in orbit

I mostly talk about video games and the world wide web

Sep202009

Scribble Me This



Scribblenauts is a game you may have heard of. Made by 5th Cell (makers of no games I've ever played, though Drawn to Life is easily their most popular release) this game just kind of popped out of nowhere during E3 this year. It ended up winning a number of 'Best In Show' awards (extremely rare for a DS game) and certainly was the most popular DS game shown off during that time period.

If you don't already know, the basic premise of Scribblenauts is that you solve puzzles by conjuring items. More or less any item can be spawned, from mundane things like types of food, to useful items like guns and swords, to animals, to mythical creatures (Kraken, Cuthlulu, Spring Heeled Jack, Jersey Devil, the list goes on) to downright ridiculous things like 'Ninja Shark' and 'Robosaur'. The levels of the game come in two types: action and puzzle. Puzzle levels generally you need to spawn something that someone (or something) in the level will find useful. For example early in the game you need to give a fireman, chef, policeman and doctor an item they will find useful. So, spawning an ax, butcher knife, billy club and stethoscope will win you the level. Action levels are more general and usually involve you murdering something and arranging items in order to complete the level.

Now bear with me, because I'm about to say something not overly flattering about Scribblenauts. The main issue with the game is that it feels very clumsy. Interaction between items is usually pretty limited and things usually only try and eat each other. And while there is a huge (and impressive) collection of things you can spawn, many of them are useless or even extraneous (I mean, will I ever really need to use baklava?). You end up using only a small collection of items to solve most of the puzzles, and of course you can purposely attempt to be more creative, but it often ends up sinking your proverbial ship.

An example, a few missions require you to get a person or thing to a new location on the map. In your way could be treachery and many perils. You could lead the thing along and fight off threats as they come, or you could spawn a helicopter, rope, and just airlift your subject to safety. I have attempted some kind of crazy scheme involving a ton of items or a crazy contraption numerous times, but often it ends with a colossal amount of failure. When that happens enough you end up busting out the old standbys and you finish the puzzle, but it feels sort of empty. It's weird to have so much at your disposal and potentially never using more than a small fraction of it.

That all said, when the game works, it works really well. As you play through the puzzles and they get more difficult you can end up stitching together some very elaborate things that don't always work exactly as planned, but many times a horrible failure can lead to a ridiculous victory. These moments make you feel like some kind of clumsy MacGuyver, where instead of inexplicably pulling off a ridiculous escape in your coffin jetski maybe the jetski hits a rock and does a flip in the air, explodes, catches a rope on fire and drops the starrite into your lap. Sure it wasn't elegant or at all what you intended, but it was pretty damned fun.

Weirdly Scribblenauts shares a lot in common with Far Cry 2. Not in any semblance of the gameplay of course, but in what exactly makes the game interesting to play. Far Cry 2 was very much about the experience of playing the game. The unpredictability that came with broken weapons and having Malaria. The war stories you told of the time you were sniping at some guys and an RPG exploded the truck next to you and you had to make a ridiculous run for cover because the grass you were standing in caught fire. Scribblenauts war stories are of course a bit more ridiculous (a lot more ridiculous, really) but that's where the true draw of the game lies. Telling your friends how you spawned a tiger to kill the leprechaun or that you discovered some insane thing.

That's really what games are about, or what the best games are about anyway. A major failing of game companies is thinking that the GTA3 series of games were popular because of the open world, and the subsequent burst of GTA3 'clones'. When people talk about GTA3, they don't talk about how big the world is, or how many missions the game has, they talk about the time they holed up at the car dealership and held off the army for 10 minutes before making a mad dash to a fast car and fleeing only to hit a ramp wrong and meet a watery demise.

Scribblenauts has that ability, and any game that can manage to make the player's individual experience the star of the show is okay by me. It's not perfect, but then again, I don't know if I'd want it to be. When everything goes terribly wrong and explodes in your face it's not frustrating, because now you have a story to tell for your troubles. Hitting reload isn't something you dread, it becomes something you almost look forward to, and there's something pretty great about that.
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