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Scribblenauts Early Play — Can One Line Make a Poem?

Scribblenauts has gotten a lot of hype for its word entry mechanic, and I wouldn’t be a card-carrying game-artist without checking it out.  What’s interesting is that the word entry mechanic is all it’s got. Everything else about the game is pretty weak. So the question is: can one element of a game be good enough to overcome all of the weak parts? No real spoilers below.

So the first thing that you notice about Scribblenauts is that the game is not what you would call polished. The art is very sketchy and simple. The character is a cute concept (and the hat is SO RAD), but I at least have this nagging feeling that all of this art could have been better rendered. I know “scribble” is in the title, but I kind of reminds me of that cartoon “Home Movies” and Squigglevision — which was the way that Brandon Small tried to cover for the weaker animation in the early part of the series. It’s cute that you use amateurism as a brand, but that doesn’t make it less amateur. Then again, I’m not an artist. Flame me if I got this way wrong.

The sound is bad. Sorry, no controversy here. It’s just plain wrong. Listen to it for a few seconds if you doubt me, and then shut it off for the sake of your poor ears.

The game starts with a very boring and very slow tutorial. It teaches you the real basics: walking, throwing things, filling things, getting stars, by teasing them out in isolated, unchallenging, text-heavy segments. It’s an awful experience. If I didn’t know cool stuff was coming, I would never have gotten through it. I know that’s cruel, but there is nothing cool about this opening experience, and I quit games early if they don’t grab me.

On to the game proper. The game is a sequence of puzzles. (There’s also an action mode you can take if you wuss out of the puzzles, but I didn’t try it.) Each puzzle is a scenario with a few different objects or characters. You get a text description of the goal of the level, which is something like “Save the sandwich, but don’t upset the hippie by killing the ants.”  Then you type in words to create objects to help you with that goal. When you complete the level, you get a score based on number of objects used, time to complete the levels, and “style”, an attribute I have yet to figure out. You also get some achievements for using new words, not being violent, being as savior (?), and a bunch of other random stuff you can’t predict. Maybe the number of achievements gives you style.

So since that’s the core mechanic, how is the word input/object creation mechanic? In a word, OSSIM. The dictionary is as amazing as everyone says. I was deliberately trying to stump it with weird words. Gazelle? Check. Hoverboard? Check.  Javelin? Check. There was only one word of the literal hundreds I tried that did not register (“grabber”) and even I’ll admit that this word is ambiguous. The system is honestly pure magic. You just want to keep trying new words. You will continually be astounded that they have an appropriate image for your crazy imagination, and that many of those images work in natural ways in the puzzles before you.

The use of the objects is another matter. There’s a physics system in place to handle object interactions, but it’s necessarily simple given how much it has to bear. That means it’s sometimes sloppy.  Vehicles get stuck in crevices, the character doesn’t move with any accuracy and so often overshoots, and lining things up has a bit too much noise. This is compounded by the fact that you have to click on very small objects (take the candy corn object, for instance) and thus will often miss or click on the wrong object.  And there’s also the fact that sometimes the objects don’t work the way you expect, like the time when a dishrag couldn’t clean up on oil spot but a mop could. I know in my mind that all of these things are inescapable problems from having such a robust vocabulary, but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating or disappointing.

So ultimately, the whole game boils down to this — does the truly unbelievable vocabulary system make up for all the wonky parts of the game? For me, the game is a clever toy, and the word selection is nothing short of amazing, but I ultimately can’t get that into it because the rest of the experience is so weak. That’s just my opinion though.  It may be for you that the word play is cool enough to dwarf everything else.

Matthew Arnold, the 19-century poet and literary critic, famously criticized the works of the earlier Romantic poets (particularly Shelley), arguing that they were too concerned with single lines and images, and that great works need have a sense of unity from subordinating all of those parts to a whole.  Poets and critics have gone back and forth on the need for unity ever since. I guess games aren’t so different.

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  1. James C. smith says

    The trick was so good I don’t care about the rest. The most fun part is chalenge mode where you do the same level 3 different ways

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