By Ethan . October 12, 2013 . 12:30pm
Scribblenauts Unmasked, like any other crossover project, is tasked with appealing to multiple audiences. Is there overlap between fans of Scribblenauts and DC universe enthusiasts? Sure, of course. The latter group of people knows that this is a game for them. However, what separates the quality crossover projects from shallower vehicles for fanservice is whether they can appeal to a person who isn’t already enamored with all included properties. Prior to playing this game, I knew my way around the Justice League pretty well but was new to Scribblenauts.
…and I’m pleased to report that I’m now a fan of both.
Scribblenauts Unmasked seems to be a game balancing many different seemingly opposing pressures. It’s a game about creativity and self-expression, and it’s also a licensed game about a property filled with characters and locations established over decades. It’s a game that wants to be approachable for children, but also wants to appeal to those who have already grown up with DC. It’s a game about heroes who largely solve their problems by violent means, but it doesn’t have the mechanics to be a violent game. What’s remarkable is that rather than fracture or weaken the playing experience, these are the conflicts that define the game’s strengths. This game was most certainly not an opportunistic merging of two individually popular franchises to generate a few dollars, but is a very carefully considered product that intelligently leverages both IP’s strengths.
That’s how I feel now, at least. It took some doing to get here. When I first started playing the game I didn’t get it at all. The opening movie narrated like a storybook had me thinking that this was a game clearly aimed only at a 6-12 age group and the easily overcome obstacles in the first missions did little to dissuade that notion. Finding the game to lack mechanical or narrative hooks to keep me interested I kept myself going by taking full advantage of the exhaustive Scribblenauts dictionary. Sure I could just summon up a flamethrower or the sun to melt the snowmen… but why not a burning tree? A burning building? A burning lawyer?
These were the least depraved of my attempts to add flavor to the simple challenges the game posed to me, and I felt properly wicked executing them. My creations weren’t in keeping with the spirit of the DC universe and I thought CERTAINLY were not what the level designers had in mind when drawing up their hurdles. I thought I was playing the game wrong, taking advantage of it somehow. I kept on thinking that right up until my evil twin summoned a fireproof robot kraken to eat me. That monstrosity was exactly the sort of thing I had been creating! That moment changed my outlook on the game considerably—it became suddenly obvious that not only were creative malcontents like me anticipated, but that the developers were similarly inspired. I wasn’t breaking anything at all.
Looking back, I think that’s when I became a fan of the Scribblenauts franchise. The child-safe trappings didn’t define the contents of the game one bit, at least not unless I wanted to let them. And I didn’t want that. I wanted to know how many burning lawyers it takes in one place before Superman isn’t able to save them all.
Another issue I had at first was with how this game handles combat. By necessity, things are kept simple. There’s an array of super powers and most anything you carry can be used to slap someone around, but it’s nigh impossible to focus on a single target or to avoid slapping a friendly character. Characters overlap in a jumble all the time so sometimes there’s just no more accurate way to swing a weapon than wildly mashing right click. So many games have explored so many styles of interactive combat, this clumsy mix of everything and the kitchen sink (literally once) bouncing off each other seemed inexcusable. And I suppose that’s fair on a level – combat in this game is some of the least tactile, strategic, or even controllable I’ve ever seen.
But problems lead to problem solving. At least, in Scribblenauts they do. Don’t want to make Green Arrow mad by accidentally hitting him with your lead pipe? Summon up Red Arrow to do it for you! Can’t single out a target in a crowd? Add the adjective “hungry” to him or her and then set a turkey sandwich off to one side. Getting bullied by a gang of particularly annoying yellow lanterns? Well, summoning the entire Justice League to your side has a way of making annoying those sorts of problems go away.
As I played I realized that the clumsiness of the combat in this game was forcing me to be more creative and dig deeper into the library of DC heroes than I would have otherwise. I feel like it would be profoundly wrong to complain that this game does a poor job of letting the player wade into a melee to strike down his foes in glorious battle. That’s what other video games are for, there are no shortage of options available to those who crave that experience. This game holds the potential for so many more and more interesting interactions than that, I’m actually glad that the way the superheroes tussle forced me to take advantage of them.
And that other conflict I mentioned? How a game about creation and creativity seems at odds with a game exploring an established universe and characters? Well, that was what I was wrong about most of all. When I was a child, I owned a Batman action figure. When I played with Batman, was I limited in how I could play? Certainly not! Batman climbed mountains, slid down staircases, and battled his nemesis, the mighty Skeletor, as my imagination demanded. He was alternately aggressive, brooding, able to fly, or any of a hundred other things. After my brother broke his arm, Batman became a doctor. That’s the experience of playing with Batman in Scribblenauts Unmasked. Whatever task you need him to accomplish, whatever mood you want him to have, whatever new superpower you want him to develop… it’s all right there in the dictionary.
Except it’s not just Batman, it’s everyone DC’s ever dreamed up all collected together in the ultimate toy box.
When I was a child, Batman wasn’t the only action figure I owned, but it was certainly the most used (closely followed by Skeletor of course—who else was a worthy villain for Batman? Emperor Palpatine? Please). I’d never considered why until I played this game though. The reason Batman got played with is the same reason a crossover between Scribblnauts and DC works so very well—the iconic DC superheroes don’t limit imaginations, they spark them!
Food For Thought:
1. This game also contains superhero creation and sharing features. Those who are inspired to add their own heroes to the pantheon will be happy to know that the creation suite is robust and unlocked for use extremely early on.
2. The player is given a Bat computer early on in the game which allows him or her to browse through a compiling of DC characters as exhaustively complete as one would expect from the people who remembered to put a can opener and label maker in their game.
3. The answer is eight.