Early in Scribblenauts I'm brought to a mountain road, where my rooster-helmeted character Maxwell finds himself amidst a traffic jam. Scroll to the right and there's a cow standing in front of the vehicles, oblivious to the situation she has caused.
"Clear the way to get him home!" the game instructs me.
On my first try I misinterpret the hint. There's a row of houses just beyond the cow, one for each of the four cars trapped on the other side. Easy, I think, I need to off the cow.
What would hate a cow?
I click on the notepad icon in the corner and type "BUTCHER." A mustachioed man in white appears floating above the cow. He's brandishing an enormous cleaver. I drop him in front of the cow, and he immediately sets to work, hacking the cow mercilessly. An animated thought bubble appears above the cow's head. The cow is terrified.
Within seconds, the cow collapses into hamburger -- literally, with a little pixilated beef patty taking her place -- and the butcher's work is done. Then a truck rams my butcher from behind, crushing him beneath its front wheels. "TRY AGAIN," the game tells me.
On my second try I realize my mistake. All the way to the right of the level is a green pasture. And I notice that there was a man lurking among the houses. It's another butcher, of course. I need to find a way to get the cow to her pasture, safe from the butcher's blade.
First I try offing the butcher. I make a "bully," a frowning kid in a wife beater with a bandage on his cheek, and drop him in front of the butcher. Instead of landing on the ground he vanishes into the house in the background. I try again, placing the bully more carefully, and succeed. But he's no match for the butcher. Fair enough. I try a more professional killer, a masked "villain." He goes down, too.
I'm losing my patience, so I bring in someone who hasn't let me down yet: Satan. He's an angry little devil. But he, too, gets cleaved by the butcher. Maybe an "animal rights activist" (indistinguishable from a "vegetarian" and "hippie" in the game) will argue the butcher into leaving his violent ways. Nope.
It's time to switch my strategy, something I'm quite used to doing even at this early stage in Scribblenauts. If I give the butcher another animal to cut up, he might be satisfied, or exhausted, and will leave the cow alone. Feeling generous, I try an elephant. But both elephant and butcher do nothing. I try to encourage them by moving the elephant closer. The butcher mounts the elephant, becoming, in effect, a bloodthirsty warlord. The house-sized elephant crushes the cow, the anxious drivers plow into the hamburger and the elephant, and I'm asked to "TRY AGAIN."
An attempt to "flood" the cars and butcher out of the road actually obliterates everything on the stage.
I don't remember what exactly my solution was, except that it involved growing wings on Maxwell and attempting to fly the cow to safety. We only made it halfway to the pasture before the cars piled onto the cow as usual. But the cow lived; the glowing, star-shaped "Starite" needed to escape the level somehow appeared; and I scrambled to grab it before anything in the level changed to undo my victory.
Scribblenauts is frustrating. This is not a surprise, since its premise is that you can write the name of any object -- excluding vulgarities, abstractions and copyrighted objects -- and it will appear in the game and behave as itself. You'll be skeptical until the game begins to fulfill even your most esoteric orders. So you expect, and maybe forgive, that many things will not work as planned.
But Scribblenauts places its radical, even revolutionary, mechanic at odds by bowing to conventional goal-driven gameplay. The game's 10 settings house two types of levels: "puzzle" and "action." In the former you have to resolve a given scenario (like the aforementioned lost cow) to make the Starite appear; in the latter you find the Starite out of reach and have to devise a way to grab it.
When your eye's on the Starite, you aren't as focused on discovering new object interactions, as the game humbly suggests after its tutorial. You're more focused on how clunky the game feels. How hard it is to get a person into a vehicle with you; how hard it is to steer that vehicle without crashing and burning it in a puddle; how hard it is even to place an especially large object like a vehicle, which might go flying into the heavens in a disheartening show of explosive friction. How easy it is to send Maxwell running headfirst into a pool of lava when you just wanted to build a bridge, because object manipulation and character movement are both touch-controlled. How often your things really don't behave as you would expect. (A frog stares perplexedly at a fly? A beekeeper runs screaming from a bee? A tornado demolishes a black hole?)
After my cow fiasco in the mountains, I'm increasingly discouraged by all my clever solutions that don't work, and increasingly disappointed in the crude ones that do. To finally help a cowboy win a shootout, I put him in a tank and he rolls over his adversary. To lead a stubborn baby to the king and queen, I end up affixing a leash to his neck and dragging him painstakingly through the underbrush. To make a girl on a diving board fall into the pool, I shoot her once in the stomach with a pistol and in she goes.
What do my answers to Scribblenauts say about my subconscious? But really, shouldn't I blame the game for making it so hard for me to behave well?
I'm soaring through the air on a jetpack with a flower in my hand. It's the last one of three I need to give the florist across the lake. When I land, I accidentally take off my jetpack. It flies off my body with a pop and lands on one of the other two flowers, which explodes with a pop. "TRY AGAIN." It's here that I gave up trying at last, and started playing.
Yeah, the game can be rough, trying its hardest to contain a dictionary and then some in its tiny Nintendo DS cart. It's easy to overlook its pleasurable qualities. Scribblenauts looks and sounds perfect, all crayon colors and animals pinned together at the joints like painted cardboard and a sun and moon visibly held up by string, like a diorama for a science project gone awry, or a deranged kindergarten collage. The game seems more than aware of its own ramshackle foundations. Even its music reflects a cut-and-paste sensibility, with kitschy sound bites and drum hits toppling over each other like construction blocks and sounding vibrant. (Listen closely when you open and close your DS.)
There is remarkable scope in the game, whose environments and encounters do justice to the breadth of its vocabulary. You might find yourself negotiating trade with Martians. Or you're in an exploitation film in which a helpless couple is beset upon at its home by a slavering horde of undead. How about a whodunit scenario where you find three suspects staring uncomfortably at a sickly blue corpse lying on the mansion floor?
All plot introductions that take a turn for the surreal or the absurd the moment you and your words enter. If you want to enjoy Scribblenauts, you'll learn to let go of "rules" like I was practically forced to. Sure, you can discern behaviors that you can use to your advantage. A lion falls asleep after too many steaks. A chopper shorts out in the water. A ninja respects his elder. But these actions make all too much sense. It's when the game's rules -- blatantly inconsistent, unapologetically arbitrary -- let surprise after surprise slip through that Scribblenauts shines brightly.
I toast a dinosaur with a flamethrower; as she falls backward the egg she was protecting breaks open and hatches a baby dinosaur. The baby, spotting the bright red steak left in the dinosaur's place, heartlessly gobbles up the remains of its mother. (I fail the level, but it was worth it.)
I'm trying to give a boy and girl a "romantic" date on the pier. Cupid, fireworks and a tuxedoed violinist don't do the job. But a sleazy-looking male "lover" does -- both boy and girl are pleased. Don't tell the ESRB.
A cheerleader wants a candy bar, and a scowling bully stands blocking the vending machines. He comes out swinging whenever I try to get close. I put him in a car. He can't touch me as I hop over the vehicle because he's trapped inside with an inch of aluminum between us. The tragedy of urbanization. Wasn't that the plot of "Crash"?
OK, it could be a stretch. But it's hard not to gasp or laugh out loud at a sudden left-turn, like when I and the giraffe I'm carting through the air go crashing into an abyss in a tangle of fur and cables, because, duh, the giraffe is too heavy for my jetpack.
What do you call emergent gameplay that consistently misbehaves -- divergent gameplay? Scribblenauts' disregard for common sense is actually its strength: It is exceptionally generous with what it lets you get away with, expansive where a more conventional videogame would choose to restrict and funnel your behavior.
As a game, Scribblenauts is undeniably problematic. It's hard to play, goes from embarrassingly easy to heartbreakingly hard in an instant, and often isn't particularly fun. More time should have been spent on Maxwell's movement in the world. But as a thing, it's a minor miracle. "Puzzle" is a misnomer for the best levels, in which raw experimentation and pure play succeed where the sensible solution and the creative solution both fail. The developers obviously didn't have enough time to make all the things work the "right" way. And so Scribblenauts ended up such a mess that it somehow resists both right- and left-brained thinking -- and rejects too much analysis -- by virtue of its wrongness. What saves it is that it keeps stumbling upon coherent meaning, anyway.
Try it, because it's bound to surprise you, maybe even delight you. Just don't try very hard or you'll lose sight of its magic in literal-mindedness.
What is so sensible, after all, about a butcher waiting on the roadside to murder the first cow within reach? I marvel that a game let me ride a cow into the sky with angel wings on my back, and then rewarded me for crashing that same cow into the pavement.
This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.