"Scribblenauts" Lets Gamers Play God

"What will you write?"

The teaser adorning the back of the Scribblenauts box is taunting me. Four simple words, probably written by some marketing agent slaving away in the basement of Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment to entice a curious young target demographic into trying developer 5th Cell's latest experiment in DS-era metagaming.

It's innocent enough as taglines go, but that simple phrase strikes a chord deep within my cold, cynical heart. It dares me to find fault with a concept I've long desired, a game that both stands on the merits of its own entertainment value and serves as a backdoor introduction to the fundamentals of game design.

It wouldn't be quite so bad if the game didn't deliver on that teaser. The single most innovative game of 2009 to date, Scribblenauts is what would happen if God and Jonathan Blow's time-twisting platformer Braid had a love child.

Surely this is what Lucifer felt like.

Remember Harold and the Purple Crayon, the children's book about a toddler who would draw his way into and out of a series of adorable misadventures? Scribblenauts' Maxwell is what would happen if Harold grew up and developed a fetish for acquiring in-game collectables (dubbed "Starites" in his case). Players enable Maxwell's Starite obsession by creating items from a database of thousands of entries and applying them to the task at hand.

Starite sitting in a shark tank? Skewer the shark with a harpoon, cook up some shark repellent to drive it off, or hire a kraken to eat it. (But don't forget your SCUBA gear if you're going in there yourself.) Starite across a gorge? Snag it with a grappling hook, jump on a trampoline, and hope for the best, or grow some wings and fly across. As long as the few rules its puzzles have are followed, Scribblenauts doesn't care how it gets done, giving players a rare level of freedom even in a generation whose games each claim to have more open-world aspects than the last.

Practically nothing about Scribblenauts is really explained. Maxwell likes Starites, and some unnamed omnipotent force just happens to follow him around and summon things from the ether. Maxwell doesn't have to get his Starites; the game doesn't progress unless he does, but that force (being you, and thus sometimes a bastard) can just as easily summon a leopluradon to eat Maxwell. Either way, nothing's stopping you—the only end-game power-up to be obtained is a more productive imagination.

But Scribblenauts doesn't appeal to our base desires, to our impulses to hoard and conquer. It instead demands that we learn, that we create tools and put them to use, and that we overcome the next obstacle in a different manner from the method we used to overcame the last. In a world dominated by Pokemon and Playboy: The Mansion, Scribblenauts is an unabashedly Promethean trip down Sesame Street.

To naysay it, then, makes me feel like a devil—and even I can be summoned in Scribblenauts. Satan, adversary, accuser, the morning star. Summon an abyss and put a beast in it. (Most of my forms will try to kill each other.)

Think for a minute about the implications of Scribblenauts. A series of puzzles of increasing difficulty that can be solved by the judicious application of everything. Just how inventive are you? How many iterations of the same theme can you endure before the temptation to solve every problem with a jetpack and a flamethrower overwhelms the charming sense of resourcefulness that Scribblenauts tries to encourage? Do you really want to find the breaking point of your creativity? This isn't a game; it's a psychological assessment.

Not a legitimate enough complaint for you? Then try actually playing the game. It successfully brings about the theory of nigh-infinite choices for puzzle-solving, but the practice of that theory is something else entirely. Its physics engine (as much as one can exist on the DS) is sometimes too simplistic to hold up properly when confronted with several items of differing weights, densities, and purposes. The controls can be unresponsive and downright random.

Whining about stylus-based controls on the DS has become a matter of rote, but Scribblenauts takes the "control by suggestion" school of interaction to new depths of aggravation. Maxwell's whimsical approach to mission-critical events like piloting an airplane without bailing out or using a bell to distract a dinosaur makes the base playability sometimes almost negligible.

The greatest thing about Scribblenauts, then, might be the player's ability to ignore the "game" entirely. Grinding puzzles for Starites and Ollars (Scribblenauts' in-game currency) get real old real quick, but at the title screen—a fully functional level of its own, bereft of goals and their attendant failure—I truly am God. Without the constraints of the game proper, I am free to experiment at my leisure.

Most of my tests so far have been variations on how many non-beasts, when dropped into the abyss, my beast can eat. Whether hippies, policemen, nurses, or any of the various other annoyances that populate my everyday life, Scribblenauts always returns the same satisfying answer: All of them.