Using your imagination is boring. That’s the lesson of Scribblenauts, a game where you can conjure almost any item just by typing its name; the only practical limit is your own creativity. The game’s puzzles are open-ended, so when you need to help a lumberjack chop down a tree, you can give him an axe, or sic termites on the tree’s trunk and let nature do the work. There’s a heady excitement about this anything-is-possible premise, which leads to a letdown once it becomes clear that the reality of Scribblenauts is far more modest.
Buzz for the game has centered around its enormous dictionary, rumored to contain more than 20,000 words. Thanks to its vocabulary, Scribblenauts seems downright magical in a five-minute demo session—“It has ‘sphygmomanometer’! And ‘intergalactic wormhole’!” The frustration comes when you try to do something with all the treasures you’ve found in the game’s bottomless junk drawer. Most of Scribblenaut’s animals, vegetables, and minerals interact in one of two ways. Either they attempt to destroy each other, or they loiter around doing nothing. It’s usually the latter, so your experience is filled with ovens that don’t bake and roosters that don’t crow at the sun. If you place a plumber in front of a leaky pipe and give him a wrench, he stands there scratching his head. Either the game carries a deep cynicism toward the working class, or something is missing here.
There are occasional epiphanies, particularly in the puzzle stages, where you complete cute objectives like hatching a dinosaur egg. (The action stages, where the goal is to retrieve “starite” gems, are hampered by fumbly physics that make every moving part feel like a slack-stringed marionette.) Even the moments of success are underwhelming, though, which is baffling, because Scribblenauts looks like it should be a joy. The aesthetics are bright, the writing is spare and pithy, and the game isn’t afraid to be silly. So why is it such tedium?
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. The more creative you try to be, the more often your efforts lead to a dead end. While it’s reassuring to find that human ingenuity is too varied to be cataloged in a tiny DS cartridge, it doesn’t make for a very fun game.