If you've never been fascinated by dinosaurs at any point in your life, you never had a childhood. It's really that simple. That these monstrous (but not always), terrifying (just some of the time), unbelievable (except, y'know, they lived) creatures walked the Earth sometime (okay, a really long time) before I did blew my young mind. I can still picture the first dinosaur book I got, albeit in the state it was when I last saw it: held together with tape, its corners all beaten up, the occasional tear running through an illustration of a Hypsilophodon. I went on to own freaking loads of them, some for kids and others completely impenetrable for the eight-year-old me – but I still adored them, poring over the pages, drinking in the imagery, imagining what it'd be like to stand beside one of these incredible beasts for real.
And then Jurassic Park happened and became ground zero for a whole new wave of dinosaur madness. I'd grown up on 1988's The Land Before Time, the Dinobots from Transformers, and VHS recordings of Ray Harryhausen movies. When Steven Spielberg's CGI-enhanced film adaptation of Michael Crichton's (considerably more violent) 1990 novel, a prehistoric spin on his own Westworld story, came out in 1993, I thought I was over my obsession with tyrannosaurs and ceratopsians. Of course, I was wrong. The film was amazing – hell, it still is. Sit a kid down in front of it for the first time and their eyes go as wide as saucers, their mouth as open as Tim and Lex's own when face to face with the Park's resident T-Rex.
Being the 1990s, of course there were numerous video game takes on Jurassic Park, and its two sequels of 1997 and 2001. Some were pretty decent, given the frankly awful track record of movie-to-game conversions. A point-and-click affair for Sega's Mega-CD actually dipped into Crichton's novel for narrative inspiration, whereas the Mega Drive's platforming take on the film's story gave the player the option to control a velociraptor (cinema-proportioned, rather than the real-life turkey sized sort) instead of Sam Neill's Dr Grant character. Naturally, playing as the dinosaur was the right way to see the game through. And clearly Cheshire-based developer Traveller's Tales was paying attention.
That's the studio behind the forthcoming LEGO Jurassic World game, due out on multiple platforms in June to coincide with the fourth movie in the series, the Chris Pratt-starring Jurassic World. Traveller's Tales has a long history of working with the plastic bricks manufacturer, with their first LEGO-meets-cinematic-IP crossover being 2005's LEGO Star Wars. I've come to admire these LEGO games a great deal – much like last year's The LEGO Movie, they tend to arrive with enough subtle humour of grown-up appeal that a parent can play through them in co-op company with an infant-school kid. Of particular note was 2013's LEGO Marvel Superheroes, a genuinely charming collision of the comic company's biggest stars and attractively blocky aesthetics. (I have to say though, running on PS4, Jurassic World is by far the most handsome LEGO game TT has made, to date, and its dynamic weather is a lovely extra in the looks department.)
At a preview session in the centre of London, I got my hands on four stages of LEGO Jurassic World, and pardon me while I get a little enthusiastic for a second: oh my, I just want to play more of it, like, right now. The gameplay is much like previous LEGO games, a mix of light combat and gentle puzzle solving where the solution usually entails breaking something apart to use its pieces in some new game-progression formation. But, and this is the important part: it's Jurassic Park. It has the theme tune, and everything. I play through the sequence (from the first film) where the T-Rex bursts through its enclosure (yes, the lawyer gets eaten, even when rendered in LEGO), and then control the gas jeep as (Laura Dern's) Dr Ellie Sattler flees the scene with the injured mathematician Ian Malcolm (played in the movies by Jeff Goldblum). It's ace. In another part of the game, I control Sattler in seeking out ingredients to perk up a poorly triceratops. And once the triple-horned giant's back on her feet, I get to play as her.
Seriously, playing as a triceratops is way more fun than running around as a little LEGO person, at least in the short term. And TT are promising 20 playable dinosaurs across the game's two island settings of Islas Nublar and Sorna – including the T-Rex, which you can later take control of during that jeep pursuit. There will be 100 playable human characters, too, drawn from all four movies. I also get to see one Lost World level, where the teenage gymnast Vanessa leads her adult companions across the rooftops of buildings overrun with raptors. It's surprisingly tense for a LEGO game, and I can well imagine the series' youngest fans being shaken by its jump scares – even though the fiends in question are just toys, really.
I sat down with Tim Wileman, associate producer at Traveller's Tales, to learn a little more about the making of what might just become my favourite LEGO video game of all. (Come on now, Mike. Might? It already is.)
'LEGO Jurassic World', gameplay trailer
VICE: Do you think that the Jurassic element of this title is going to bring a whole new bunch of players to your LEGO series?
Tim Wileman: I think it's a game that not only fans of the Jurassic Park franchise, but also gamers in general, have wanted for a while now. It's a proper, authentic LEGO Jurassic World-slash-Park game.
Well, as authentic as an entirely fictional thing made out of bricks can be.
Exactly. We've stayed as close to the source material as we can. I think that'll attract some interest. This has been a fantastic collaboration, and everyone involved has understood each other. It's been a joy to work with all of our partners, it really has.
I found the Lost World level a little, well, scary frankly, for kids. And LEGO games are for kids, so, what's the deal there?
Yeah, it is a little scary, and dark. We don't want to shy away from the tension, and the atmosphere, of the original trilogy, because that's a good part of the reason why they were so successful. But what we do is balance that fear with humour, with comedy value, like we have done with all of our games. And that might be something very subtle, like a smiley face or a wink, or it might be something more slapstick. But it's about finding that balance, and taking the edge off. For example, with the dinosaurs in the game, we treat them like pets, really. As you play through the game, you'll see how they all have personalities, which softens things slightly. But we do want to have thrills and spills in there, in the process.
And you have the original movie voice recordings in the game – that's definitely Laura Dern I'm hearing when I'm diving into triceratops shit. But there has to be new lines, too. So what's the studio done there, to expand on the movie script?
We are using the original voice over, where we can, but we're talking about a film that was made over 20 years ago where audio techniques were very different to how they are now. The recordings simply weren't as good then as they would be today, so where we can use them we have, but we've also had original dialogue created for the gameplay. We've brought Mr DNA back, and he'll talk you through a lot of cool stuff in the game, and provide educational tips on the dinosaurs. So we want to create this authentic experience, as much as we can.
It's interesting, to me at least, that you're putting this educational material in there. This game could be the equivalent of my first dinosaur book, to a kid today.
Well, dinosaurs are real, and we're still learning about them every day, how they lived and how they evolved. So it was nice to add this extra element. It's not going to be rammed down players' throats – it's there if you want it, and you can take it or leave it.
Was there no temptation to update the representation of the dinosaurs, from how they were in the movies to how they're generally seen as appearing today? A lot more feathers, basically.
I know that the scientific knowledge on dinosaurs has evolved a lot, and we get that, but we want to deliver this authentic Jurassic Park experience. If we put a feathered velociraptor in there, I think it might raise too many eyebrows. We want to stay close to the source material, and do it justice. We want to do a proper job on the original trilogy and the new fourth film, which is going to be amazing by the way.
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I suppose some of these dinosaurs are iconic villains, really.
Exactly, so with the T-Rex, we've tried to give her a personality that emphasises that. The raptors are really cool in the game, and they're going to deliver a lot of laughs. Of course they're serious, too, but I'm lucky to work with such an amazing animation team, and they've really brought these inanimate LEGO objects to life, which is really cool.
The most recent LEGO game I've played, before this one, is the third Batman title, Beyond Gotham, which I found rather over fiddly, with too many costumes per character and, honestly, some confusing level design that dragged on. But Jurassic World already feels more streamlined than that, simpler, in a good way.
I think we have possibly, in a direct comparison sense, gone for a more "snackable" approach to these sections, rather than larger, expansive levels. That doesn't mean this new game is any smaller, and we have the hubs too, which are vast and full of content, like the dinosaur customisation tool. (Oh yeah, you can create your own dinosaur from pieces of the "proper" ones, if toying with nature is your thing.) Each level is made up of several small sections, but they have you progressing through each story very comfortably. We want this game to cover as much of the series content as possible. I think the feeling is that this game is more old school, gameplay wise, which I personally prefer.
LEGO Jurassic World is released in June for just about every system under the sun.