Scribblenauts is more than a game; it’s a brilliantly devised test of one’s imagination. The artists, programmers, and designers from up and coming developer 5th Cell intentionally neglected to implement solutions for the game’s 200-plus puzzle challenges. The hope is that players can flex their creative muscles in just the right ways to generate their own resolutions. In a way, the player becomes a designer, a twist that makes for one of the year’s most original, satisfying, and irresistible experiences.
So how does the player fabricate solutions? The protagonist, who looks like every high school’s nerdy A/V club outcast, has the magical gift of being able to write a word on a notepad and have the physical representation of that word appear in his world. This is essentially the text equivalent to Harold’s purple crayon or Mickey Mouse’s wizard hat. If you write “boat,” a nautical vessel will be inserted into the game world, capable of transporting your character across water. If you write “snowstorm,” a blizzard will blanket the playfield. Real world functionality and physics are tied to all of the objects. You can use them for their intended purposes, and also in unexpected ways. To catch a butterfly, I could have fabricated a butterfly net. I instead lowered the butterfly into grab distance by placing an anchor on top of it.
I spent countless hours inserting objects into the world to see how they could be used. If you create a vampire, it will come after your character. However, you can counter its assault by creating a vampire hunter. In total there are over 10,000 different objects to play around with, many being recognized with multiple words. From this endless sandbox experience, it wouldn’t matter if there were a game here or not. Just messing around to see how the items you insert into the world interact with others is an impressive feat of programming.
By no means does this shortchange the actual game. All of the challenges stimulate your creativity in different ways, and many are unlike anything you’ve seen in a game before. How do you stop a cruise ship from running into an iceberg? How do you reunite a duckling with its family while avoiding the appetite of a hungry cat? How do you steal a museum’s most prized possession? Envisioning solutions is both hard and rewarding, but solving the riddles by using as few objects as possible (which the game pushes you to do through golf-like scoring system) is where my creative juices were joyously sapped. I spent hours on individual challenges, looking for newfangled solutions to raise my score. The mind-churning search for solutions is also enjoyable for groups of friends huddled around one screen.
When Scribblenauts is working the way it should, it is an undeniable blast. But unfortunately, this game’s skies are not always sunny. The touch-based character controls are touchy to the point that one miniscule tap on the screen can lead to a stage being restarted or a carefully planned strategy falling apart. Moreover, some of the objects I summoned into the world didn’t function the way I thought they would. NPCs also get in the way, blocking your ability to pick up an object. These irksome moments pop up more than I care to see. But in the end, I learned to work around them. It’s a bit of a crutch, but if you learn to play it through trial and error, you can manipulate the system to work in your favor.
Like LitteBigPlanet before it, Scribblenauts invites players to express their creativity in ways I never imagined. It’s one of my top games this year, and a DS game that has near limitless appeal.