What can Scribblenauts teach us? When playing 5th Cell’s ingenious puzzle game for the Nintendo DS, I know that I should be viewing its innovations in terms of what it says of gaming’s potential—that its vocabulary-driven object creation suggests a possibility with regards to the player’s choice (one of game development’s most prominent debates). The ability to create and interact with virtually any object that can be thought up gives a nearly-infinite set of variations to problem solving, and suggests a different “open world” model than the one most AAA games currently employ. Indeed, video game wunderkind Jason Rohrer’s new two-player storytelling game Sleep is Death angles in that direction by allowing the players to use game development tools to interact with each other, using a limited palette but a canvas with few-to no boundaries.
Unfortunately, when I play Scribblenauts, I find that the game speaks less about its medium and more about myself.
Scribblenauts uses a “writing” feature in conjunction with the DS stylus; with either an on-screen keyboard or a tablet-style letter recognition program: You enter in a word or phrase and the item appears on the screen to interact with. The player avatar, a generic young hero-type called Maxwell, must use your creations to collect a set of plot coupons called “Starites,” with points awarded for creativity and originality (There is also a regrettable score counter tied to keeping the number of objects you create “under par,” a counter-intuitive feature that is being removed for the game’s sequel). The game’s primary flaw is also its most touted, an awkward control scheme which is also stylus-driven (also to be adjusted in the next release), but so much has been made of that concern that it hardly seems worth addressing here.
No, what’s more interesting is that the game’s seemingly limitless potential can quickly work you up into a froth of self shame. I never had much case to doubt the adequacy of my imagination until I began playing Scribblenauts. Here’s a test for you: A little girl is trying to get to her cat, who is trapped up on the roof of her house. You’ll get your Starite reward for getting the cat down. How will you do so? The game rewards you further for completing the same puzzle three times in a row with different words used; so, you could use three variations of the word “ladder,” but that is tedious and not at all in the spirit of the game. You’re also rewarded for using words that you’ve never used before—so it feels a little like cheating to use the airplane, helicopter, trampoline, hot air balloon, angel wings, flying saucer, or jetpack that I used in the previous few puzzles. Quickly, your options (for maximum reward) begin to narrow. I use a lasso to snare the cat and pull it down, relying upon the game’s cartoony art style to be indicative as to how its physics will operate. But how will I follow that up with two more creative solutions?
Likely, you’ve come up with some solutions of your own, already. And that’s fine—so did I, eventually. But there are a whole lot of puzzles, and you start eating up words quickly. It isn’t long before you start looking for loopholes—asked to create farm animals, you make “Rooster” and “Hen” as separate items. But there’s little satisfaction to be had, there.
When the game is first turned on, the title screen offers an unrestricted play session, one without a goal set: just throw different words at each other, see what happens. If you create with enough variety, you unlock different backgrounds for the playspace. It’s a smart idea; you get to see how the vocabulary system works, can experiment with extreme scenarios (God vs. Cthulu vs. Longcat) without messing up a puzzle. But as the backgrounds fail to appear, you quickly find yourself locked into the Scribblenauts paradox: given so many choices, you begin to suffer for lack of ideas.
The Grand Theft Auto series provided one of the earliest examples of the “open world” idea, one in which you could go anywhere, seemingly do anything. The first time that I sat down to take in an installment of that series, I was a little embarrassed how quickly my choices collapsed down to “tool around in a car” and “blow stuff up.” I’ve always been an advocate of nonlinear gaming—as an RPG fan, the genre’s increasing linearity has been a point of contention with me—but when games get to be too formless, a level of nihilism sinks in.
Scribblenauts doesn’t have that problem, its puzzle system is very directed, but in taunting you with your own surfeit of imagination, it hints at the same issues. It is a brilliant game, but only so long as you can keep up with it.
Scribblenauts. Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment. Developer: 5th Cell. Release Date: September 15, 2009. Platform: Nintendo DS. ESRB: Everyone 10+. ESRB Descriptors: Comic Mischief, Cartoon Violence. To purchase, click here.