Scribblenauts has been out for a couple weeks now, and I'd like to muse slightly on the topic. While I don't believe that it's the legend it was made out to be at E3 this year, it's still an interesting game and definitely very fun. The mechanics of “write whatever you want and watch the interactions!” make each play a unique experience, and Scribblenauts becomes more about these experiences than about the puzzles themselves.
Like certain other games, such as Morrowind or Oblivion, Scribblenauts will likely be remembered fondly by many for the stories that come out of it. Every time I hear somebody talk about it, it's some sort of elaborate story about solving a puzzle – and because the creativity involved means that it becomes very personal. Think about the early videos that released about Scribblenauts: the one that everybody remembers is the skateboarding God vs. Cthulhu video. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vB1Wnbhlzrs) Why? “Because it's cool.” But more importantly, because that story of that one time that you got God to fight Cthulhu is awesome – and you can embellish it each time so that it becomes more awesome! But how many people remember which puzzle they were trying to solve? No, that wasn't during the open-world title screen – it was during the “get the star out of the tree” puzzle.
Scribblenauts definitely challenges a player's creativity, but its mechanics are simple. You can move the character around horizontally and you can create anything you'd like. Objects can be used in many different ways by touching them, and these interactions depend on what the character has. For instance, putting a shotgun in the player's hands allows the player to click on something and “shoot”. Of course, this can have dire consequences for either the shooter or the shootee. But then again, Scribblenauts has a strong feeling of cause and effect associated with it. Most of the things you can makes something happen, and the conflict that happens so often is what makes for good storytelling.
It's really up to what the player wants to happen. The game helps to drive the player to perform different actions and use different words by rewarding different uses. Each level has a challenge that can be completed that requires the player to solve the puzzle three different times without using the same words a second time, and this is a Very Good Thing, as it helps to keep things fresh. One time I may be able to use a tornado to do what I need to, while another time I may use a zombie or a ninja. Maybe the third time I can solve the puzzle solely with a shotgun. (This last one is a personal challenge I enjoy taking on myself!) Cleaning up trash? Most people would say that qualifies as a boring task – and yet in Scribblenauts, it becomes humorous and fun. I could never justify cleaning up a room by shooting all of the contents with shotguns in real life. Moreover, people react well when I tell these stories, driving me to do my best to one-up myself on a regular basis.
Despite all that, I can see Scribblenauts becoming boring soon. There really are only a limited number of puzzles, and I have very little desire to complete them each three times. I find myself trying different things and then quickly falling back on the old standbys – pull out a shotgun and shoot things, whip out a black hole, or use the old wings / helicopter / UFO and a rope technique to drag something somewhere else. Too many of these combinations are overly powerful, and they work for so many of the puzzles. Perhaps some people are more creative in their noun choice than I am, or perhaps some of them have more time and are less easily frustrated in their games, but this is the main reason I didn't buy Scribblenauts on launch day like I'd originally planned. (That and I was in Austin at the time – hah!) That's not to say that I don't enjoy the game – believe me, I do. I can definitely feel a lot of limitations of the game, though.
What I'm really hoping Scribblenauts is able to do is to help the children. I'm hoping that a new generation learns to spell properly (Scribblenauts has a very rudimentary “did you mean x, y, or z?” spellchecker if you input a word it doesn't know) and learns more words. I can see Scribblenauts being modified into an education game where you learn homonyms, synonyms, and antonyms. I suppose it could also be used to teach foreign languages – what better way to learn the word for “shotgun” in Korean than to write it in Hangul. Repetition helps to formalize concepts in our heads, and this can be used even to teach new words in English. I've already seen plenty of people learning new words from misspelled suggestions in Scribblenauts (“What's a barouchette? Oh, okay!”), and I can definitely see this being put to good use.
It's the execution of Scribblenauts that makes it a fun game, though. If there were less words to choose from, it would fall apart – the concept of “type in anything” is the major draw. These words are what allow people to be creative in what they type, and these words are what allow the stories to be made. While these stories aren't as robust as those provided by the world of Morrowind or Oblivion, which I personally feel are some of the best games out there for individual storytelling and world ownership, they're still a lot of fun and bring people together. I hope, though, that 5th Cell can realize Scribblenauts' potential as an education game as well and help to educate and enrich a new generation of tech-savvy children.