Little Big Scribble

As our preview in E205 noted, and our review reiterates, it’s hard to press Scribblenauts’ start button. The game opens in a sandbox in which you can spawn objects ad infinitum, with no rules or conditions to get in the way, and it’s an awfully long time before you’re willing to translate your experimentation into the game proper’s more confined walls. That’s hardly a fault: how could you criticise a central mechanic for being so fun that all the normal apparatus of playing seems unnecessary?

This free and easy sandbox space disguises the little problems, the ankle-biters that are only important when you’re not just messing around. The lack of any general behaviour modelling beyond an impulse to attack or pick up specific items. The physics model that makes things pancakes or rubber balls. And let’s not get started on the interactions between objects. Popular opinion seems to regard Scribblenauts as exactly the kind of game the DS hardware was made for. But you could argue that the limitations of the platform are actually holding the game back.

Doubtless many, including Scribblenauts developer 5th Cell, would disagree. The central concept – writing down words and watching them manifest in a gameworld – works, and it works well. Doesn’t it? Only if you suspend your disbelief about the nature of the objects themselves. The game may deserve that, but it doesn’t stop you recognising its peccadilloes as an inevitability on DS: input ‘rope’ and you’ll see Scribblenauts hang itself. There just aren’t that many ideas about what to do with the one big idea; plenty of levels, but a dearth of structural imagination.

What about a sandbox campaign, PopCap-standard bonus modes, co-op and an online structure taken from something like LBP? What about them indeed. There’s no getting away from the fact that Scribblenauts is unlike anything else, and if it’s successful its sequels may take the idea where it can be a sensation rather than a diversion. This is not to diminish 5th Cell’s achievement – a feat of both engineering and vision. We’re happy that the game exists, even as we look at the hardware under the TV and wonder what might have been.