Imagine anything, just don't expect it to help you win.
When 5th Cell first hit the gaming world upside the head with the concept that was Scribblenauts, only a limited number of news outlets picked up on what was a severely viral story. The idea was immediately enticing and almost difficult to fathom: that a videogame could allow the player to specify any noun and have it not only appear in-game, but even carry real interactive and functional properties.
Outlandish only begins to describe it.
However exciting it might have been, the finished product was greeted with mixed critical reception largely citing the game’s challenge of succeeding under the weight of its almost incomparable ambition. You see, in videogames, as in most things, unchecked freedom can be both good and bad. While the ultimate sandbox experience in a game (as Scribblenauts once appeared to offer) might pave the way for complete imaginative sovereignty, even if that were possible, the sheer lack of structure might crush the appeal.
Thus comes the need for some sort of incentivizing of elective creativity to help encourage the player to favor more outlandish ideas over mundane solutions—but even this is difficult or impossible to implement. Couple that conundrum with the fact that the perfect sandbox experience is never plausible and what’s left is a simple question of whether it’s worth even bothering to try in the first place.
Scribblenauts does try, and there are times where it most certainly succeeds. Beyond the obvious sense of amazement which results after first realizing the game’s ridiculous scope of content—the fact that H.P. Lovecraft’s mythical Cthulhu existed in the first game was a common example of just how far the designers went—there are times where it is truly fascinating just what range of solutions might work for a particular puzzle. But the game does not (cannot?) reward the player for outlandish solutions, so instead it’s just easier to write the first thing that comes to mind and continue making progress. This is the ultimate dilemma with which the series has struggled from the very beginning: why be creative when being boring is equally effective and so much easier?
"Screw living in medieval times, I'm building a tank."
Let’s back up for just a moment and cover a few basics. Scribblenauts: Unlimited’s premise is simple: you play the role of Maxwell, a young boy who’s tasked with rescuing his sister (Lily, who is slowly being turned to stone) by collecting what are called Starites—basically, the product of happiness and appreciation that results when a good deed is done for someone. Maxwell roams the world with a magical notebook in hand that allows him to create just about anything that comes to mind simply by writing it. In other words, as you probably expected, the story only serves to set the backdrop for what is otherwise one of the most open-ended and nonlinear gaming experiences in existence today.
While Scribblenauts: Unlimited changes a few things up, it still doesn’t venture far from the design of its predecessors in that regard. Of course, more nouns than ever are now included, though the game still explicitly warns you that proper nouns and vulgar words are not supported (actually, some proper nouns are supported, but the obvious rule is that you shouldn’t depend on their existence). Since Super Scribblenauts’ expansion of the concept, adjectives are now also applicable, and generally they can be applied to any noun your heart desires. So if you’d like to make a magical flying rainbow colossal ghostly unicorn, you are completely able to do that.
"Lemme show you dummies how this thing works."
Unlimited lives up to its name by pulling out all the stops and handing over near-full control of the Object Editor to the player. Here, it’s possible to spend an inordinate amount of time creating your own objects from scratch (or modifying existing ones) and then even sharing them on the internet with other players. It’s an idea which truly takes the experience to the next level and which solves the (relatively nonexistent) problem of discovering an item that you wanted to have control of but that, for whatever reason, doesn’t exist in the game. The editor is shockingly capable, including every basic option you could hope for and extending even into definable IF… THEN style statements to cover whatever else.
The fundamental design and mode of progression is also improved in Scribblenauts Unlimited. Rather than having individual levels with a few select puzzles to solve like the first two games, Unlimited introduces a world map with dozens of selectable locations, each featuring a particular number of obtainable Starites (for major victories) and Starite Shards (which are rewarded for solving smaller puzzles and eventually add up to a complete Starite). Every level is a different environment—whether it’s a hospital, school, restaurant, or desert—and each is populated by an assortment of people and phenomena which require the power of the magic notebook to satisfy. Using the Wii U GamePad, simply tapping on a character or an object will reveal a (generally quite obvious) hint as to what needs to be done to correct its situation, at which point the player can choose to either create a chosen object to that end or modify an existing object using an adjective. The pop-up menu that facilitates this is intuitive and, apart from some occasional frustrations with its speed and the imprecision of selecting particular objects, it works well.
"Hang on, let me try attacking it with my FLOWER."
More regions of the world map become available as more Starites are collected, thus providing the basic form of progression and effectively locking out the later levels until the gamer earns access to them. If you manage to miss something, it’s easy to identify the sources of remaining Starites (and shards) in each level: simply tap an icon to highlight everything that remains which needs interaction.
Finally, the controls are notably improved, too. Maxwell can be commanded by either touch or the analog stick, and you can jump using the A button. Of course, you’ll still need to stop and use the notepad on an extremely regular basis, but it’s nice to have this option at your disposal. It’s also possible for up to three other players to grab Wii remotes and assume control of other on-screen characters, which is a neat idea (but, of course, little more than a novelty).
With all of these additions and improvements, it might be hard to imagine just where the game could possibly go wrong. But that’s just it: it’s hard to imagine. And just as has always been the case from the start, the game does nothing to incentivize the conception and creation of wildly unique objects as solutions to its fairly straightforward puzzles. When a character in the game says that he needs the courage to overcome his fear of someone, it’s far too easy to simply tap him and attach the adjective “fearless” instead of wasting time finding a unique solution to the problem. Likewise, the lumberjack needing to cut down a tree is just as well served with a plain old “saw” as he is with a “massive golden sparkling chainsaw.” Why waste the time if the game doesn’t provide a reason to do so?
It’s not clear how 5th Cell might go about solving this problem, but the fact remains that it’s a fundamental limitation of the formula. It has been said that Scribblenauts is a game where your rewards are directly correlated with your effort—where you get out what you put in, in other words—but if that were true, this wouldn’t be an issue in the first place. The ultimate reality is that there is hardly ever any enticement to step outside of the mundane with any regularity, and as a result, the experience most often boils down to a simple task of writing the first mundane thing that comes to mind. If the goal is a reciprocal experience, it isn’t nearly reciprocal enough.
Still, as a sandbox in the purest sense of the word, its success is evident. As ephemeral as the appeal may be, sparring God versus Satan or pirates versus ninjas according to rules you define is always good for a laugh, and amazing that it even works. It’s just too bad that this sprawling, extraordinary database of categorized objects and adjectives couldn’t be better exploited to produce a more appealing game.