[In this column, British games journalist and Flash game producer Simon Parkin finds DS title Scribblenauts better suited to a child's logic than an adult's, and more enjoyable when played with kids -- fly swatters, or frogs on trampolines?.]
What’s the best way to get rid of a bothersome fly? It’s one of the first questions asked by Scribblenauts, the DS game that grants its player access to a dictionary of more than 30,000 nouns with which to solve puzzles. Type the word "Swat" into the game’s dialogue box and a sketchpad representation of the object will ping onto the screen, ready and prepped to squish the insect.
If pushed for an alternative answer, you might try, "Insect Repellent" to shoo the fly away, or perhaps "Turd" to lure it elsewhere instead.
And herein lies the genius of this extraordinary database: where the vast majority of games give us a handful of tools with which to solve their conundrums, Scribblenauts offers solutions as wide and deep as our own imaginations.
It’s a subtle yet seismic shift: a game that, rather than focusing on what you do with your tools, simply asks which you want to use, chosen from a catalogue of everything.
And yet, the disappointment is that many of the game’s tasks lack invention, posing somewhat vanilla, mundane tasks for you to complete: eliminate the fly, fetch a bouquet of flowers, tidy up the rubbish, make a packed lunch.
This is just one of the reasons that Scribblenauts, which is in at least one-way revolutionary, has received a somewhat lukewarm response from critics and consumers alike. While the technology is a sort of irresistible witchcraft, the application is often dry routine. It’s like someone gave you the power to move mountains and then forced you to spend all day shunting shopping trolleys around Tesco’s car park.
But play the game with an imaginative child, and wide-angle concerns over mission structure melt away, as the true and dizzying wonder of the game’s conceit is unlocked. When I asked my daughter, who’s too young to read, how we should get rid of the fly, she thought for a moment before tentatively suggesting we create a frog. Frogs eat flies, ergo they are an excellent way to get rid of a fly, went her sound logic.
But there was a problem: the fly, hovering in the air, was out of the frog’s reach. Before I could even suggest we summon a chair or stepladder with which to raise the frog upwards, she jumped in with a suggestion: “A trampoline! Give the frog a trampoline”.
In a sense, a child, by definition, shrinks Scribblenauts’ scope. The game’s potential solutions are necessarily limited by vocabulary, so players with a smaller vocabulary have fewer options open to them. But, free of the dry, efficient logic of adulthood, a child’s imagination also opens the game up in ways beyond most adults’ reach.
Most games demand expertise for success, their richest rewards reserved for those who invest time into developing skills and technique. By contrast, Scribblenauts reserves its richest rewards for those who can devolve their expertise, unravelling the tightly wound habit of always seeking out the quickest, most efficient solution to a problem.
It asks that we all rediscover a sense of childlike inquisitiveness rewarding those who play with the game, rather than merely try to solve it. Through that lens, the normality of tasks heightens the thrill of discovering leftfield solutions, rather than diminishing it.
As the frog pogo-ed up and down, bouncing rigid and absurd on the trampoline, we laughed together as long and as hard as we ever have. The frog stared out at us, unblinking, springing up and down, uninterested in the meal that was now well within its tongue’s slimy grasp. Who could blame it? It had a trampoline.