Crayon Physics Deluxe (PC)
If you're a nerd like me, Crayon Physics Deluxe is the sort of game that makes you want to throw out tremendous accolades, simply on the basis of its existence. "No, I haven't played it yet, but did you see that YouTube video? Game of the Year!" It's got all the characteristics of the indie darling: an elegant concept brought to life with idiosyncratic, hand-drawn visuals and underpinned by impressive programming. The concept: Solve puzzles by drawing 2-D objects that obey laws of mass and motion as soon as your "crayon" lifts from the "page."
Crayon Physics Deluxe tears the collection of in-game elements down to a point where it's almost non-existent. You've got a red ball, which has to eventually touch a yellow star. That's it. There might be multiple stars, or platforms and swinging objects and maybe even a rocket, but you'll always come back to the ball and the star. You can nudge the ball into motion, but otherwise the damn thing just sits there, waiting for some kinetic energy.
That's where your doodles come in. In between the ball and star, you can draw just about anything. Draw a line to bridge platforms. If, when rolling the ball onto your new bridge, the motion pushes your squiggly "bridge" away from one platform, just draw a new one. Or sketch a triangle topped with a line to make a crude seesaw; draw a big box in the air to fall on one end and hurl the ball into the air. Throughout the process, designer Petri Purho keeps his game uncluttered and appealingly styled, accompanied by some of the most soothing game music you're likely to hear this year.
The first few minutes with CPD are as exhilarating as a run through the best shooters. You can do anything. Any damn thing at all. This is freedom! First, there's the disbelief that the whole thing actually works. Sketch a circle and it becomes a rolling orb; rectangles become platforms and ramps; curves capture and amplify your red ball's momentum to launch it to new heights.
Draw a pinpoint on an object, and from it you can dangle swinging hammers to knock the ball like a golf club, or baskets to catch it in mid-air. A line between multiple pins becomes the rope in a pulley system if you draw a weight at one end and a little scoop at the other.
Here's how CFD opens the field for your own personal method of puzzle solving. Take the sample pictured above, through which you'll find a couple dozen screens into the game. Your ball sits perched atop a small platform; the star hovers below. How to reach it? The obvious solution is to use at least one pinpoint, which you can add by drawing a small, tight circle on any object. With one point you can hang a new object, which will then swing freely as long as it doesn't hit anything else.
But with two pinpoints, you can anchor almost any drawing with rock-solid stability. So I drew in two points and used them to bolt on a big scoop with which I could roll the ball. Puzzle solved, using solution No. 5 out of one million.
The ugly question: At what point does that unlimited flexibility actually hamper gameplay? There's something to be said for having only five tools in your kit. Then puzzles turn into an interaction between tools and environment. (See World of Goo for an example of massive success with that approach.)
While solving puzzles in Crayon Physics Deluxe, you'll often feel as if you've got no limitations at all. Consequently, some of my solutions ended up looking like I tried to fix a pothole by building an eight-lane interstate. That's part of the fun. With few limitations on what you can draw and assemble, it's possible to solve puzzles with absurdly overblown methods.
But I kept wanting to draw a straight line to the goal, and understanding a few basic things allowed me to do just that. Yes, I could create elaborate pulleys, ramps and catapults to move from point A to B, but doing so proved counterintuitive. Thinking like a gamer educated by years of looking for the fastest, most efficient solution to a problem, I'd just draw a one-line ramp or throw a couple pins somewhere and anchor whatever pathway I needed to get the ball to the star.
It's a cruel irony that, for a game in which you have a feeling of limitless creative opportunity, drawing a few straight lines will usually do the trick. Sure, sure, creativity is its own reward, and perhaps that's meant to be the underlying point here. Getting from one point to the next doesn't deliver CPD's sense of achievement; doing so in an interesting way does.
But very few of the 70 game screens push players in that direction. Until the last batch of puzzles, which suddenly feel more advanced than everything that went before, the fast, efficient solution was the way to go for me. I couldn't not do it, just like I can't not reach for bacon or not play just one more game of Left 4 Dead.
That's where the level editor comes in. That allows anyone to put together a game screen, then upload it to a central server. The process isn't as intuitive as it might be, however, as you play user-created levels within the editor itself. The "real" game has puzzles clumped together on islands, but there's no empty desert island to hold your downloaded puzzles. Hopefully, in time, the best user-created content will be gathered and assembled into a download that can be played more seamlessly.
So maybe Crayon Physics Deluxe doesn't earn that "Game of the Year" tag. They can't all be World of Goo. But the simple pleasure of seeing my lopsided drawings develop form and motion is achievement enough.
This review is based on a downloadable copy of the game purchased by the reviewer.