Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.
--Pablo Picasso

The things which I am unabashedly certain of grow fewer with every passing year.

As it turns out, I will not be a millionaire. My old comics will not suffer an astronomic increase in value. The golden heights of my youth will not live on, hermetically sealed from the ravages of time and memory, to comfort me in my old age. The songs I cherished growing up will most definitely be considered “lame” by today’s youth. I will never have enough time to play all the games I want to play.

But, I can certainly say that if one were to walk into any elementary school, in any part of the world, at any given recess on any given day, they would be treated to a spectacle of imagination that can only be the domain of inestimable, irresponsible youth.

The situation should be familiar to everyone. Sometime after cartilaginous bodies are filled to the brim with juice, cookies and Lunchables, a game is hatched. There are no physical boundaries, save for those that are hard-wired into the school’s topography. Equipment is at a bare minimum: an errant branch or eccentric stone taking the place of $3,000 entertainment centers or sports gear. Roles, objectives and laws can be bent, broken reshaped and recast at a whim.

This is a game in constant flux, with a multitude of players strutting across a tar-darkened blacktop stage.
“I have a rocket ship,” cries a child, setting the tone for the afternoon’s performance. “I’m a space-pirate, and I have you in my net,” says another. Soon, the respective crews are waging a war of survival centered around a delicate game of one-upmanship.

“I shot you!”
“No! I had a forcefield! Your beam bounced off me and hit you in the face.”
“That’s okay, because I have a clone that takes my place, and he has freeze-powers. POW, you're an ice-cube”

By the time the bell chimes its disheartening cry across the courtyard, a panoply of worlds, weapons and warriors have clashed and faded away. But the game continues, day after day, past the academic careers of the children in question, through their own brothers and cousins and sons and daughters. This is Calvinball on a Jungian scale.

It is not a game they play to gain fame or praise. They do not become stronger, lose weight, run faster as a result. The game is an exercise in creation and invention.

It’s a faculty of mine that has quietly evanesced.

When Scribblenauts presents me with an obstacle, my mind thinks only of the most straightforward solution. A cat stuck in a tree? Naturally, a superhero would rescue the poor kitty. Lever on a tall ledge? Rocketpack saves the day. Large gap to cross? Magic wings do the trick just fine, thank you.

Armed with an encyclopedia full of possibilities, I limit myself to the most successful of strategies.

The difficulty with a game this open lies in the very concept that makes it exciting to begin with, because the solutions are only as creative as the player. Once I discovered the infinite practicalities of rope, wings and glue, most of the puzzles became an affair of repetition. Sure, I could spawn a philosoraptor or a tractor beam but neither could really offer any help or work towards an answer. My instinct is to plow through the game’s rich content like a linebacker at a Sizzler – there can only be a straight, progressive line drawn directly to the endgame.

That opinion is as much a failure of mindset as my gameplay is a failure of inventiveness.

Scribblenauts is not a game that can be burned through in one sitting. It is not a fruit plucked from the hardcore player’s garden. It is a fine brew that must be quaffed in restless fits of hedonistic abandon – jabbed at between classes, while stalled on a runway, or while attempting to flee from the in-laws. Too much at any one given time and I gravitate towards the old familiar standbys. There is simply not enough imagination left in me to sustain an acceptable level of invention. Why bother outfitting my character with a leather jacket, gloves, and a pompadour if all I need to do is chop down a tree?

But approached at the end of the day, with downtime measurable by entire global revolutions, and the charm of the game’s design shines clear as day. It’s not about reaching an end, not about collecting X number of Starites. It’s about creation.

The fact that one can conjure a medusa to fight with a Hercules is reason enough to do exactly that. Despite the fact that the game keeps tabs on certain statistics, there is little need to fuss over completion time, points or trophies. What is fuss-worthy is the amount of things that can be brought into the world and the sometimes glorious, sometimes obvious ways that these things interact.

An atheist will run from a summoned God. Dogs will chase cats. Birds will devour worms. Somehow, this all seems natural. It colors your actions with a feeling of consequence in a way that childlike games of imagination-jitsu always gloss over.

-- -- -- -- -- --

Deep in thought, I wonder how I can save an ice-encapsulated Starite from a pool of magma. After a moment, I begin typing. “M-E-R-K-I-N.” A fancy wig drops from the sky and adorns my character.

Does this bring me closer to my goal? No, but it is fun. For Scribblenauts, that's reason enough.


Fantastic. Couldn't agree more.

If there is any game that could make me buy a DS, this is it. I'm sorely tempted...

I'm a game tester, and the day this game came out five of us went out and got it, and spent the day (while also working studiously, of course) idly playing the sandbox mode on the title screen and calling out to each other, Hey! You can make a vampire fight God, and he wins!

Punch in Game Tester. Go ahead. I'll wait. You can punch in Gamer too.

Now punch in Virgin. :/

I think most people miss the point of Scribblenauts. It is, perhaps, too innovative for its own good. It requires you to actually think creatively in order to get the most enjoyment out of it. Yes, it does have some control issues (sometimes majorly so), and yes, sometimes objects don't quite do what you expect them to. But the sheer amount of things in the game and the number of interactions between them simply dwarfs any other game I've ever seen. If you go into it with a mind of "How wacky can I solve this?" instead of just "How can I get through this as quickly as possible?", I think your enjoyment of the game will skyrocket and transcend any control issues.

I played through the first 2 worlds and I had a lot of fun.

-Im not creative enough because a pegasus was never something I really thought of before this.
-There are some game breaking items you can summon, dont look at walkthrough's they will ruin your experience.
-Control issues suck. When moving items the game sometimes interprets this as character movement wherein i jump into shark infested waters /sigh

Vampire > God

That makes sense, actually.

Great writeup Spaz. Just last night I found myself bored to tears while plowing through a few levels of the game and came to the same conclusion. "Lasso, again. Ugh." It's much more fun when I spend five or ten minutes on a puzzle instead of one minute.

I will find a way to use that UFO. Someday.

I don't think the "god" in the game is "God". It's "a god". You get the same thing by entering "Zeus".

Most action levels can be solved by gluing the starite to a pixie and then making a bat. The pixie follows the bat so you can lead it by moving the bat around. Of course you can also use the handcuffs+container trick, but I consider that cheating.

I do find that after a while I have developed a certain play style. The restriction on previously used items for 3 attempts to get a gold star on a level was a brilliant move. Going back and trying to get a gold star has caused me to realize new possibilities that I will then use on later levels.

Despite the frustrating control issues. (Especially the inexplicable choice to have the camera snap back to Maxwell when you're trying to move items around.) and the game-freezing bugs, this game goes beyond just being fun for me. I actually experience real joy when I find something new. Riding a parasaurolophus even made me tear up a little. Thanks for including my favorite childhood dinosaur, 5th Cell!

Great article. I liked your angle, and felt my hardcore-gamer-shell melt away as you snuck in memories from my childhood. I want to have ice-powers again, and not because it's part of a games ruleset, but rather because...I want to have ice-powers!

I've heard a few people get frustrated by this game, giantbombs review in particular. Apparently the things you conjure do not always interact well with the environment (e.g. you conjure a bridge to cross a stream and it glitches on you). Sounds like there's more than enough in the sandbox mode to get your money's worth though.

Is this coming out on PC anytime? Patches and mods sound key for a game like this.

Bravo. Excellent piece.

To the previous comment, I don't know any plans to bring this to the PC but I would certainly love to see it there.

Awesome article!

I've been playing this side by side with my kids, and it's been incredible. We talk a bit about it on tomorrows podcast, but they come up with ideas that just blow me away sometimes.

I can't seem to get the hostages who are tied to the cieling in the submarine level, but I'll think of something.

I discovered early on that a major, MAJOR key to this game can be engendering emotional responses from the living characters on the screen: love, fear, hunger, greed. You'd be amazed how much you can accomplish with a ghost and a piece of pizza, my son's two favorite tools.

Excellent article!

I'm still in love with the game, personally. I find that it is best served by playing a puzzle or two and then putting it down: it's a nice "quickie" game. That also means that, while I get frustrated at certain puzzles, I can always skip it and come back to it later.

I have been rather annoyed with how some reviewers keep complaining about the platforming elements. While I agree that it doesn't have Mario-quality mechanics, I don't feel that the platforming is the true purpose in the game. To be honest, I haven't had any serious issues with the platforming: if I screw up, a second try is typically all I need to complete it, which is more than I can say of other platformers. The creativity, as the author here points out, is more than enough fun for me. The very fact that this concept works at all is a triumph on all fronts, and should certainly be rewarded with my hard-earned cash.

I've been intrigued by Scribblenauts since I heard about it 6 months ago. The only gaming platform I own is a PC, but I haven't heard that this game will be ported.

As for burning thru the game vs. using creativity: I was watching my 7 yr old daughter play Crayon Physics yesterday. She was just burning thru the levels using a straight line and pushing the ball. After a while she tired of this and just started to play, making different shapes and doing different things. She switched from goal-based mode to exploration mode. It was cool to watch.

So, yeah, your enjoyment of a game can depend largely on your approach. Sometimes a game goes out of its way to allow for this, like Oblivion. However, there can be issues. In Oblivion for example, after doing a bunch of exploration and side quests, I was quite powerful when I started the main quest. Oblivion scales encounters based on your level. It scaled the monsters, but didn't scale the NPCs who help with certain missions. That made some of the quest missions almost impossible to complete, as the NPCs were immediately slain by the more powerful monsters and I had to deal with them all by myself.

garion333 wrote:

I will find a way to use that UFO. Someday.

If you need to move a cow, your UFO will do. Yay for livestock abduction!

Back to the game - as a game, it is fundamentally broken. The control issues are unforgivable because they would be so easily fixed. The whole rope+glue+jetpack combo is essentially a win button for many levels. I'm unable to complete one level because the game crashes every time I pick up the Starite.

As a piece of interactive enterainment software, however, it is without par. I have far more fun messing about with obscure items than I do with solving the puzzles the 'proper' way. I wish I was still a kid, or that I had kids of my own to enjoy the game vicariously through.

Look, I enjoyed the piece and all, but linking to a Calvin & Hobbes site is hazardous to my work and I would quite appreciate it if you would be so kind as to do that more often.