Thursday, October 8, 2009


The catchphrase for 5th Cell's Scribblenauts for the Nintendo DS is "Write Anything, Solve Everything." It drew a lot of attention at trade shows for its ambitious promise that players would be able to manifest almost any object just by spelling it out. Despite the praise, I remained highly skeptical. How could such a small development team possibly account for all the words a player might pose? Not only would it take a ridiculous amount of labor just to program in all the words and have them tied to objects, but it would be an even more impossible task to ensure that the practically infinite combinations (e.g. cat and dog, cop and robber, water and fire, etc.) played out in logical interactions. Having now played the retail release for myself, I am both impressed and disappointed.

I am genuinely impressed by how many words it is able to recognize. Yes, even working within the strict criteria--only physical objects, no proper names, no shapes, no places, no races or cultures, nothing copyrighted, nothing age inappropriate--you will come across some basic omissions. Sometimes a single object definition is stretched a tad loose to match multiple words. Nevertheless, it works better than I ever would have dreamed. I won't spoil things, but I'll say that it works more often than not, and my attempts to stump the game yielded some of the most pleasant surprises.

The object interaction is not as good, but again it's far better than I would have expected, considering how impossible the concept sounded. Friendly characters pretty much do nothing, while hostiles will destroy everything. Some virtuous characters will target evil ones, but it is somewhat random who will come out on top, making the game not a very good way to settle fantasy battles. Also, animals seem to be arbitrarily either friendly or hostile. That is largely the extent of interaction for lifeforms. Tools and vehicles may sound less exciting, but they are where the real fun is, especially when you get into the science fiction stuff.

Even though Scribblenauts includes no multiplayer modes, the experience is much enhanced when tossing ideas back and forth in real time with others. Actually, I grew mildly frustrated at my own evident lack of imagination. While others were staging Armageddon or somehow reenacting Star Wars, I could think only of copyrighted or obscene terms. I certainly can't blame the game, however, for my own failings.

Unfortunately, the game has more severe flaws that the developers must take credit for. Up to now, I've mostly been describing the interactive title screen, which is probably the best part of Scribblenauts. It's no wonder that the game demoed so well, if trade show attendees only experienced the title screen, where players are free to stage whatever scenarios they want with nothing at stake.

Once you actually get into the main, objective-driven modes, the mechanics fall apart. The game is borderline unplayable due to some horribly misguided design choices. The big problem is that almost everything is controlled via the touchscreen. That includes moving the player character, accessing and typing to the notepad, placing objects, and using or equipping objects with the player character. As has been the trouble with nearly every stylus-based action game, the burden of this many functions is simply too great for the imprecise touch recognition. The more elaborate the scenario, the greater the likelihood that something will go horribly wrong when the game misinterprets your intentions. Too often I would attempt to grab an object to the right of my character, only to end up tapping blank space and sending him sailing off in that direction to his doom. What makes it all so baffling is that the D-pad and face buttons both only control the camera, which is itself surprisingly dodgy in a 2-D game. It's such a shame that, after working so hard to bring the concept to fruition, 5th Cell completely flubbed the more basic platforming elements.

The thrill of Scribblenauts lasted a good hour for me. Those with greater imaginations or vocabularies could get more out of it, but it does fall apart once you try to actually play it as a game. Yet I still feel it is a noteworthy and important title. Broken though it is, it is still a remarkably ambitious design, which may yet be fixed for a future sequel. It is also a game that will have you days later at work suddenly and excitedly wondering what this or that word might yield. That alone makes it worth a try.


Czardoz said...

Did you try "black hole" or "time machine"?

Henry said...

This game just went to 11.

Meanwhile my attempts at "sadomasochism" and "heterosexual" have ended in complete failure...