Creative analysis, Critical analysis and reviews, Videogames, Writing

Intertextuality, genre expectations and LEGO City Undercover

Chase is standing in the middle of a dojo. Some dodgy sounding geezer is spouting words of wisdom when it comes to kicking ass, and said geezer is wearing a waist jacket and a pair of glasses that seem awfully familiar to some other arse kicking geezer from a highly popular film franchise. Then the wire-fu starts. It’s The Matrix but LEGO City style.

If there’s one videogame of late that’s been reminding me of my undergraduate investigations into postmodernism, it’s LEGO City Undercover and its use of intertextuality and genre expectations. While the previous Lego videogames for Harry PotterLoTRBatmanIndiana Jones and Star Wars have heavily referred to those respective texts with a few other sources thrown in – LEGO City Undercover is drawing upon an entire genre and then some.

What you take away from this videogame is entirely dependent on a) how much you’ve played Grand Theft Auto b) how many cop films and TV shows you’ve watched c) how many gangster films you’ve watched d) how many martial arts films you’ve watched and (to a much lesser extent) e) how much you know of the Nintendo universe. If you’re lacking experience of even two of those categories then there’s a good chance that the most you’ll get out of the game is that it’s a sandbox thing that let’s you nab cool cars, explore lots, collect lots of different things and build cool stuff.

Lego city undercover dinosaur robot

Julia Kristeva stuck in my head

Mentioning the intertextuality of the game on Facebook drew one question of what is intertextuality. Basically, it’s a theory put together by Julia Kristeva (mainly of a post-structuralist slant in its nature) about how readers interpret a text i.e. the writer/creator doesn’t provide the audience with meaning, but it is the “codes” used in the text that provide meaning when the audience interprets them. Basically, if the reader sees or interprets references to certain things in a text (book, game, film or whatever) then that will shape their understanding of it. To be honest, this line from the Wiki on the subject summarises it pretty well:

“[…] [T]he meaning of a text does not reside in the text, but is produced by the reader in relation not only to the text in question, but also the complex network of texts invoked in the reading process.”

I could say that the game features some parody and homages, but the sheer volume of references makes it far more intertextual in nature. Without these references/codes there would be hardly any story and characterisation in the game and it would also be bereft a great deal of its humour.

A trip to a prison parodies The Shawshank Redemption.

A trip to a prison parodies The Shawshank Redemption.

The references used in the game do vary in their degree of intensity. While there is the dojo scene that I described in the beginning, a scene much later on in the game at a building site with a foreman who sounds like Arnold Schwarzenegger sees every other line of this minor character form into a take on the titles of Arnold Schwarzenegger films. This is in your face and far more obvious than a lot of the game’s intertextual potential.

And those genre expectations

The game’s set-up as a comedy take on the cop movie early on, and the whole undercover situation also sets out expectations too. We expect humour because it’s a LEGO game, but we also expect it because of the actual comedic lines that start from the very beginning as Chase returns to the city. The player will potentially get Turner and Hooch or Kindergarten Cop as opposed to Point Break.

However, that’s on the cop side of things. The bad guys, meanwhile, are stereotypical for career criminals, so genre expectations are fulfilled. Meanwhile, the ultimate villain lends himself more to the world of a certain spy.

Lego city undercover space

In theory, if you’re at least aware of some of the tropes of the genres that the game calls upon then you can get a bit more out of this game than just “get all the bricks!”. But it’s having watched the films and TV shows that formed those expectations in the first place that’s probably going to lead to a richer player experience.

For instance – I’ve noticed that people who are over, say, 25 have had, in theory, more chances to watch these foundational texts are more likely to enjoy LEGO City Undercover.

Grand Theft Auto?

Where does GTA come in? Rather using your dukes, bats or guns, your police badge means that you can commandeer any vehicle on the streets of LEGO City. Any and without violence. The wealth of vehicles available to use is one parallel. Okay and from a design perspective it’s a sandbox game, to a degree that none of the earlier LEGO games from TT ever managed.

Do you need to have watched lots to get the most from this game?

If the reason you play LEGO games is to collect things – then I’m sure you’ll do fine not worrying about intertextual references. But if you want to give the story a chance – then there will be a lot that won’t make sense if you’re not “well read”.


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