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Analysis:  Scribblenauts  - There Was a Young Lady Who Swallowed a Fly
Analysis: Scribblenauts - There Was a Young Lady Who Swallowed a Fly Exclusive
October 5, 2009 | By Simon Parkin

October 5, 2009 | By Simon Parkin
More: Console/PC, Exclusive

[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.

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Simon Fraser
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Good point. This would be a great activity to do with your kids.

But maybe for the NEXT game... it could be more involved and challenging for adults... if we are the main audience for the game.

Or maybe they could design a more open-ended game mode where creativity is encouraged. Maybe just creating contraptions and setups, almost like LBP, which could then be hosted online.

Samuel Fiunte Matarredona
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and maybe they can do a good game, instead of a good idea....just for a change with 5th cell...

Russell Carroll
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I've heard this type of commentary before about Scribblenauts, that it is better for kids because they have more open imaginations and a better appreciation for the wide-open structure, and both then and now it has made me sad.

I have to say that I love Scribblenauts, and it's been given no lack of love here at the office. I love trying to push myself when solving the puzzles. There may be an obvious solution, but what's not obvious, what would really be different and unique and unimaginable and flipping awesome?

I love games that open up the gameplay to the players, that leave creativity to the players, and let us go wherever we can dream. It's the same reason I adored WiiMusic. It let me make music, instead of just playing along (not that playing along isn't fun from time to time, it just doesn't get my creative juices going).

What I hear in commentaries, like the one above, is actually a commentary about the audience, not the game.

It talks about something that as adults we appear to have lost along the way. It maybe could be described as finding joy in creativity (instead of desperately wanting someone to impose a reward structure on you), or finding fun in personal uniqueness (instead of feeling uncomfortable for being different). It's great that people can rediscover some of those things by playing with kids, but it's sad that without the kids we find something lacking.

Again I don't believe that it's really the game that's lacking something. Instead, I think the game is actually identifying something that is missing from within ourselves. Games like Scribblenauts, I find, are great at helping me to rediscover that imagination and open-mindedness I had before 'growing-up' and stepping onto a tired and well-worn path of how 'adults are supposed to act and think.' I really appreciate Scribblenauts for being different and opening the world instead of closing it, for letting my imagination run wild instead of checking it with parameters, and for letting me think outside of the box and having my results themselves be the reward.

Hayden Dawson
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Scribble definitely shows the way to a sandbox game beyond the GTA ilk. And it is certainly acceptable for an adult to have fun watching something as simple as a frog jump on a trampoline, whether or not the game's designers and chosen that as a solution to the problem -- although I'd think AI smarts should be programmable to make such work even if the designers had not come up with it.

James LeGeros
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I spent 2 weeks at work listening to game designers, programmers, and artists all talking about how great Scribblenauts is and how many things you can do with it...

We were in a meeting, when one of our designers cheered in triumph because he used a mech to blow up a tree to free the starite... I went out that same night and bought a DSi and Scribblenauts. I love the game.

Samuel Fiunte Matarredona
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@James - So you bought a console and a game just because of that? well..i suppose you are filthy rich then, I have the DsLite but for me was more for a series of grat games and because it has a unique gameplay style.....cannot think of buying a console just for what i've heard of a single game......anyway, if you love it so not getting frustrated with it's awful collision detection? or his terrible stylus use that takes maxwell to death lots of times qhen you are trying to move an object? I think that or I'm too picky, or all of you didn't played the game as much as you think...but anyway, the idea is really great, and hopefully it will be improved in the sequel....but Scribblenauts is not a game without flaws.

Russell Carroll
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@ Samuel

I think Scribblenauts does have flaws. (though I maintain, as noted above, that the player having a lack of imagination and a need for structure is not a flaw of the game, but of the player)

Star Wars (the originals) had their flaws too. The acting wasn't great (no wait, 'That's impossible!'). However, like Star Wars, Scribblenauts overwhelms its flaws with goodness. I'm good with talking about the fact that some of the acting in Star Wars was not great, but in the end, I really don't care about some bad line deliveries (and neither did the public). Star Wars was simply awesome! Scribblenauts is the same way for me.