‘Scribblenauts’ game inventive yet limited

scribblenauts
WB Games/Courtesy

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Scribblenauts Unlimited” attempts to turn childhood imagination into reality. Name any object, possibly with some adjectives, and “Scribblenauts Unlimited” will recreate it in its world, with its expected behaviors and properties. It is a huge sandbox that is both a toy and a mix of complex systems, which intermingle with interesting, sometimes hilarious interactions. The result is a light-hearted world meant for exploration and experimentation, but it is one with some inherent limitations that hinder your ability to translate your creativity into the game.

The systems and world around the core of “Scribblenauts Unlimited” serve the game’s whimsical aesthetic incredibly well. Unlike its previous installments, there’s a charming, newly implemented open world for you to explore and where you can solve puzzles. Puzzles are spread out in this open world by helping random strangers, who usually need some sort of object or some sort of problem fixed. You can fast-travel to other parts of the world, which include art galleries, fire stations, pirate ships, glaciers, pyramids and haunted houses. If you want to goof off and create an arena for an invisible tank, an invincible God and a cute troll to fight each other to the death and destroy everyone around them, it is possible to do so anywhere, and you are able to reset the world at any time with impunity.

The main problem with “Scribblenauts Unlimited” is that the semantics of the English language are inherently too large to be contained by a system of simple nouns and adjectives. You are prevented from including every possible object you would want to create in the game. For example, there is a puzzle where a sick cat requires medical attention. If you create a veterinarian, that veterinarian will heal the cat. If you try to create a cat doctor, however, the game stops you, as you can’t have a noun as an adjective, which is a problem when you consider what a cat doctor is: Is it a doctor that specifically heals cats, or a cat that is a doctor? It’s hard to blame the game for lacking this distinction, considering the semantics of such a phrase are vague, but it is a barrier to the imagination nonetheless.

Some of the puzzles also seem to be affected by the large pool of possible user creations, such that the solutions are limited to very specific, simple logic. The game is just filled with weird, nonsensical logic.

For example, to teach an elephant to paint, I created a skilled painter next to it so that the painter could teach the elephant. That did not work, but simply giving the elephant a paintbrush did. In another instance, to find a girlfriend for a man so hideous that he wears a bag over his head, creating a blind girl for him did not work, but creating an ugly girl for him did. Also, a sleeping dart gun seems to create a dart gun that is sleeping instead of a gun that shoots sleeping darts. However, it still works like the latter.

Because the body of objects language encompasses is so large and complicated — especially when factoring in adjectives — it’s impossible to design puzzles with clever solutions for specific objects. Complex objects have to be reduced to their most simplistic traits for the puzzles to work, meaning a perpetual-motion machine will never function as more than a simple machine.

Despite these limitations, “Scribblenauts Unlimited” provides a charming experience, even if parts of it are too simplistic for its own good. Ultimately, it is hard to hate a game where you can ride a Pegasus above a pirate ship while throwing nukes at sharks.

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