One of the most dependable joys of writing about videogames is hearing the implausible claims made by developers regarding their latest titles: "hundreds of separate light sources", "the frame rate will be locked at 1600fps", "it's basically interactive storytelling", "this time, you'll really care about Falco Lombardi". But Scribblenauts tops them all. This mild-mannered DS game has a premise so staggeringly unlikely that when you first hear it you may find yourself trilling with dainty laughter at the very thought of somebody trying to pull it off. "Yeah," sighs lead designer Matt Cox, the very somebody in question. "We tend to get that reaction a lot."
The premise is this: Scribblenauts is a platforming puzzle game, in which Maxwell, a chirpy cartoon boy who appears to have had a be-quiffed television set jammed over his head, has to collect Starites by completing a variety of challenges - dislodging one from a high tree, for example, or winning one as an award for helping an old man pass an eye test. "WarioWare is the best analogy for the way the game plays," says Cox. "It's different kinds of situations, one after the other, with a wide range of challenges." And the implausible bit? To beat each level, the player summons objects to help Maxwell, by writing their name on the bottom screen.
Yes: any object.
Well, any object within reason. Proper nouns and anything grotty have been ruled out, but these are just about the only limits to what you can conjure up. The game's trailer, which features that Starite stuck in a tree, offers three different examples of the system at work. In the first, a ladder is summoned, and Maxwell simply climbs it to get his prize. In the second version, he calls up a football, and kicks it to dislodge the Starite. The final playthrough sees him conjuring up a beaver to gnaw through the trunk. Presumably, you could also blow the tree to pieces with nuclear weapons, ram into it with a New York City taxi cab, or even dislodge it with a passing swoop of a Sopwith Camel.
As the beaver example suggests, everything summoned into the world will act appropriately. "A lion behaves like a lion, and a frying pan behaves like a frying pan," says Cox. "It's all realistic, and it has to be: it's not like you write 'oven' and you get a magic oven that you can fly around on." There's another dream of ours cruelly dashed.
Unlikely as all this seems, 5th Cell, the developer of Scribblenauts, does actually have previous form with this kind of game. Drawn to Life, its breakout DS title, featured a similar user-generated premise, albeit one a lot more contained, as players sketched in their own artwork for the game's main character and much of the environment, before embarking on a simple platforming quest.
But Scribblenauts is a lot more ambitious, and the team has spent much of the last year trying to make the concept work. That's no easy task, since every word in the game's dictionary not only needs a corresponding graphic, but a set of believable attributes and behaviours as well.
To help them with this frankly insane task, the developers have created a database called Objectnaut. "The way it works is we've started with the qualities rather than the objects," explains Cox. "We've started with categories and sub-categories, like flammable, electrical, heavy, organic, and then we place each object within this framework. That means an object already inherits loads of qualities as soon as it's put into the system: we don't have to say fire would burn this wooden ladder or this boat. We simply say fire would burn everything that's flammable, and anything made of wood will already be marked up in the database as flammable. And when someone slots in a bird, we know from the start that it's organic and it flies, and it has AI properties and that sort of stuff, right from the word go. We don't have to go through thousands of objects one by one, assigning properties." So with Objectnaut in place, it's just a case of filling up the database. With every single object players are likely to think of. Simple.
So that's what 5th Cell is doing right now, with a team of around twenty people. "We're all going through dictionaries," says creative director Jeremiah Slaczka. "We have people coming up with the words, people coming up with the art, people coming up with the database entries." And, crucially, how big will the finished database be? Slaczka laughs. "If you can write it, it will be in the game."
"It's hard to give people a sense of the scope of the game," admits Cox. "And people are sceptical: they think we'll use the same assets for lion and tiger and leopard, say, but we won't. We've got different art and different properties for all of those. People are going to be genuinely surprised by how deep the dictionary goes."
It feels like a trick of some sort, particularly given how confident the team seems, but 5th Cell assures us they're not procedurally generating content - how could they be? - or outsourcing the whole process to some slave labour camp in China, where orphans spend their day leafing through encyclopaedias and dictionaries, suffering paper cuts and early-onset tendonitis for a dollar a day.
However they're doing it, it seems to be working. As a test, we ask if Scribblenauts' dictionary has something as obscure as a chafing dish in it - as you'll know from Hot Shots, that's a traditional serving piece used at brunches to keep food warm. Within minutes, Cox has emailed us a screenshot of it. "The chafing dish has been in for a long time," he laughs. "We're into the specialist area right now - if you're a palaeontologist and you know some ridiculously obscure kind of dinosaur, that's what we're putting in at the moment, as we've done all the main ones."
Of course, even if the dictionary is as good as 5th Cell says it is - and the developers are winningly confident on this front - won't the game be a nightmare to balance? How do you create challenges in which the player can respond by doing absolutely anything at all? Rather than fearing such an eventuality, Slaczka seems to actually relish it. "We're well aware that people will be able to do things we hadn't even thought of. Just the other day, in the tree level, somebody wrote 'anvil', which doesn't seem like much help. But then they wrote 'glue', and stuck the glue to the anvil, and then stuck the anvil to the Starite, and it pulled it down out of the tree. I would've never thought to do that before, and we didn't program it, but because the objects all have physical qualities that make sense, the game can decide whether a solution's going to work. The system works by itself, and we don't have to worry about it."
With two different types of challenge available - simple casual scenarios with a single goal, and then more involved hardcore puzzles which feature enemies, platforming, and larger maps - Scribblenauts should provide plenty of thoughtful distraction to go along with its astonishing premise. "You'll have to contain things, escape from things, maybe cook things, and that sort of stuff," says Cox. "The fun of the game lies in interaction: spawning a bicycle and riding around on it is cool, but then you put a ramp up, and then put a rocket on it. That's cooler."
But there's no point hiding the fact that as much as Scribblenauts is a game about increasingly complex puzzles, it's also about the eternal simplicity of magic: of coming up with the most obscure object imaginable, and seeing if it's actually lodged somewhere inside that tiny game card - and then, of course, seeing how it behaves when you shove a rocket onto it. That's the player's real long-term challenge, perhaps: reverse-engineering 5th Cell's database, and sounding out the limitations of the system, trying to find that elusive something the developers didn't expect you to think of. And if that sounds like your kind of thing, you can start by crossing beavers, footballs, ladders, chafing dishes, and all the more obscure dinosaurs off your list already. Cox and Slaczka already have them covered.
Scribblenauts is due out for the DS in autumn 2009.