When is a Scribblenauts story not about Scribblenauts? When it's about the other ambitious game development studio 5th Cell is releasing on the DS this fall.
Before their most recent game became the talk of E3 and the most buzzed about release of the past week, Washington-based 5th Cell was best known for making Drawn To Life. The 2007 DS adventure let players draw their own hero and items while embarking on a mostly platforming-based quest. Players could illustrate every pixel of their protagonist and draw, among other things, his gun, his wings and the rocket ship he could use in space.
The precursor to Scribblenauts' exhortation for players to write anything was Drawn To Life's invitation for gamers to draw anything.
Sequels to Drawn To Life will be released next month on the Wii and DS. The DS version comes from 5th Cell and, while it is less ballyhooed than Scribblenauts, it may reveal more about 5th Cell's craft and potential as a studio of significance than the game's more hyped younger brother.
I've played through The Next Chapter's first world using a pre-release DS cartridge of the game that I picked up, in person, at 5th Cell's offices a couple of weeks ago. Earlier this week, I wrote about the one time a developer brought a complete build of his game to my office; my 5th Cell visit was the first time I showed up at a studio and walked out with a full build of a new game. What stands out to me about my visit, aside from meeting the 5th Cell team was the company's whiteboard. 5th Cell creative director Jeremiah Slaczka brought me to a board nearly covered in marker drawing and scribble — little wonder what kinds of games this studio makes — and asked me to draw something. This board doesn't get erased. My drawing would stay. I was intimidated by the art on board, but saying "no" wasn't an appropriate answer. I stalled. I almost wimped out. Then, I drew an amoeba. So... maybe I did wimp out?
Playing the new Drawn To Life is a less intimidating version of being asked to draw on that 5th Cell whiteboard. More so than its predecessor, the new game frequently asks its player to illustrate its world. Amid lushly developer-drawn houses and bridges I've had to draw a lighthouse and birds that flap their wings. I've had to draw a beachball for my hero to balance on and a surfboard that lets him ride a wave. I've drawn the health power-ups to be ice-cream cones and the in-game boat to look like a car. The altar from which the player's hero can activate the game's new Action Drawing mechanic looks like a rising stock chart — don't ask me why — and the yo-yo-ish weapon my hero can sling at enemies looks like the ball of fire that a kindergartner or deputy editor might draw.
I've found that, the more the stuff in a game world looks like your own handiwork, the more attached you become to it. But the charm a gamer derives from seeing their creations on screen can be short-lived if the gameplay through which you can animate those creations is lacking. The first game felt shallow to me. I walked my hero around the plagued village of Raposa, which was viewed in the overhead style of most 2D Zelda games and then saw action in simple side-scrolling levels that involved rudimentary jumping and punching. The elements were no different than those in many other 2D games, but their combination, as I experienced in the first game's first few worlds, produced few interesting level designs. 5th Cell's new Drawn To Life appears to surmount this fundamental problem. What was once boring is now fun and varied enough that I didn't want to put it down to write this preview.
This sequel is set after the events of the first game. The seemingly nefarious Wilfre, an inkblot of a possible arch-villain, begins to drain the world of color and warps the citizens of Raposa Village to distant lands. The gamer, assuming the role of god-like creator, is asked by some of the remaining villagers to draw a hero — one who can now have four arms and one leg if you want, by the way. The hero, who I named "M=4," and his friends wind up fleeing their village to the refuge of a small town built on the back of giant sea turtle. Their new mobile home swims them to the game's main worlds. These worlds are rendered as if they are drawings in a book laid open on the DS's bottom screen. At the worlds' edges you can see a book's binding and the pages beneath. In these worlds are structures for the player to color in, characters to talk to, and doorways to the game's side-scrolling action sequences. I played through the game's first main world, the town of Watersong, fighting through some undersea swimming levels, leaping across rooftops and boarding a ghostly pirate ship.
It's hard to articulate how the platforming in the new game is better, but it is, incorporating, to name a few nice features, a simple combo-chaining score mechanic, visually interesting enemies on gondolas and warp-funnels that reminded me of Donkey Kong Country's barrels. What helps the levels is the more frequent need to draw. I was given access only to the most simple of the Action Drawing areas. These mid-level zones are confined rooms that give the player access to a limited amount of ink with which to draw the floating platforms needed to reach an exit. A trailer for the game indicates that other colors of ink that make these platforms springy or movable will become available.
The bullet-point improvements of the new game include a more advanced drawing tool that offers more colors, the ability to swap drawn creations with friends who also have the game nearby and a feature I didn't reach that lets the player transform their hero into a blob or spider with distinct abilities.
When I sat down to talk about the game with Slaczka, though, it wasn't the gameplay features that he said he was the most proud of. It was an aspect seldom promoted for a DS game: The story. 5th Cell games may have cheerful graphics that are associated with simple kids' stuff, but Slaczka, an experienced screenwriter, told me he thinks this story's special. It's hard to grasp its quality having just played a couple of hours of a longer adventure, but there are promising signs. The adventure opens in unusual fashion for a game, putting the player in a very unfamiliar situation, asking them to recall — and draw — a moment they know nothing about. The characters, frankly, don't whine or over-emote the way a lot of kid-game characters do. Early on, the simplicity of a good vs. bad fight is shaded in gray. And apparently there's something up with the game's ending, which the opening credits reveal was drawn by David Hellman, the artist who did Braid. It's clear there's care in this production — how else to explain that when a mid-level moment calls for a song the game suddenly playis a full-length, fully-vocalized song, another DS rarity. How this comes together as a narrative remains to be seen.
There is something to be said about Scribblenauts in all of this. One skeptical reaction vocalized by some players of that game is that 5th Cell may not be able to surround a novel gameplay mechanic with level design and controls that are of equal quality and ingenuity. That criticism could have been levied at the first Drawn To LIfe, but 5th Cell is showing signs with The Next Chapter that, given the chance to iterate with a sequel, they can improve where improvement is needed.