Thursday, September 17, 2009

Review: Scribblenauts

What kind of world is this that a game as adorable as Scribblenauts gets tangled up in some sort of ugly race controversy? Resident Evil 4 I could understand (actually, I couldn’t), what with all the blood and death and stuff, but Scribblenauts? In this game, I have personally summoned a Behemoth, God, Cthulu and a three-headed dragon to battle for universal supremacy at the top of a fiery volcano and even that was squishy and cute. On top of that, the outcome of the battle was inaccurate. I would hope no one is seeking out Scribblenauts for a crash course on contemporary race relations, and actually learning something.

Still, everyone should be seeking out this game. My copy came with a stupid hat that doesn’t fit my head. To an ordinary person that might suggest the game he or she was playing was intended for an age group he or she did not still belong to. But I have a gigantic head and am happy to say Scribblenauts provides enough humor, diversity and fun to satisfy even my obese brain.

The premise of the gameplay is rather simple. You play as a kid named Maxwell and you need to collect Starite. You can summon items into the environment to help Maxwell or just to see how they interact with the things around them. You do so by spelling out the name of the item, disambiguating what you mean if necessary, and placing the thing in a position in the level where it can logically exist. The game precludes trademarked material, profanity, (most) controversial imagery, and things other than common nouns from being inserted. However, as has been widely reported, the list of things you can insert in the game is over 20,000 terms long. The only other real limits the game imposes are maximum new item counts specific to each level. Fortunately, you can scrap items that are no longer useful and summon new ones whenever you want.

There are about 220 levels in the game, eleven action and eleven puzzle levels for each of the game’s ten worlds. Completing levels gives you “ollars” which you can use to purchase new worlds and new avatars. Worlds don’t cost very much, which relieves the pressure to complete everything level perfectly. Aside from differences in motif, each world boasts challenges specific to its denizens and topography. Action levels require Maxwell to get to the Starite via whatever means possible. Puzzle levels involve fulfilling objectives to unlock Starite. There are often many many ways to go about completing each kind of level, and in fact, Scribblenauts encourages the player to go back to a level and finish it in multiple ways. Advanced modes for each level are available once it’s completed, wherein the player has to accomplish what the level asks three consecutive times without inserting the same item twice. For some challenges this is a rather simple task. Finding three ways to help an old man see better isn’t a real head-scratcher. Others would require a lot of thought and experimentation. And the game rewards unique and uncommon solutions over boring ones, so there’s little incentive to zoom through an objective.

On this point is where Scribblenauts really shines. The simplicity of the concept belies what must have been an undeniably huge undertaking of not only articulating thousands of objects but mapping out the relationship each would have with another. Sentient members of a level have color-coded bubbles appear above them that communicate their mood and what they want. Predators will target anything they can eat, termites attack wooden objects, magnets attract metal, and professionals of all sorts will seek out attire, equipment and vehicles that suit their work. Moreover, adding locations will often mean adding their regulars (e.g. skyscrapers will contain businessman, intergalactic wormholes will contain aliens). That so much attention was given to the thousands of terms in the game’s lexicon is what makes the whole enterprise spring to life.
Of course, the potential in Scribblenauts is difficult to resist on its own. Size is about the only restriction for an item’s inclusion in the game: there is no real moral or rational compass to follow. For instance, one puzzle early on in the game asks that you help a kid knock down a piñata at a birthday party. Of course, you can give him a bat. But you can also give him an assault rifle or a start a fire or mount a pterodactyl and cut the rope of the piñata from above using a shuriken. All will get you some Starite. You have an extraordinary command over how much fun you have with the game.

However, the experience is marred by a few frustrating design decisions. Everything in the game is controlled with the stylus, except the camera which is handled by the d-pad. Ordinarily, dragging Maxwell with the stylus is fine, but if a situation calls for precise movement or picking up smaller objects—which is often the case—things get a little sticky. Certain mechanics, like the adhesive and rope connections, are very difficult to execute. The imprecision of the stylus is compounded by the camera, which automatically shifts back to Maxwell once it’s been away from him for too long. I can’t count how many times I tried to pick up something only to have the camera move suddenly, resulting in Maxwell moving somewhere I didn’t want him to be.

What’s worse is that certain aspects of the physics in the game actually prohibit some more complicated ideas. It’s next to impossible to use objects that are heavy in real life as believable counterweights or anchors in the game or to enact the kinds of makeshift structures akin to games like World of Goo. Perhaps I’ve just been spoiled by more recent physics simulations, but the preclusion of this type of problem solving in Scribblenauts is disappointing. Some lapses in AI and imprecise word recognition also rear their ugly heads from time to time.

I can’t recommend the game enough though, despite these flaws. An irresistible game concept has become a wonderful and refreshingly complete title. Every corner of the Scribblenauts is furnished with an arresting and colorful art style that complements the free-flowing and lighthearted nature of the game. Throw in a level editor and a freeroaming title screen and there’s little else to demand of a game at retail. It’s easy to simultaneously reflect on how much the game executes well and how much room for improvement there is in a potential follow-up. If Warner Bros. is to be believed we’ll be getting a great deal more than that.

Can I be the first to ask for a deliberately offensive version? One where even if you trying your best to avoid being racist as you insert items into a level, you inevitably summon some horrible cultural blemish that makes you ashamed to be human? The ball is in your court, 5th Cell…