The Write Stuff

Published in The Student, University of Edinburgh’s oldest student newspaper

Hyperbole is a remarkable thing, especially in the world of computer games. We’re all so anxious that our expensive black box is better than another’s expensive white box, proclaiming new titles as the second coming of Christ. Or in the case of Scribblenauts, the game where you can create anything, it’s the second creation of Christ. Watch him fight a dragon, give him a pirate hat, tie him to a helicopter or feed him a hot dog: the possibilities are endless.

Few games have been so hyped, subject to gushing praise and spurious claims that they will revolutionise entertainment. This is a game in which, if you believe the propaganda on the back of the box, you can write anything and solve everything. Although that should really be “tap anything” since the handwriting recognition is terrible, causing you to jumble upper and lower case letters like a confused teenager’s internet screen name. There are an alleged twenty thousand objects from which to choose, from aardvark to zebu and everything in-between. This makes for an astonishing ten minutes in the main menu, dishing out free pickles and riding around on Pegasus. Everything you can imagine is there- or at least, a rough approximation of it. However, there comes a time at which you want to stop stretching Mario’s nose and get on with the damn game! At this point, there are plenty of obstacles in the way of enjoying yourself.

It is clear that the controls are broken in a game when getting through the (agonisingly long and largely irrelevant) tutorial is a Herculean task. The stylus controls everything from movement to object interactions, and it fails miserably at the task. Instead of giving objects to people, you’ll hurl them like missiles. Instead of picking up a rock, you’ll jump off a cliff. Instead of finishing the challenges, you’ll turn the DS off and go read a book. It doesn’t help that characters, including the protagonist Maxwell, flap around the environments like they’re held together at the joints by drawing pins. They are two-dimensional in both senses, lacking in character and common sense.

Let’s not forget that this is a computer game, and therefore there must be several hundred arbitrary challenges to complete. In Scribblenauts these take the form of puzzles, which you complete for ‘ollars’. Ollars buy new puzzles and random tat in the obligatory in-game shop. Forgive my lack of enthusiasm, but it’s hardly the most imaginative of setups. Your imagination may be limitless, but solutions to the puzzles are finite and most of my ideas were fruitless. Objects just don’t behave the way you would expect (unless builders actually dig by swinging pneumatic drills like shovels) and any attempt to think logically is swiftly thwarted.

What is the point of Scribblenauts: to slog through generic situations and see how just many nouns you know, or to instigate a fight between God and Cthulhu? It is a fantastically fun sandbox, but a tragically flawed game. You get the sense that the developers created this amazing framework full of innovation, humour and sheer vastness of content, then hastily slapped on a collection of half-baked game mechanics at the last minute. If that’s the limit of their collective imagination, what hope is there for the rest of us?