Scribblenauts Interview

scribble2aColin Northway has an interesting interview up on with Scribblenauts’ lead designer, Jeremiah Slaczka.

Reading the interview it occurred to me that sandbox games like Crayon Physics, Fantastic Contraption, Scribblenauts, and to a somewhat lesser degree GTA, have started putting meaning and reward, two extremely important factors of game design, on the other side of the player/designer divide.

I find this interesting because it represents an opportunity for games to reach deeper into human experience.  This is something that naturally happens with music, visual arts, and literary works.  One’s experience of those works is  heavily colored by the listener/beholder/reader, and often takes on completely different meanings for different people.  This versatility allows for the work to feel more personal to an individual as well as appeal to a wider audience.

14 Responses to “Scribblenauts Interview”

  1. Vince Says:

    Looks pretty sweet!

  2. DEFE Says:

    Scribblenauts is a fantastic game. Cumbersome controls, but very fun. Games like Scribblenauts and World of Goo have made it worth wading through all the shovelware.

  3. alastair Says:

    Hopefully this means your next game will be the greatest of all.

  4. Drew Says:

    At the end of the linked interview Jeremiah Slaczka, says this:

    “I see on message boards people imposing their own rules to beat levels, only using levels that start with the letter A, or trying to beat the entire game with never using the same word twice. That’s the textbook definition of emergent gameplay and I love to see it.”

    The thing is, what he’s describing isn’t anything new. Players have been imposing their own limitations on gameplay for decades. I remember playing through the original Legend of Zelda without a sword, just to challenge myself, nearly 20 years ago. That was emergent gameplay” too, and it didn’t require an in-game dictionary. Those kinds of limitations are what the player brings to the table. What the designer brings to the table is, you know, everything else.

    I really, really wanted to love Scribblenauts, for all of the reasons that Ron mentions in his post, but that everything else just wasn’t there for me. I wanted the game to invite my own interpretations, and reward my own creativity (like Crayon Physics Deluxe did), but, as The A.V. Club said in their review, “if you place a plumber in front of a leaky pipe and give him a wrench, he stands there scratching his head… The reason is that Scribblenauts isn’t really about exploring your imagination, it’s about flailing for the sweet spot on the Venn diagram where your imagination happens to overlap with the developers’ own.” (,33072/)

    So while it’s a fascinating idea to put meaning in the hands of the player, I don’t think that Scribblenauts really accomplishes that. The tools are so clunky (and the controls so unwieldy) that I always felt like I was fighting the game, not playing it. I felt like I was bringing a lot of myself to the game, but I didn’t feel like the game was reciprocating.

    Games such as World of Goo, Braid, and Portal (games that ask for my emotional and intellectual investment, and give me a solid linear experience in return) seem like much more successful works of art to me.

    But maybe I’m getting old.

  5. Matt L Says:

    People like Drew really frustrate me. So the designers weren’t able to plug in every single possible connection between every word in the game? Who actually expected them to? I hear people bitching that such and such doesn’t interact properly with such and such and I just have to sigh. There are tons of clever connections between words, no…not every eventuality was thought out, but a LOT of them were.

    Yes, there is a certain amount of hitting the sweet spot between the developers and the player…but isn’t that how most every game works? No game lets you do EVERYTHING. And any game that tried to let you do everything probably wouldn’t be fun anyway.

    Is the game perfect? No. There are problems, but I just wish people would cut these guys SOME slack. They took an incredibly large and ambitious project–a project that many said was impossible–and managed to do just about everything they promised. It’s fun, got a great art style, and even if every combo/word isn’t there–many are. I’ve spent hours and hours just hanging out on the title screen experimenting.

    Oh whatever, there will always be haters, especially with a project hyped up this much, I should just learn to live with it…

  6. NLi10 Says:

    If you want to see if something has emergent gameplay give it to a child.

    My cousin used to play Mario 64 and invent his own stories – using the castle level and saying what Mario was going to do and why.

    If more games included a ‘story telling’ option where you can play the levels with no danger and control where the players and enemies are like a giant electronic toy set then they would be more popular with kids. I think it’s why they identify with wrestling games so much – they create their dream match up and put themselves as the main player and stick it on easy and just have fun.

    No kid wants to be told how to play, so games with vague objectives like Scribble’s ‘get the star’ are the most accessible. After all you can just ignore the star and add dinosaurs.

  7. Drew Says:

    Matt, just to be clear, I think that 5th Cell deserves a lot of credit for trying something truly different. They took a huge chance, and that’s admirable. But by definition, taking a huge chance means that there is a strong possibility of failure.

    As NLi10 points out, any game can be a sandbox, Super Mario 64 being a prime example. As a kid, I spent hours upon hours just messing around outside of the castle. I got a real kick out of simply making Mario do stuff, and assigning my own meaning to it.

    But, at the risk of being a hater, that was fun partially because Mario 64 has solid controls. Making Mario do what you want is a pleasure, whereas making Maxwell do what you want is a pain. In Scribblenauts, I can summon dinosaurs, which is neat, but then interacting with them doesn’t feel all that interesting. If the fun is supposed to lie simply in conjuring up the image of a dinosaur by typing “dinosaur,” then I can just as easily type “dinosaur” into Google.

    So again, Scribblenauts is an admirably ambitious project, but it just didn’t do it for me. It did do it for you, and that’s awesome. Because Scribblenauts is a highly variable experience (ie, you probably used different objects than I did a fair amount of the time) you might have had a very different, much better experience with the game than I did. And maybe that’s what’s at stake with sandbox games: You and I can play the same game, and feel like we’ve played two completely different games.

    Given that situation, it shouldn’t surprise us (and definitely shouldn’t annoy us) that we have very different opinions of Scribblenauts. You don’t annoy me, and I don’t mean to annoy you. I just wish that my brontosaurus handled better.

  8. Dugg Says:

    Yes, because Google made all those images and websites for you like 5th Cell did. Oh wait, it didn’t. Don’t be ridiculous. The game set out to do something extraordinary and did it!

    You didn’t like the controls and because (as you said yourself) you’re a stodgy, old gamer who’s set in his ways and prone to obvious fanboyism like a lot of the gaming media and therefor are a “hater” (again your words) of things outside your comfort like stylus controls.

    The controls had issues I agree 100%, but instead of saying the game is awful, it should be applauded. Scribblenauts as a concept and as it’s execution is impressive for any video game and incredible for a DS game. No one believed it could be done and it was, and quite well. It’s not perfect, but last I checked GTAIV had massive bugs, and issues and was still lauded for its’ accomplishment as the highest rated game of this generation.

    And since you decided to take the lowest scoring review on Metacritic, I’ll take the highest.

    Gamepro – “Seriously, despite its warts, Scribblenauts is still the type of game that could and should have an impact on the entire gaming industry.” 100

    While I would not give this game a 100, I agree completely with their reasoning.

    To me your words do make you seem like a dinosaur worried about the climate change. You love the niche games (braid/portal) that only the hardcore gaming elite embrace and you shun anything that’s out of your realm. You long for the days of your youth playing Zelda and Mario. You sound like someone who hates the encroaching “casuals”, worried they’ll change your beloved industry forever. You love “art games” when they apply to your specific tastes and shun anything as garbage if it doesn’t fit your narrow view. You should be embracing and welcoming the mainstream acceptance of our pastime. It’s opened up so many doors including 2DBoy’s ability to makes games.

    Anyway, you should just lie down and die dinosaur. Just dream of the past as you slip away and let the mammals take their rightful place. It’ll all go so much easier that way.

  9. Groxx Says:

    Wow… an argument on the internets. And look what it hinges around: completely valid differences of opinion.

    Quit trying to change Drew’s opinion, his opinion is his opinion, and at least it’s informed. So the game didn’t click with him, so what? It didn’t click with thousands of people. It’s succeeding, so it obviously did click with thousands, but do you really expect every person in the world to find ANY game perfect?

    Personally, I find the game fascinating, but don’t play with it much. The idea is unique, and the execution was clearly difficult, but I don’t feel they hit the “critical mass” of objects or interactions either. Of course, that would be insanely hard, but that’s kind of the problem they set before themselves. And all in all, I agree with Drew, personally. The clunkiness detracts from the freedom, where the polish in the gameplay of those “niche games” like Braid and Portal enhance it and encourage you to go further. I see Scribblenauts similarly to how I’d see Portal if it had partly broken physics, so you couldn’t do those long-jump maneuvers. Entertaining, unique, but too fundamentally flawed to give it a “perfect” score. Very good, to be sure, but nothing more.

    But, 5th Cell made it, and they succeeded enough to boost them to other endeavors, which is fantastic news. It’s a creative group that’s doing new things, and doing them surprisingly well. I wish them no end of flexible publishers, and I hope to see a Scribblenauts 2 (or something new entirely) some day.

  10. Drew Says:

    Dugg, I think that what we have here is a failure to communicate. I never said that Scribblenauts was “awful,” or that it was “garbage.” I never said that I longed “for the days of my youth,” I never indicated that I had any issue with casual gamers or “the mainstream acceptance of our pastime,” and I have no idea what part of my post qualifies as “fanboyism.” Since I didn’t say half of what you’re disagreeing with, maybe we agree more than you think.

    What I said was that the game didn’t grab me. Given that the premise of this thread is that the kind of art that “takes on completely different meanings for different people” is interesting, I really don’t think that there’s any reason to get angry over differences of opinion. Differences of opinion are precisely the point.

    Like Groxx, I’m very glad that Scribblenauts got made, and I’m glad that I played it, and I hope that it has some influence. But I thought that it had some major flaws that held it back from being a great as it might have been. And there’s no shame in not doing something perfectly the first time it’s ever been tried. Scribblenauts definitely tried to do something truly extraordinary, but I think that whether or not it succeeded is up for debate. If you’d like to have that debate, then count me in.

    But I have absolutely no interest in name-calling, or in reducing our opinions about games to unequivocal praise on the one hand, or blind hatred on the other. (Very few games, very few things in general, are all good or all bad). Scribblenauts is an ambitious and original game, but also a flawed one. Now, whether the ambition and the originality outweigh the flaws–that’s a matter of personal opinion.

  11. Ryan Says:

    Wow Dugg. Spoken like a real juvenile, getting defensive and calling people names because they didn’t like what you did. No one on this thread ever said they explicitly hated the game.

  12. Steve Says:

    If Scribblenauts gets a linux port, put me down for a copy.
    As shown with WoG we linux users are just waiting to spend our gaming dollars on companies will to port to our platform.

  13. BBB Says:

    Everything well said, Drew.

  14. Enchanter49 Says:

    This game is for the DS right? I played it at my friend’s house all the time!

    This review is very descriptive! I believe that it is one of my two most favorite games ever! World of Goo being, of course, the other!

    PS The link on my reply name leads to the World of Goo 2 official website. Yes! It’s being made!