Literature is replete with examples of characters who utilize the power of the pen to overcome the sword. We’ve seen everything from smart-mouthed lawyers to unscrupulous journalists rooting out corrupt politicians. We’ve seen delivery boy’s entangling giant brains in a customized narrative snare. We’ve even seen animated characters argue through the fourth wall at the pencil that gives them form.

Scribblenauts, the child of the game development studio 5th Cell, moves this from page and film to video game screen. 5th Cell isn’t new to the idea of heavy player input in its games. It had previously sired two games in the Drawn to Life series, which allow players to draw their own characters, enemies, weapons, vehicles, and other details. With Drawn to Life, these were largely cosmetic and the novelty was, to some extent, limited to the aesthetic. One could have the experience of a crude representation of one’s self taking on any number of ironic antagonists– like your gym coach, your mother, or your cat– but this type of personalization of narrative isn’t impossible with conventional games.

Write it Down

In this newer game, 5th Cell expands on this concept by using your inferred knowledge of the universe to allow you to conjure, rather than create. The premise is rather simple. You are presented with the challenge of getting your avatar, Maxwell, a cheerful chap with a perma-smile, a rooster-like coiffure, and headphones, to acquire “starites”, the holy grail du jour. What weapons or tools are at your disposal? Any you can think of. Scribblenauts is pre-programmed with a massive vocabulary of over 22,800 words. You simply write the object you wish to conjure on the touch screen, and the item will appear. Maxwell can then use that item to effect his surroundings and obtain the starite.

It is tempting in many cases for the player to simply create a weapon of some kind and use it to lay waste to the environment, obliterating any antagonists along the way. The player could be as creative as simply invoking “God” or “uzi,” but the game rewards extra points for using a minimum of items, for using no weapons, or for a number of other things which present greater challenge. How the player obtains the goal is largely up to them. Sometimes the level designs prevent any one tool from being a silver bullet. For example, if you are too sloppy, you could destroy the starite, or Maxwell himself, and therefore fail the level. For that reason, a nuclear bomb is never a good option. Whether it be intentional or accidental, the commentary on real world decision-making is clear. Nuking something out of frustration is rarely the best, most constructive option.

Two Computers

Will Wright, creator of the Sim games, has said that when one is creating a video game, you have two computers to work with: the hardware, and the user’s brain. Most of his games do a great job of utilizing both of those. Scribblenauts does so in a similar fashion. The player must rely on his or her imagination to determine the best way to get the cat out of the tree. Is a lasso best? Can you lure it down with a can of tuna? You could cut down the tree. You could use a helicopter and a rope to get it out. You could scare it out with a ghost. The possibilities are endless.

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