If you’re like us, you had high hopes for Scribblenauts. This little DS game represents something revolutionary not just for the DS’s library, but also (we’re being serious) for videogames as a whole. Forgive us if we sound hyperbolic here, but Scribblenauts is one of the most important games to come out this year.
…Which makes it all the more disappointing that it doesn't quite live up to its potential.
The central gameplay mechanic behind Scribblenauts is what got us so excited in the first place. The game enables you to type anything (and the developers emphasize “anything”) into the game’s keypad, and poof! It will immediately appear as an object for Maxwell, the game’s protagonist, to interact with. Want a teapot? It’s there. Want a cheesecake? You got it. Machine gun? Sure. We guarantee your first ten minutes with the game will be spent at the title screen, simply typing random things in just to see what pops up. (And no, you can’t type in dirty words, non-objects or copyrighted images. We tried.)
Above: Come on – even our grandma says “poop”
In each level, Maxwell is presented with a simple task that will lead him to a Starite, which he needs to grab to complete the level. Sometimes the Starite will be hidden, and you’ll need to do something to make it appear, but the solution will always involve summoning some object into existence to help you complete your task. Since you have tens of thousands of objects at your disposal, there are tons of unique ways to complete each puzzle, and due to the sheer number of inter-object relationships to exploit (zombies like eating brains, but tend to avoid open flames), you can solve each of the game’s puzzles in a way that ends up feeling refreshingly unscripted.
Above: An equally good use of your time
Above: picking up trash is so much better in a UFO
Scribblenauts is said to be special in that it encourages “emergent gameplay;” in fact, if you look up “emergent gameplay” on Wikipedia, you’ll see Scribblenauts mentioned right there in the description. You sometimes see examples of emergent gameplay in open-world games: by programming a wide variety of things to interact with, the developers hope players will craft their own experience with the tools they have. For instance, a number of Grand Theft Auto IV’s users have abandoned the game’s main quest (preset missions in which you commit crimes for money and power) in favor of making kickass stunt videos, or, in our case, pushing people down steps.
Without getting too off-topic, this creative flexibility is what makes Scribblenauts (and to a certain degree, videogames as a whole) special. Scribblenauts feeds off your creativity – if you decide to light a cat on fire in order to light a dark room, you’ve solved the puzzle your way. Yes, you’re working with pre-rendered assets and animations created by the developers so technically, the gameplay isn’t truly open-ended, but it’s pretty darn close, and it’s pretty darn cool.
But by now, you’re probably wondering about that “doesn't quite live up to its potential” comment. Well, about that…
Given our gushing over the game’s concept, you’d think we were ready to name Scribblenauts Game of the Year. But having played it beyond the first few levels, we now are keenly aware of the game’s major flaws, which we’re obligated to point out for you here. Some of these problems are inherent flaws with the game’s concept, but too many more come from poor execution of the game’s mechanics.
We’ll refrain from critiquing the game’s overall design too much, because your appreciation of it will have a lot to do with your individual play style. Turns out, we’re less fond of engineering elaborate and creative solutions to each puzzle than we thought we’d be – instead of creating a Rube Goldberg masterpiece for each stage, we often found ourselves using simple things like “jetpack” and “rope” in order to get ahead. (That combination got us through a pretty large chunk of the levels, too, by the way.) Yes, we know: the game rewards you in Ollars (in-game currency) if you push yourself to come up with new objects, but it also rewards you for not using too many objects, and a jetpack is pretty much one-stop-shopping.
Above: “Well, I could engineer a rope bridge out of some glue and string, or..."
You only really have to stretch your mind if you're replaying the levels for full completion (you're challenged to complete the same level three times without repeating any objects), but we found ourselves losing interest pretty quickly. Still, if you’re an engineer-type who values creativity over pragmatism (read: if you don’t intend to just use the jetpack all the time), you should still know that, as much as you’ll go nuts with Scribblenauts, you’ll still have to deal with some other irritating game mechanics.
The interface for interacting with objects is simple but unforgivably clunky. You tell Maxwell to go to a location by tapping it – he’ll jump over small gaps automatically, but unfortunately, he won’t stop moving forward even if continuing means jumping into a pool of deadly lava. You frequently have to tap summoned items that are far away in order to interact with them, or drag them around to attach them to other objects. Far too many times, we’d try to tap an object but miss slightly, which the game interpreted as us commanding Maxwell to go to where we tapped. Let’s just say that words came out of our mouths after our sixteen-billionth accidental lava-induced death that would not be picked up by any polite speech-recognition device.
Too often, the puzzles adhere to the same sort of archaic trial-and-error philosophy of a bad point-and-click adventure: later levels feel more like you’re trying to guess the intentions of the developers, rather than coming up with your own creative solutions. Scribblenauts and classic point-and-click adventures both suffer from overly ambiguous in-game hints, but at least in Scribblenauts, you can summon up little sprite versions of the developers and drop elephants on them to vent your frustration.
Above: That’s your hint? Someone is definitely getting an elephant to the face for this one
In the end, we came away from Scribblenauts wondering if we had missed the point. There were a few puzzles with satisfyingly original solutions, but instead of feeling empowered by the freedom to write anything we wanted, we felt more confined by the limitations of core mechanic and the game’s lousy controls. If the developers had come up with more elegant puzzles (i.e., ones that can’t be solved with jetpacks) and given us the option to control Maxwell with the d-pad or face buttons, we’d be able to recommend Scribblenauts to everyone. As it stands, only patient gamers with a love of creative engineering will be able to overlook its design flaws and enjoy it for the unique and innovative game that it is.
Sep 15, 2009