Monday, September 28, 2009

Writing Their Way into History

By C.T. Hutt

Scribblenauts, for those who have been out of the gaming loop this last year, is a side-scrolling puzzle game by 5th cell. Your avatar solves a series of simple puzzles with the help of his magic notepad. The graphics are standard 2-D, the controls are awkward, and the plot is non-existent. In most cases I would simply dismiss such a title as tripe and move on with my day. However, Scribblenauts, despite its obvious shortcomings, employs a mechanic so revolutionary that it singlehandedly redeems the title.

The laughably simple premise of the game is to collect Starites (think coins, or points, or rings). These little things are scattered around a two dimensional world with standard physics (gravity pulls down, that’s about it). Starites are hidden in every imaginable place: up in trees, under bodies of water, in the mouths of demons, everywhere. In order to recover these little gems the player uses their stylus to write a proper noun. The item then appears on the screen for Maxwell to use. There are thousands of items to choose from all of which interact with each other and with the environment around you. For example: if you needed to sink a boat in order to acquire a Starite you could summon up an iceberg and drop it on the thing, or you could put a pile of meat on it then put a giant squid in the water, or you could strap a time bomb onto a platypus and let him swim nearby. Every puzzle has endless solutions; there is no static way to solve a given level. The fun in this game is found in the player’s own imagination and creativity. Scribblenauts is a modern playground, brilliant in its simplicity.

Bioshock was another game which presented the player with a variety of different routes to take to achieve success, but realistically there were only ever about five ways to get something done, be it the turning of a lever or the killing of some terrible mutant. While Scribblenauts lacks the superior graphics and compelling storyline of 2K’s masterpiece, its open-endedness is considerable. Given a little tweaking, almost any strategy a player can conceive of will eventually work. If this kind of variety was applied to a game with a plot and environment of Bioshock quality the result would be fantastic.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the game’s signature mechanic is how summoned items interact with each other. If you summon up a knight and a king, the knight will guard the king. If you summon up a knight and a hippie, they will regard each other with confusion. If you summon up a hippie and a bag of chips, the hippie will satisfy his munchies. While the depth for these characters and items is understandably limited, they each act according to their programmed nature. Material physics and independent NPC’s are hardly new to the medium, but I have never encountered them on such a grand scale. Scribblenauts represents a digital world where not just a few things, but nearly everything functions as it does in the drab old non-gaming world (given the limitations of the game's make up, of course). The execution of this mechanic is a little shaky in Scribblenauts, but I believe that this game represents another important step toward crossing the great valley between the artistic medium of gaming and this crazy place we call reality.


  1. Oddly enough, Scribblenauts reminds me most of games like Grand Theft Auto, where just tooling around with the options available to you is often more fun than playing through the game in a linear fashion. This is certainly the case with Scribblenauts, where the levels begin to feel repetitive, and many of the most interesting words yield items with no practical puzzle-solving purpose. Just seeing what there is to summon and setting up deathmatches between mythical beasts is worth it, though.

    So, basically, it's like an open world game, but instead of having a large world to explore, you spend your time exploring and testing the limits of the imagination: both yours and the developers'. I propose a brand new term for Scribblenauts and future spin-offs that deal with similar concepts: instead of an "open world game," we ought to call it an "open mind game."

  2. I'm still playing around with it, but I feel like my creativity is significantly bottlenecked by the controls. I have a lot of creative ideas of how to solve each puzzle, but the execution of those ideas is so marred by the clunky mechanics that I get frustrated very quickly.

    It's such a good idea that needs better execution.

  3. I agree with you entirely. I'm reminded of the most frequent complaint about Doom 3 when it came out: What a great graphics engine, I can't wait until someone makes a game with it.

    It's clear that the people behind Scribblenauts spent all of their time testing the dictionary and working on it, and simply didn't focus enough on the basics of the controls and implementation. It's a fantastic idea, and I can't wait until someone makes a game with it.

  4. It even seems like switching the camera controls from d-pad to stylus or simply zooming the camera a little farther out while giving control of Maxwell to the d-pad would tighten things up a bit.

    I'm hoping for a sequel - I think with some polish and some re-examining this could be a, literally, awesome game.


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