I think I may have discovered the mark of a truly well-designed children’s video game: it makes you feel old. Not in a bad way — just that it makes you suspect you have to actually be a person of single-digit age in order to really take advantage of its creative potential. Scribblenauts Remix, an iOS version of the beloved Nintendo DS game, made me feel this way. The gameplay is brilliantly unstructured: you solve a series of open-ended cartoon puzzles by literally wishing whatever you damn well please into existence.
You control a cute manga-esque avatar named Maxwell, who has the genie-like ability to conjure up almost anything you can dream up–all you have to do is type in a description of it. The tutorial starts you off easy by suggesting things like “ladder” or “box” (for climbing to reach Starites, the floating talismans Maxwell needs to collect in order to advance to the next level). But why stick with that when you can just as easily ask for “a giant blue dragon”? (Beware: he’s not exactly well-mannered.)
As long as it’s not a swear word, proper noun, or copyrighted product, Scribblenauts will interpret your every whim and make it part of the gameplay. You can use these creations to solve challenges, or simply inhabit a “playground” level and experiment on your own. The latter was more appealing to me, but it took my atrophied adult brain a while to get into the swing of things. I asked for a “huge spinning cube” and got a homely little wooden crate. Then I realized I should stop thinking of useless visual abstractions and channel my inner eight-year-old. Within seconds I had Maxwell flying around in a jetpack blasting things with a machine gun, and I had much more fun. (Hm, what would’ve happened if I asked for a “huge” machine gun instead…?)
That’s what’s great about Scribblenauts: it’s packed with interactions that take advantage of a kid’s naturally exploratory, open-ended way of thinking, without telegraphing what those interactions could or should be. Every kid who plays this game will have a unique experience because they’ll literally design it out of their own anarchic imaginations. And if they get stuck, they can shake the iPad like an Etch-A-Sketch and all their creations will cleanly poof out of existence, cleaning the slate for something new. (I tried this when my giant blue dragon got out of control and started breathing fire all over another character I was supposed to be helping.) It’s educational in the best possible way–by letting kids teach themselves what’s possible. And that ain’t bad for an adult to be reminded of from time to time, too.