Scribblenauts is a series that began on DS and has led to a fair number of sequels. It got a lot of hype when it was released in the fall of 2009, but as someone who knows more than the average person about "artificial intelligence" and language processing, I was pretty skeptical about how well the game's "22,000+ word vocabulary" claims would succeed in making for a game that was also fun and worthwhile. Unfortunately, even when I take off my "scientist" hat, I found the game to be incredibly frustrating and dull.

I'm apparently not alone in my reaction. The game's reviews were more divisive than usual, with quite a few heavy-hitters such as Nintendo Power and IGN giving the game high scores, while many others giving it low marks. I pretty much completely agreed with The New York Times' review, and they summed it up by calling it "a mostly frustrating, annoying product".

There are several problems with the game. The one cited most often is the frustrating controls, which I agree makes the game unplayable more often than not. Taps are used to select objects as well as move them, and guide your character, and they're often misread: I lost track of the number of times I sent Maxwell, the main character, careening to his death unintentionally. It seems that in subsequent games movement is handled by the control pad rather than the touchscreen.

The other problem people often mention is that there's little motivation to actually make use of more than the tiniest fraction of the game's vocabulary. My main issue with the game, however, is that the range of properties each item has is incredibly small, with most not having any resemblance to their real-life counterparts at all. All the objects are super floaty, and Maxwell can push tanks like they were made out of cardboard. I could summon a cage, but I couldn't actually put anything into it. Wings only let you fly as high as a high jump, and most smaller objects don't let you do much beyond put them inside a container and take them out of a container. There's a mechanic where you can attach two objects together with "glue", but when you're gluing two small objects more often than not trying to move it makes them all come apart. All of this severely limits the game's premise, which is "unlimited creativity" in solving the game's puzzles, most of which are similar anyway, such as "get object from point A to point B". Half the time killing off the obstacle with a gun or whatever was the easiest solution, and as a pacifist I felt this was just another reason for me to dislike the game. I also strongly disliked how many of the puzzles required precise timing, which better controls would certainly help with, but which made the whole experience feel really fiddly.

Basically what it seems to boil down to is that the people who loved the game are the ones who liked thinking up words and then seeing some simulacrum of it appear on the screen. Often these words will be in the game, but what's the point if you can't really do anything with them or if they behave the same as hundreds of other similar words when they clearly should have many unique properties? In that case you might as well just be doing an image search online and looking at the results. In the end despite the somewhat likable presentation I disliked the game so much it earned a place in my "worst" games of all time, and made me extremely leery of playing any sequels. I suppose I'll try another one out sometime in the future, but it definitely won't be any time soon.

Sketch these Scribblenauts links:
- FAQ at GameFAQs, which includes a list of the game's entire vocabulary
- Cute ad for the game
- Entry at Wikipedia
- Review at NintendoLife

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