Friday, September 18, 2009

A Game Worth Ten Thousand Words

I've been waiting for Scribblenauts for a long time; basically since I first heard about it. For those who haven't heard, it's a DS Game where you can create whatever you want by just writing it. Need to cross a gap? Write "wings" and attach them to your character, or write "Helicopter" hop in and take off. Enemies to deal with? Sure you can summon any firearm, explosive or melee weapon that fits your fancy but that's such small, primitive thinking. Summon a Ninja, or a hoard of robot zombies, or a Cthulhu to do your bidding for you. Conjure a cloud of lightning and fry them up Storm style. Or just drop a kitchen sink on them repeatedly.

I can't remember the last time I read an advertising tag-line that seemed so appropriate.

What I have said may not have piqued your interest. You may be laughing at me now, scoffing that only nerds get excited about playing games were words are your primary weapon. I will concede that using words to exert physical change on the surrounding world is a fantasy almost every nerd has had at some point in their life, (and the basis for 9 out of 10 magick systems) but I assure you, this is a game for everybody who likes creativity. You don't need a terribly broad vocabulary to go wild. You can try to see how many puzzles you can solve using only ninjas (my count is only 5 so far, but I'm optimistic I'll hit at least 10), or explosives. Or you can see how many puzzles can be solved sans-violence. Believe me when I say this is the most creative game in a long time, and easily the most important video game, design-wise, since Braid.

The core game follows your basic "Find the star to clear the level" formula and there are a number of different themed worlds, each with eleven Action levels and eleven Puzzle levels. In the puzzle stages, the star item, here called a Starite, is invisible until you fulfill a condition, like creating an appropriate object (instruments for a band), reuniting something or somebody (gathering flowers into a basket), or performing some kind of action (knocking over a stack of bottles balanced on a table). As far as I've played, the puzzle levels tend to be much easier than the action levels, where the starite is present and awaiting retrieval from the start, but surrounded by all kinds of hazards and traps, including those which can actually destroy the Starite itself, in which case, you fail. What results is a delightfully refreshing take on action and puzzle solving in video games. If you use a crate to solve a puzzle in Scribblenauts, you have nobody to blame but your self.

The lexicon isn't perfect. Naughty stuff, like racial slurs, drugs, alcohol, and sexual material are all taboo, because this is a title intended for everybody. This is no great disappointment, but true wordsmiths will manage to find a few other holes in their playthrough. So far, the game has failed to provide me with greaves and a taser. I can understand a lack of archaic leg armor, but a taser? Really? Then again, the game shows an intimate familiarity with gaming and internet memes, so the omission might be a show of solidarity for... That Guy. Sadly, the game adheres to copyright law out of necessity, which means you won't be able to summon anybody from the eclectic bunch below.
Found on Kotaku, who found it on Tiny Cartridge. My Personal Favorites are Conan O'Brian, Tobias Funke, and Travis Touchdown.

Really, Scribblenauts has only one real flaw, but it is a doozy: All of the action in Scribblenauts is performed on the touch screen with the DS' stylus. Even this isn't so much a flaw as a stylistic choice, since most non-videogamers find touch controls to be far more intuitive and accessible than button inputs. Unfortunately, this set up also suffers from a severe lack of precision. Sometimes, like when you are trying to attach a defibrillator to a comatose creature, or glue a dingo to a baby, (these are entirely hypothetical examples mind you) the item you are fiddling with will 'go red' because it is illegally overlapping with something else. When this happens, your character, Maxwell, will occasionally attempt to trot over to wherever you are pointing, heedless of whatever harm may be in the way, because the stylus also controls his movement. Other times you may try to get him to move, like when avoiding a murderous spring-heeled Jack, and he will just stand there and pull a stupid face. The touch screen is certainly ideal for spelling words and placing or combining items in the play field, but I would have preferred a more traditional set up for movement (D-Pad to run, 'A' to Jump, B to use an item). Apparently my complaints conform to the wikipedia standard (bottom sentence of the third paragraph). How appallingly normal of me.

So in closing, if you have a DS, you should own Scribblenauts as well, awkward controls be damned. It's $30 you won't regret. If you buy it and fail to have fun with it, later this week I will post a list of winning word/item combinations on Biased Video Gamer Blog to help show you how it's done.

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