Let me make myself very clear: this is not a game review in any real capacity, and I hope to spend as little time possible weighing the merits and vexations of Scribblenauts. I’ll go so far as to agree with the vast majority of people who have published actual reviews, in saying that the game’s concept is brilliant and almost endlessly entertaining, but that the execution leaves something to be desired, primarily in today’s topic of interest, the controls. Yes, today I will be closely examining the controls of Scribblenauts, as I find them to be an excellent study in how not to implement touch controls — we always learn the most from failure, and in this particular instance, the touch controls are such a disaster that they very nearly ruin a concept with incredible potential.
I’m not sure what the logical point to start with would be, so I’ll just dive right into the worst aspect by far, which ties in with my post from a few days ago: character movement should absolutely never be handled in a manner that makes it easy to accidentally engage. So many of the puzzles in Scribblenauts would be substantially easier if I didn’t have to deal with Maxwell flipping about like an epileptic on a bad day every time I try to interact with an object on the screen. Initiating movement is by far the easiest thing to do in the game, and when your game mechanics rely almost exclusively on precarious item set-ups and a glitchy physics engine, moving is the last thing you want the protagonist to be doing. I consider this hard evidence that while “tap-to-move” might seem like the most natural system for character motion, it actually causes much more frustration than it prevents. While I decided that this would be an issue long before playing Scribblenauts, it’s timely that 5th Cell chose to provide such a clear demonstration of just how right my intuition was.
This is really a shame, too, because Maxwell actually handles pretty well when you intend for him to be moving. Auto-jumping over gaps and such feels very natural, as does using wings or a jetpack to rocket up into the air. Auto-pathfinding — having the character adjust their movement to avoid obstacles directly in front of them — is an idea I’ve been tossing around for a while now, and it’s good to see some confirmation that such a system can feel intuitive. Because of how imprecise touch controls generally are, putting a system in place to help the player navigate around the map without forcing them to develop a nervous tic in their metacarpal muscles is always a good thing.
The other major grievance I have with Scribblenauts’s controls is how incredibly finicky they are, in terms of dealing with small objects. The DS stylus is a far more precise tool than a human finger for use in conjunction with a touch screen, but despite the vast improvement in the accuracy of the system, it remains remarkably difficult to actually interact with small objects in the game. Even with limited play-time sunk into Scribblenauts, I cannot count the number of times I’ve created a rope or chain, only to struggle with trying to grab its end for several minutes, continuously. Picking up large objects is certainly simple enough, but the precision called for in dealing with small objects exceeds anything I’ve encountered in Trauma Center, a game in which you are a surgeon. By my reckoning, if your game feels more like surgery than a game about surgery, you’ve either brilliantly planned your controls to require nothing short of perfection from your players, or you’ve unintentionally and foolishly made your controls picky and terrible. After attempting to grab the end of a rope and watching Maxwell hurtle off of a cliff instead for the umpteenth time, it’s become resoundingly clear to me that Scribblenauts does not fall into that former category.
There is a silver lining here, though: as clumsy as the execution is, Scribblenauts does bring something interesting to the mix, in the form of contextual menus. When dealing with an object that offers multiple means of interaction, tapping that object will bring up a ring of options, listing the potential interactions. Give Maxwell a gun, for instance, then tap on a switch, and you will be presented with options to either shoot the switch or to actually walk up to it and use it. Granted, the system could use a bit of polish in light of the other problems with the touch controls in the game, but these contextual menus are almost exactly what I’ve been conceptualizing as an extension of the typical hot-key system in MMORPGs, with a menu of user-defined options popping up upon selection of a target. Like Maxwell’s auto-movement, I see the implementation of the contextual menus as a proof-of-concept for Atma’s control scheme, despite the otherwise flawed and frustrating touch controls present in Scribblenauts.
While Scribblenauts’s controls are indeed horrifyingly bad, and do a bang-up job of ruining what could otherwise be an incredible experience, it’s useful to remember that game design is one of those areas of thought where we can learn from the mistakes of others. I see the game’s flaws as a learning opportunity, giving the most compelling reason imaginable for avoiding the same mistakes. While I’m certain Atma will have its fair share of problems, the hope here is that those problems won’t be anything that could have been prevented by simply paying a bit of attention to the flaws of other games.