Endless Possibilities Part 2: Scribblenauts

25 Jun

scribblenautsLately I’ve been finding myself faced with creations, both artistic and otherwise, that suggest never-ending possibilities. Websites, video games, music applications, mash-up art… the more I see this stuff, the clearer it is that, thanks to the ubiquity of high-speed communication, an age of endless user-generated content is upon us, and it’s growing, growing, growing, with no escape in sight. Mwa ha ha.

A couple of days ago, I wrote about a cool make-your-own-mashup project called “In Bb.”  Today, I wanted to try to sum up a bit about a different “endless possibillitiesish” thing I’ve had my eye on.

I haven’t been paying particularly close news to the gaming world lately, though it didn’t escape my notice that this year’s E3 was way, way awesomer than last year’s. (My roommate Arnab informs me he was there, lucky.)  Whenever I read a summary of all the new stuff that was on display there, one game rises to the top of the discussion, above the beautiful next-gen titles with their open worlds and incredible AI and re-usable parachutes, and that game is 5th Cell’s Scribblenauts.

At first, it seemed surprising, for a few reasons. First, it’s made for the handheld Nintendo DS, the most most underpowered gaming hardware out there.  It’s also by a company that I’ve never heard of, though apparently they’ve made some cool games in the past.  But the more I read about it, the more interested I became, and it was entirely due to the game’s basic concept- solve puzzles by creating anything (that’s right, anything) you can think of.

You play as Max, a little dude in a red helmet, and you’re tasked with retrieving a star from some inaccessible point in the level.  The way you get to the star is where the game gets interesting – basically, by using the bottom touch-screen, you can type in any object you can imagine, and it’ll appear. So, if the star is in a tree, you can write “ladder” and climb the tree, or summon a “lumberjack” to cut the tree down, or “beaver,” or “chainsaw,” or “forest fire…” And it sounds cool enough, but I’m just sooooo skeptical, until I read what everyone who’s had a chance to play the game says. Basically, you really CAN type anything – you could then call on “smokey the bear,” who’d fight the tree fire, and a “hunter” to shoot at smokey and “PETA” to come and chase away the hunter and the “NRA” to come with a bunch of guns, and then “skateboards” for them to ride on and a “Time Machine” to get in…. woah.

Jeremiah Slaczka, the mad genius behind all of this, describes the process of making the game:

“We’ve actually had five people and all they did is they went through dictionaries and Wikipedia and encyclopedias and anything you can think of for six months, that’s all they did every day during the week.”

Suddenly it starts to seem possible – that anything you could think of, anything at all, will actually be in the game.  The number of things is up at around 10,000 (ten thousand!) and growing… Slaczka describes the current phase as “extreme specialization” – their researchers have gotten past basic nouns and are into tiny variations on each of them.  It’s worth reading his interview at IGN.

And folks who have played the game agree – Penny Arcade’s notoriously hard-to-please Tycho Brahe summed up his time with the game thusly:

I looked over at Gabe’s screen, and saw a space shuttle crash into a schoolhouse. I don’t think that was the goal. For my part, in order to secure a subterranean whooziwatsit, I needed to crack the crust of the earth. I wanted to create an excavator, and when I entered the word, it wanted to know: did I mean a tracked construction vehicle, or a person who excavates?


So, soon we’ll have Scribblenauts, maybe not so much a game as a sandbox – and not the sort of sandbox that’s become so trendy with game developers lately, but a real sandbox, where you can make what you want out of the sand, put whatever toys you can think of in it, and play to your heart’s content.  It’ll probably also come out for the iPhone, and I have a feeling that, in that incarnation, monstrous downloadable add-ons will come out that will address the (no-doubt outlandish) omissions that the hardcore will be able to come up with.

And yeah, who knows – it could be that after all this hype, the game doesn’t come through, that there just isn’t incentive for most gamers to play for more than a few hours, that Yahtzee’s old complaint, “You Can, But Why Would You Want To?” damns another attempt at emergent gameplay.  All the same, I’m really looking forward to checking Scribblenauts out when it launches in September – not just for the challenge of finding the randomest hidden things that only I and a handful of others have thought of, not just for the level editor or the ability to type “Keyboard Cat.” I’m mainly looking forward to it just to see what happens when someone decides to push things in a new direction, to see how endless the possibilities really are, and to play a game designed not around graphics or mechanics, but the power of imagination.

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