos to my profile.)
Tearaway is so interested in integrating the Vita’s bells and whistles that it’s a miracle it doesn’t come off as gimmicky. You’ll often get held up by creatures who need help pimping their pet pigs with stickers, or maybe they need you to draw them a new mustache. There’s seemingly no reason for these diversions other than using the touchscreen some more. But when you finally get to read Atoi’s message, it all pays off and everything comes into perspective: The whole time, Tearaway was more interested in the value of creation than anything else. It shouts, “Hey, you see how easy and rewarding this was in the game? All those things you made and pictures you took? You should try it for yourself sometime!” The game goes so far as to provide the instructions for crafting many of the its objects and characters. The last thing Tearaway wants is for your life to fall into the dull routines that prompted the storytellers to get you involved in the first place. Shake it up. Make something.
Developer: Media Molecule
Platform: PlayStation Vita