This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Scribblenauts.
I feel sorry for people who are God, and I shouldn't, because that's like feeling sorry for Paris Hilton. You know how when your tie gets caught in a door you feel bad about moaning because there are homeless children running around with no legs who survive by sucking the buttock sweat from park benches for nourishment? Well, when you're God you've got even less right to complain. But sometimes I get an urge for a grilled cheese sandwich, and after going through the trouble of digging the Breville out, chewing up my knuckles on a rusty cheese grater, and finding that my special Branston pickle has solidified, the struggle makes it all the tastier. If I could just wave my hands and conjure not just a grilled cheese sandwich but two grilled cheese sandwiches being worn as a bra by a swimsuit model constructed from grilled cheese sandwiches, it would take all satisfaction out of life.
Scribblenauts is a game for the DS that shows us exactly how boring omnipotence can get. Scribblenauts comes to us from 5th Cell Media , a bunch of work-shy cheaters whose most notable previous title is Drawn to Life, a game so unfinished that the player had to do half the art design themselves. Scribblenauts, meanwhile, is a rather spartan puzzler in which you help a guy in a stupid hat acquire stars, for as a great t-shirt once said, "It is always stars."
The stars are variously stuck up trees, frozen in ice, and misfiled by poorly trained temporary office workers, so you must recover them by writing down the name of what you require to do so, whereupon it will materialize. I'm choosing to believe that this is an act of penance on the developers' part; after Drawn to Life they wanted to prove they're not above drawing stuff themselves, so they drew every single object on Earth. Talk about overcompensating.
Well, not every single object on Earth; you're not allowed to have anything profane or racially insensitive, so don't try to spawn a Chinaman's willy. You're also not allowed alcoholic beverages, which seems weirdly puritanical. Not that I'm hung up or anything, but if you're fine with letting us play with rat poison, SMGs, flamethrowers, Lovecraftian horrors, and nitroglycerin, it just seems a bit weird to draw the line at a Cocksucking Cowboy. Also while their tutorial doesn't mention this, you can't spawn anything the developers didn't think of or didn't phrase properly. At one point I wanted to spawn a big rock to form a stepping stone in lava, but entering "Big Rock" or "Giant Boulder" or "Testicle of Colossus" produced relatively paltry specimens. Several levels later I discovered a massive rock that would have been of ideal proportions, which went by the name "Huge Boulder." Oh, obviously, should've guessed. Clearly this superpower is one of those ones that bugger you about a bit, like an invisibility power that only works while you're playing a trombone.
I've got quite a B-list of moments when Scribblenauts pissed me off, but the best way to illustrate them would be to change the first two words to "movement physics" and all the other ones to swears. Your character is not so much controlled as aimed, like a retarded rhino on rocket skates. Clicking on the point where you want to go sounds simple enough, but when you sprint directly towards it flailing your arms regardless of what obstacles are in the way or what carefully balanced conjurations you kick over, you have a recipe for grinning hyperactive disaster. Don't ask how I got into this situation, but on one level I had a truck hanging Italian Job style over a lava pit with the star embedded in an ice block sitting on the end. I had an ice pick and all I had to do was carefully move along the truck, smash the ice, and get the star. Even if I fell into the lava, if I had the star I'd still win, with an agonizing flesh-vaporizing victory dance. But as I tapped on the block to break it, it shifted slightly and I clicked the background, and fuck, it was like my character had been waiting all day for me to do that. He flung his pick into the air and started jumping up and down like he wanted to be a cloud when he grew up. I'd call him a "Fucking Drunken Spastic" but apparently those words don't exist.
In its sandbox mode, Scribblenauts quickly becomes that special kind of Sunday afternoon boring that feels like giant mosquitos are pumping cement into your brain but you can't be arsed to stop them. You can spawn various kinds of people and animals and mythical creatures and hand them all chainsaws and Wiffle bats. Then they fight by bumping up against each other like horny marionettes, and then the losers burst into PG-13 dust clouds. The entertainment value lies somewhere between Fuzzy Felt and banging two bricks together.
The puzzle challenges will usually come down to moving object X to point Y; most of them can be solved by spawning a helicopter and a length of rope. The challenge then is not coming up with a solution, but trying to get the rope physics to behave themselves for five seconds. Some levels have hostile creatures, so you spawn Cthulhu. Yes, it is kind of funny the first time you spawn Cthulhu, but when I was spawning Cthulhu every level to clear out the token hostiles, the humor sank to Lolcat level. Then I would fail the mission because sometimes killing enemies isn't allowed, not that they ever tell you that. Sometimes they don't tell you anything at all, like the level where your only hint is to reenact the climax of Back to the Future. Meaning what? Drive along the road very fast? Get struck by lightning? Contract Parkinson's disease?
At the end, Scribblenauts is just a single gimmick left to dangle unsupported like a piñata full of spiders. What little of it I would describe as a game is just a grind through the same handful of solutions: helicopters, boulders, and Cthulhu. You could say I just lack imagination, but when told I have everything I just can't think of anything. It's like being asked to tell a joke; you might have Bob Monkhouse's entire repertoire memorized, but when you're put on the spot it all dries up. Perhaps a degree of limitation or a story campaign would have improved matters, but I still don't think the gimmick itself has any lasting appeal. If I were feeling charitable, I'd liken it to having infinite amounts of Lego and only being allowed to access ten blocks of it at a time. But it's not even that, it's more like noclipping through Doom 3 with all the lights turned up; all the content with no structure or entertainment value, not so much a game as a developer showing off. Congratulations guys, you've proved that you have a fuckload of free time and a dictionary. Come back when you've looked up what "fun" means.
- Who makes their own entertainment these days: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- Actually "Kalashnikov" doesn't work in the game because they forgot or because it's a proper noun or because everyone is DUMB except me
- Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Yahtzee R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn