Bionicle and System (Blog or Die! Entry #20)

Accepted entry for the “Interview” category.

Author: Ballom Nom Nom

Word Count: 1,630

Judge’s Notes:

* This entry was submitted before the deadline (Mon, Jan 15, 2018 10:15 pm), but I didn’t have a chance to post it until today.  The entry is valid and accepted for final consideration.

Bionicle and System


…Oh yes, another dogged entry bleating about Bionicle, I can already hear the prospective reader saying. Egad! And yes, I do not deny this claim, other than seeking the indulgence of the noble reader and entreating them to persevere, in the hope that what follows will be worth their while. Should discussion of Bionicle not play this role, I note that the paragraphs below, somewhere, contain a pony.

And now, onward!

Long denigrated as the ugly sibling of the beautiful swan of System, the style of building collectively described under the umbrella of Bionicle (alternatively known as Barnacle, Bonkle, Bonko, Bonk, etc. among aficionados) is in fact greatly underappreciated in the wider Lego community. However, its adherents rightfully know it to be a dazzling and wonderful medium, whose expression can be used for constructing the breathtaking profusion of forms such as armored humanoid robots and slightly different armored humanoid robots. And, indeed, such expression of the art of Lego building, while clearly not of an identical nature to construction centered about System, nevertheless has its own captivating charm. One sufficiently enlightened in its nuances and subtlety can even recognize it as the superior to System.


(image credit: the author)

The intrepid reader who is still with me after the preceding sentence may doubt the veracity of the last bold claim — perhaps even shocked! However, I hope to subsequently show the foundation for these ambitious claims, and moreover seek to inform the esteemed reader who may be heretofore tragically unaware of Bionicle and its wondrous superiority to System.

Let’s begin by turning our attention to the basic characteristics of the parts associated with the medium of Bionicle. The quadrilaterally-formed, right-angle-dominated elements of System (whether studly or smooth) these are not — our first category of parts is derived from the Bionicle line of sets produced by the Lego Group from 2001 to 2010. In their unique constituents are a variety of oddly studless parts.


(image credit: the author)

Several ways of subdividing these Bionicle parts manifest: first, those featuring balls and sockets for the limbs and joints of the robotic Bionicle creature. Extending from the foundation laid by Technic ball-and-socket creature constructions, the parts have specialization and into parts to be used for limbs, necks, and areas built with a range of motion. Typical uses range across the panoply of limbs, from gorilla-like arms to gorilla-like legs, and in exceptional cases orangutan-like arms.


(image credit: Bricklink)

Second, parts used for providing armor, bulk, and details to the Bionicle sets. Clawed feet, ornate breastplates, wide paneling, rows of spines, and an array of weapons and swords. Here one sees the greatest breadth of Bionicle parts — which the astute reader notes still pales in comparison to the number of System elements — but this is no matter. As a matter of fact, it is a point of advantage.


(image credit: Bricklink)

Third, masks: parts central to the complex Bionicle mythos (the details of which may be exhaustively perused throughout million-paged Bionicle wikis, should drying paint be unavailable for amusement). Other than each featuring a face of some sort, the informed reader may generally regard these as similar to the second category.


(image credit: Bricklink)

There are two further-defining characteristics of the parts described above. The first is more incidental: an association with the Technic part system, with connections for Technic pins and axles in lieu of studs and antistuds. The second is more fundamental to what I claim is the aesthetic of Bionicle: parts with complex shapes, which deviate from System bricks in having curved and rounded shapes throughout as opposed to having at most one or two faces of the part, as System slopes and other elements tend to. Parts which vary significantly in thickness and texture, such as for accommodating a ball or socket, or spikes, or various other greebles and decorations — for, as was conventional wisdom for The Lego Group during the turn of the millennium, the Bionicle-constructed character must be riddled with greebles! Parts which could be described with terms such as non-Euclidean, and others shared by mathematicians and Lovecraft alike, which I will forbear from using at length. Parts which, in a word, are interesting in ways that the humble brick of rectilinear shape is not. (Dare I even use the appellation unique? I dare not, good reader).

Let’s continue on to the other category of parts associated with Bionicle builds — pieces under the umbrella of the Character and Creature Building System (hereinafter CCBS), which appeared in themes such as Hero Factory (the spiritual successor to Bionicle), the Ultrabuilds created for themes such as Legends of Chima and Star Wars, and Bionicle’s fleeting resurrection. This system retains ball-and-socket parts, with sets built around a core of parts similar to technic beams with incorporated ball joints and sockets. Atop this skeleton, smooth, symmetric shells attach by sockets. Extensions attach to these shells by their sole other connection point of paired rod holes.


(image credit: Bricklink)

Our long-suffering reader — for whom I salute the fortitude of, to persist even this far in a discussion of Bionicle — may perchance be curious how such parts are related to those addressed before, other than the superficial similarity of appearing in the Bionicle theme. And it is true that the general aesthetic differs significantly from the greebled, complicated designs of older Bionicle. However, the pleasingly varied shapes of the curved shells, and the skeletal elements intended for ball-and-socket connections allowing movement and varied angles remain. And so, with this core intact, both can be categorized under the inclusive umbrella of Bionicle.

And so, with a hurricane overview of the tools a… ahem… Bionicle builder may employ — which I note are essential to the style and when used in abundance can clearly characterize a creation with the label Bionicle — I may now more successfully contrast with System. As hinted at before, the collective whole of parts deemed indisputably “Bionicle” is a quantity much smaller than the bafflingly large array of System parts. Even if I ignore in the comparison the rarely used parts in each category, putting aside even favorites such as the beloved System camel head and the adorable Bionicle rubber squid ammunition, System still dominates by an enormous margin. (I leave the exact counting for this comparison as an exercise to the discerning reader.) This difference may be claimed by some to be a weakness of the Bionicle-based system, but I assert it to be in fact a strength!

In building with Bionicle, there exists the true struggle of the artist against an unyielding and uncompromising medium, the likes of which are not found in using System. The Sisyphean struggle with odd angles and parts make the success of a completed build all the sweeter, the qualities of the result appreciated all the more keenly, while there is less joy to be found in a more easily accomplished System build. What artistry is there to be had in immediately having available System parts for whatever is desired to be constructed? What character in a sterile build of System that all too easily presents a near-perfect facsimile of the intended design? Compare this to one of Bionicle, which demands ingenuity from the observer, to look past the greebled parts, the textures and gaps to glimpse the true intention of the builder shining through. To be sure, there is beauty in verisimilitudinous System constructions. But the System creation presents all the weaknesses of perfection, while the Bionicle creation wields the might of its deformities — especially given the handicaps it reflects.

Too, there is also how the fewer-dimensional System elements, interlocking as they do, are static and immutable, unlike the malleable forms resulting from ball-and-socket connections. This is a notable dereliction on the part of System, but owing to the age of the venerable brick, from a time where such mobility was not so prized, I ignore this fault with a passing mention, to keep this comparison sporting.

However, this digression does lead inexorably to discussion of the quintessential Bionicle work — the Toa (a foreign word meaning “man who stands yonder”). A treatment of Bionicle without be remiss without such a mention of the fundamental object of study. These armored, humanoid, robotic and certainly not coat-wearing warrior figures touch the very core of the medium. Detractors may insinuate that a strong focus on the same works does not show flexibility. But a fixation with a particular muse is not inflexible or smallminded at all. A Bionicle creator’s enchantment with the nuances of Toa is akin to the reverence past master artists had for favorite works – think of Monet and the haystacks, or Renoir and the lily.

Which leads to my final point, about character. By enshrining humanoids, robots, and Toa, as well as other popular Bionicle forms such as creatures and animals, there is a wealth of character demonstrated, from the builds’ expressiveness to their articulation. Is such character exhibited by System builds? Not in the basic and uninspiring grey castle, nor in the drab two tones of Classic Space, nor in faceless armies of soldiers, nor in porcupine-studded aircraft – No! It is in builds defined by a system where character as become foundational. Builds steeped in the Character and Creature Building System.

And so, patient reader, as this comes to a close, I trust that the agreement on the conclusion is unanimous. Bionicle is, of course, the clear superior of System – there is no contest. In fact, in comparison System may sometimes seem to barely be Lego, with its sea of parts that often resemble third-party components. Only the glorious Bionicle, crafted from its slender selection of parts, may truly ascend to the pinnacle of the Lego art.


(image credit: the author)

Author’s note: I regret to say there is not a pony, due to budget constraints.