"Game of the Year"?! Part Two
And the winner is...?
Today I examine the game that was the winner of multiple game conference awards, received the beaming reviews quoted yesterday, and has now sold over a million copies.
The game is Scribblenauts.
With all its praise and adulation, Scribblenauts is a unique title. I don't believe that's in question. Write a word, and an object appears which represents the word. Write T-Rex, and a T-Rex appears. Write steak. A steak appears. Typically, the T-Rex would eat the steak, and perhaps, after enough steak, the dinosaur becomes friendly. Very quickly, a dino-friendship hatches, and the ability to birth a dinosaur, a spaceship, or an internet meme out of thin air constitutes where the game has acquired much of its fanbase among the internet and the gaming media.
There's other ways to encourage friendship, more specifically, a "mind control device" and "Cupid's bow," can work, but the most obvious way to befriend just about anything that has an AI and is large, whether found in the stage or if it happens to be aggressive when summoned, is to feed it. Friendly creatures can be ridden on, and generally try to help Maxwell. If it isn't clear, food items, as well as other methods can be used to coax animals into helping along.
Cars and transportation devices can be ridden in, clothing, like spring shoes can be worn. Some devices fly, some animals fly. There are several methods to get around. Space shuttles, wings, pterodactyls, jetpacks, pogo sticks, and even springy beds can be used to gain height. Strap a saddle on anything alive and large enough, and you can ride it, though it might not behave as you wish.
There are smaller items, as well. Virtually anything Maxwell, the protagonist, can hold can be thrown. Some objects cling to things, or are sticky. Glue can bind things together, a paperclip can as well. Others can store things. One "cheap" internet favorite, the handcuffs, can be paired with any item that acts like a container to quickly beat many stages, in fact.
The goal in Scribblenauts is simple: Each stage is a puzzle, where the player's goal is to follow an objective and/or connect Maxwell to the "Starite," at the end. The player must create a way to reach the Starite or satisfy certain conditions based on a hint before the stage. The former is called an action stage, while the latter is a puzzle stage. Hints are typically vague, and sometimes downright confusing, especially when an item doesn't behave as one would expect it should. Each stage has a "Par" which is simply explained as the developers' suggestion for the number of created items it should take to complete the stage, though you may use more or less during a normal play-through. Additionally, in an attempt to thrust creativity on the player, the game has a challenge to beat stages three times in a row without using the same word twice. There is a limit to the number of things that can be summoned at once, but it's just so there isn't too much going on for the DS to handle. Rewards are given for clearing stages quickly, with fewer items, called, "ollars," a currency which can be used to buy new stages, avatars, and similar content.
I hate to say it, but that's the reality of the game. There's not much more there. The idea is that the player can come up with literally several thousands of items to use to reach a Starite. This is the concept the game has sold on. On paper, it sounds great, but in my opinion, the game's execution isn't all gaming media has cracked it up to be.
Scribblenauts utilizes an engine developers call "Objectnaut." It's really a basic "Yes/no" or "fill in the blank" system defining properties of everything in the game. Does the object float? Yes/no. Is the object alive? Yes/no. Can the object hold things? Yes/no. How heavy is the object? Beyond that, there isn't much more. From the developer's standpoint, once the groundwork for the Objectnaut engine is completed, most of what remains is artwork, a lot of yeses or nos, and a couple blanks to be filled. The most complicated aspect left is the reaction system: Mice scare elephants, cats are aggressive to mice, dogs are aggressive to cats, and the T-Rex likes steak.
Implemented in the game, this means creatures, objects, and items do behave with simple AI patterns. Fish swim, birds fly, bugs crawl, and people walk around. There's not much more complication beyond that. A rare word here or there can take Maxwell to a different stage. This event isn't practical, or truthfully, even close to exciting. Each area of the game is conceptually identical to the one before it, though the map might have a pit with an object inside or place Maxwell in a building with multiple floors. This results in stages that are bland, lifeless, and have no memorable features. There's a cave, a city, a forest, and about a dozen more, all basically backgrounds, but there's nothing unique here. The stages are sparked to life by various items, objects, and creatures, but certainly not the landscape.
There's a few major problems, though. For one, the game only allows Maxwell to be controlled via the touch screen of the DS. If the player is positioning a summoned item, and accidentally taps the screen at an empty spot, Maxwell will run there. It happens a lot. Maxwell seems to run to any mistap, often falling into pits, taking on angry animals, or just causing a lot of trouble and annoyance from slight player error. Furthermore, Maxwell doesn't always perform as desired when the player does want him to move.
He often won't jump with the precision timing needed to get over a small gap and even worse, sometimes he won't jump at all. He'll dash left first when you tap the right side of the screen. He'll scramble around. He just performs inadequately. Controlling Maxwell is an entirely frustrating experience. His behavior genuinely is noticeable within the first few stages, if not immediately. I would describe the problem with the phrase "Game-breaking." Picture nearly reaching the end of a relatively long stage, unlocking the Starite, and all that's left is simply to steer Maxwell from point "A" to point "B." When the second location is tapped, Maxwell takes off in the opposite direction and falls into the pit of an aggressive animal or piranha infested water: Maxwell dies, and the stage begins again.
That's how Scribblenauts works. I might not have the objectnaut system "right" to the nth degree, and I certainly haven't listed every type of item, but that's what constitutes the formula of a game praised like no other in 2009, or perhaps, even the decade. I can certainly understand excitement at a game giving the player a completely open method to solve puzzles, but the truth is, when there are fifty words that all do the same thing a car can, does it really matter which is used? When a T-Rex, a Velociraptor, and Cthulhu all behave the same way as an Elephant, except they need to be shot with a mind-control device first, is it really so impressive that all four can be summoned? What's the difference between a lion, a tiger, a cheetah, and a leopard? Is there one? Why does it matter to the player that all three can be summoned? The virtue that so many options exist to solve one puzzle simply serves to bring me to the ultimate awareness that there's nothing special or particularly interesting about anything Scribblenauts allows one to craft. Beyond a few simple "Yes/no" style reactions, a graphic and an animation, as well as interactions with a few specific things, nearly everything in Scribblenauts just falls into one of a few basic categories, and I find this to be profoundly disappointing.
Don't forget to let us know what you think of Scribblenauts and my opinion of it, and be sure to catch Part Three, criticizing the coverage of the game before launch, planned for tomorrow!