Wot I Think: Crayon Physics Deluxe

By Jim Rossignol on January 6th, 2009 at 1:27 pm.


The winner of last year’s $20,000 Seumas McNally Grand Prize at the Independent Games Festival was Crayon Physics Deluxe. Finally, on January 7th 2009, we are able to buy the finished game. Has that extra year and financial aid helped the hand-drawn physics puzzler maximise its potential? Or did Petri Purho end up eating all the crayons and sitting in the corner? Having played that finished version, here’s Wot I Think.


The basic concept that powers Crayon Physics is faultlessly charming. The idea is this: what you draw on screen becomes an object in the 2D game world. The objects you draw interact, via a series of in-game physics rules, with the other entities in the world. You use this idea to complete a series of levels. It’s a simple physics game with the art style of a pre-school infant class, and the technological aptitude an MIT resident. It has the kind of personality we might otherwise see in brilliant illustrated children’s book, or a perfect cartoon short film. This might be a tiny, throwaway slip of a game, but you won’t forget it: it’s one of those ideas that captures your imagination for just long enough to leave an indelible impression. And the feel of drawing thing, oh hell, it’s easiest just to show you it in action.


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And you don’t need a touchscreen and/or pen thing, your mouse is just fine.

So it’s unlike the drawing-in-games that we’ve seen in other places recently, such as in the beautiful console adventure, Okami. Here the drawing does actually render your creations, rather than nudging something in the world to life. Draw a funny face, and that falls down in the world as a solid thing. For Crayon Physics the drawing becomes something that ties into a puzzle, a preset situation that the game provides. This fundamental idea of completing a mechanical puzzle is not new at all, and has been brilliant instanced time and again by The Incredible Machine series, or spin off ideas like the splendidly physics-based Armadillo Run. That idea, the game of the Rube Goldberg contraption, is one that will sit at the heart of puzzle games for many years to come, I should like to think.

So in some ways Crayon Physics is part of a much older lineage, one that it is competing with directly. Like an Incredible Machine puzzle, Crayon Physics presents you with a series of minimalist hand-drawn pictures that you must complete in order to progress. The regular elements on each level are a ball and a star, and your mission is to collect the star with the ball. This might happen by drawing a box to cause a lever to pull, or a hammer to knock the ball towards the star, or some other element of drawing that will bridge, push, flip, knock, or otherwise physicsize your ball towards its goal. As you progress, so the drawing challenges become more obscure, or more complex. You start to build things with levels, or with systems of ropes and pulleys. Your items take on different qualities depending on how you draw them, and learn how these interact is the secret to success. Odd items crop up too, such a rockets which can be used to propel or drag other objects across the level at high speed, or to smack your ball towards its goal. There’s a map to progress across, and plenty of levels to choose from as you travel, with high numbers of stars being required to unlock the high end islands. All standard game fare.

The “magic” feeling of all this, which John referred to when talking about the game last year, is still in evidence and can be quite profound. Seeing your squiggly line do something in the world, especially when attached to some other moving, working system, is just a wonderful, unnatural thing. This spontaneous creation of something from nothing makes it feel like great things must be possible within the game, and they often are – especially when Purho’s puzzle design hits its best moments. A few of the levels are truly ingenious. I suspect, however, that it will be the level editor that really shows us what the game is capable of. As with some many of these things, it will be the users, rather than the creator, who really figure out what the tools can really do.

Indeed, this fantasy toolkit of possibility is the kind of thing that videogames do best: expanding our expectations of what should be possible, and doing zany, arty things with technology that would make your grandmother do that wide-mouthed expression which accompanies profound “Disbelief At The World Today”. Particularly if you draw large penises that then interact with little toy cars and rockets. Because you can do that. And you will do that.

Yet it’s far from a perfect puzzler. The real let down comes in romping through the middle levels of the game, which begin to throw a unique problem. The problem is that the brilliant flexibility of its drawing/physics system means that you can bodge the solution of almost every level. Where these kinds of games usually demand that you use a series of prefabricated items to deliver just a couple of solutions, in Crayon Physics you can draw your way out of almost any situation. Where constraints maketh the puzzle in most such contraption-sequences, here the drawing gives you quite a lot of room to play with. While this facilitates your own creativity enormously, it also cripples the puzzle-game intentions by allowing you to come up with an easier – and occasionally more obvious – solution to the situation you’re presented. The result that the game designer seemed to intend often isn’t the one you’ll end up producing. Indeed, to get the most out of the game as it was designed, you’ll really need to think around the problem a little, and to take the less-obvious route to come up with a creative or elegant solution.

Having almost no attention span at all, and being generally pork-brained about such things, I know that I wasn’t making the most of what the game had to offer, and that was disappointing. It’s relatively short, too. There’s eighty levels, but you blast through them at an amazing rate of knots – something that is tied into that prior criticism of the game. It’s a little too easy to stumble round the concepts that the game gives you, and it requires some real application to make the most of them.

Of course there’s no getting away from the sheer fact of bring life to crude, childish drawings, which give the game its picture-book innocence. It’s always great. There’s something quite tactile about the texture-effects of rough paper and wax crayon (the kind of crayon that seems to disappear from existence outside of the area of affect of young children – I mean when have you seen them in day to day adult life?) This texture and childishness is quite refreshing, and often very funny. Ultimately, this is a distinct and intriguing game, which is exactly the kind of fruit we’ve been hoping the weird, stumpy tree of independent game development would bear.

So anyway, let’s do what we do best and type out some concluding remarks. These are best when they’re pithy sound-bites that might be useful on the back of a box, or attached to the download page of the game to nudge you over the final hurdle of purchasing the game. How about this: Rock, Paper, Shotgun called Crayon Physics Deluxe “Magical”, and said that it was “the first work of independent gaming genius in 2009.” Something like that.

I’m a little surprised that the game has gone as high as $20 for the pre-orders, but I can’t imagine that many people will be too disappointed. The failure to be a tight puzzle game is outweighed by the sheer loveliness of play. This is a game that packages up your imagination and whisks it off down a chute labelled “ooh, fancy that!”

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47 Comments »

  1. cyrenic says:

    Is the music as good as the tech demo’s music?

  2. The Poisoned Sponge says:

    Worth a mention is the fact that the level editor is wonderfully intuitive, and unbelievably easy to use. It just works. Hopefully this will be even more encouragement for people much, much cleverer than myself to make some brilliant levels.

  3. qrter says:

    It’s $14.95 for preorders, $20 after release.

    I’d still want to try a demo first, though.

    (Interesting, btw, they’re going the same no-DRM route as 2D Boy, I see)

  4. Ginger Yellow says:

    Between this, Trine and Scribblenauts for the DS, it’s looking like 2009 is going to be the year of Crayon Physics clones. Which is a very good thing.

  5. qrter says:

    Oh wait that $14.95 was only when you ordered during November.. that seems a strange strategy.

  6. Jim Rossignol says:

    The music is excellent.

  7. The Hammer says:

    Seeing the game in action is something wonderful. I know at least some of the magic has to do with the demonstration being done via an actual pen, but still… the art-style is so full of personality with the crayon drawings, the rough brown paper (with creases and splodges!), the music so peaceful, natural and innocent, and the animations so hypnotising to watch. It’s one of these “stop and stare” games, I think, and I really hope it does well.

    The difficulty of the game doesn’t really bother me, I don’t think. I’m not much after a challenge when playing games, but when I get round to playing it, I won’t be looking for the easy option. It’s a game that looks like it should be savoured first time round.

    EDIT: One of the things I -really- like is the environment that the game is set in. The grass and trees… they complement the natural feel of the music brilliantly. It really is a child’s paradise.

  8. LewieP says:

    @cyrenic

    Petri put the soundtrack up to download here a few days ago.

  9. The Hammer says:

    @Lewie: A thousand thanks for the link!

  10. dbdkmezz says:

    Perfect review Jim. It is something of a shame that you could probably cheat the majority of the levels with a dull solution. The upside of that is that the game foces you to choose to try and make your solutions more fun, so you end up trying harder than you would have to put together hillarious solutions.

    @The Hammer: “child’s paradise”, I wonder what an actual child who still played with crayons would make of it?

  11. Feet says:

    I shall buy it soon. Their reward will be my pennies.

    EDIT: incidently is the Wot I Think feature replacing the RPS Verdict, or going alongside it? I like it anyways, it’s like a review but without actually calling it that.

  12. LewieP says:

    @Feet

    But where is the score, how I am supposed to know if it is good?!?!

  13. Feet says:

    Dude, I don’t know! It’s like they expect us to actually read the damned text!

  14. Still annoyed says:

    On the harder levels, I often end up having no idea what I’m supposed to do, so instead I just use some kind of boring, long-winded brute force tactic. And I can’t say I’m enjoying that too much. Maybe I’m too stupid for the game.

    Though it’s interesting – two thirds of the levels are a cakewalk (you immediately see what you should do, do it, and move on), the other third is too hard (or obscure).

    So… it’s mostly enjoyable in a low-key way, but not great.

  15. Heliocentric says:

    IT OKAY, GUYS RELAX. I’ve looked up on metacritics, cross referenced the key phrases with other reviews and reviews which contain the world “magical” as opposed to when its used as part of a noun ie.”+3 magical sword” or “magical pet”.

    meta-critic-meta-analysis of magical=8.7
    meta-critic-meta-analysis of Genius=9.1

    So I can objectively rate Crayon physics deluxe 8.9

    so its:
    worse than Microsoft Flight Simulator 2002
    as good as Grand Theft Auto IV
    and better than Starcraft (SCINCTCP)

    Hope that clears it up.

  16. Jim Rossignol says:

    Basically the verdict required a bunch of us to have all played a game at the same time, and it was getting very difficult to be timely. We’ll nevertheless have more of them, because they are fun, but Wot I Think will serve as a regular review feature.

  17. Ginger Yellow says:

    Wot I Fink, surely?

  18. Jim Rossignol says:

    That would be a deliberate mistake too far.

  19. Down Rodeo says:

    Heliocentric: genius. Which, I suppose, gives your score a score. Which means metameta critic. I am confused.

  20. Man Raised By Puffins says:

    @ Feet: If you put this alongside John’s Eurogamer review you can bodge together half of an RPS Verdict, well if you squint a bit and have an Optimus Prime handy at any rate.

  21. Radiant says:

    BUT THE SCORE!
    What should I think now?
    Do you want me to read?
    But what do you rate the graphics??!
    What do you mean I draw the graphics myself?
    That’s preposterous!

  22. Radiant says:

    This is worse then the Zapp 64 Sentinal review.

  23. phil says:

    @Radiant It’s not as bad as the Empire review of Goldeneye that called it a Quake-clone and gave it 2/5 – Actually, can anyone think of a worse game review, ever?

  24. Petri Purho says:

    Thanks for the review!

    I was afraid that the open ended nature of the puzzles might not satisfy all the players. It’s not a puzzle game were you have to find the correct solution to the puzzle, it’s a game about doing the creative, wacky and usually overly complex solutions. And I didn’t want to limit the creativity so a lot of the puzzles are very open ended. Because of this it’s very easy to breeze through most of the levels and as a player you’re in charge of the experience you get. It’s not even really about challenging the player as it’s more about inspiring them to go for the creative stuff.

    As mentioned in the review, the problem is if you’re not interested in going for the non obvious solutions, then you’re missing the best part of the game.

    Anyway, thanks for the critique and for the kind words about how magical the game is :)

  25. Heliocentric says:

    How do you feel about magical dragging the score down to 8.9?

  26. Phil says:

    Any idea if this is going to appear on Steam at some point?

  27. Larington says:

    @phil: Sadly, yes, I remember reading a review on PC Gamer UK about some game that was literally given 0% – It was broken on release and besides being able to see some ships hanging in space (Or something along those lines) it wasn’t actually possible to do something.

  28. Heliocentric says:

    @Lar, he means a bad review, as in a shit review. Not as in a review of something shit.

  29. LewieP says:

    IGN’s God Hand review was pretty terrible.

  30. Larington says:

    Oh yeah, sorry, brain failure.

  31. Optimaximal says:

    It sorta makes me angry that Tablet PC’s are so damn expensive… that, and a contractor who came on site managed to scrounge a £2000 one from a council clearance sale for £500!

  32. nakke says:

    IGN’s review of FM2009 was also quite awesome. Sadly it’s probably been deleted by now.

  33. LewieP says:

    For those of you with iPhones, aparently there is an iPhone version too. Made by Hudson, of all people. I’m not sure if it is a port, or different game, or how much it is, but I do know it exists.

  34. Ginger Yellow says:

    “It’s not as bad as the Empire review of Goldeneye that called it a Quake-clone and gave it 2/5 – Actually, can anyone think of a worse game review, ever?”

    Well, frankly, what the hell are you doing reading games reviews in Empire?

  35. VelvetFistIronGlove says:

    I’ve just given the iPhone port a try — it seems to work quite well, although apparently there’s a bug that strikes later levels that I’ve not run into yet. But it’s only £2.99, so worthwhile for iPod touch/iPhone owners.

  36. Heliocentric says:

    Can you get decent touch/tablets screens for PC’s as in a device rather than a whole system?

    I really wanted one for playing RTS’s and other games surely it cant cost too much in the world where ds exist.

  37. Radiant says:

    @Optimaximal
    You can pick up a nice little tablet pc for a few hundred pounds now.
    What happens is that a company will try their hand at a tablet pc then eventually abandon the line leaving a bunch of cheap grey area tablet pcs floating around laptop sellers stock rooms.
    Not to mention that you can cheaply buy a very nice capacitive touch screen which you can bolt on to pretty much any laptop anyway.
    Change the drivers and the os and away you go.

  38. Funky Badger says:

    This sounds an awful lot like Little Big Planet. Which seems good to me.

  39. caesarbear says:

    The music is excellent.

    Yes, but does it ever change?

  40. Psychopomp says:

    “It’s not as bad as the Empire review of Goldeneye that called it a Quake-clone and gave it 2/5 – Actually, can anyone think of a worse game review, ever?”
    Tom Chick’s review of Deus Ex.

  41. Psychopomp says:

    Or the Variety guy who called Braid overrated due to THINKING.

    Which, I believe is the same guy…

    Sorry for doublepost.

  42. simon says:

    At last, a good excuse to borrow the Wacom from work.

  43. psyk says:

    So this is “phun” with a game attached? Does it happen to be made by the same people?

  44. Phil says:

    After some digging, I’ve been able to answer (kind of) my own question about whether this will be available on Steam/Impulse/etc.

    In a post on the Crayon Physics forum on 13 December 2008, Petri said:

    “I’d love to as many digital distribution services as it’s humanly possible. Impulse seems really nice and I love Stardock so I’d like to see the game there.

    But please understand, that these things aren’t always that simple. You can’t just upload software to these services, you have to sign contracts and there are negotiations, lawyers, agents, business people, accountants, etc…

    So as much I’d love to do these different services, it’s not always that simple. “

  45. Markoff Chaney says:

    Well, there’s good news and bad news.

    Beginning with the bad: the first instance of deluxe popped up overnight on one of the private trackers, but no where else (so far). It is build 51 and the person who upped it said they bought it just to do so, but then told everyone they should buy it. It is not a proper scene release, but only a p2p. This is actually sooner than it took Goo to pop up.
    -One interesting note – Neither of them got upped to the tubes until AFTER the game went wide. None of the early purchasers/pre-orders seemed to leak either game.

    Good News – There’s a demo that just got finished! I’d link to it, but I can’t get to the message post from my current location. He posted the link on the forums, but I don’t see it on the front page yet. Haven’t tried it yet though. I wonder what impact it might have on the inevitable movement to larger/public trackers and other various and sundry methods of distribution of 0s and 1s.

    Please don’t shoot the courier. I’m just relaying information.

  46. Sallie says:

    I’m a 51-year-old writer and a grandmother and I use crayons with students in writing workshops. So maybe I’m the dream demographic here. I did the beta test and I have been panting for the full game!

    I love this game. I don’t know from physics and I can’t draw but I love the open boundaries here, the multiple solutions. I will play it many times and I intend to buy it for my smart, introverted 11-year-old nephew.

    I’m stuck on the middle levels of Crayon. But it’s okay to be stuck. I just click in, try a few things, they don’t work, I try again. (FYI, geeks, I am also playing Portal and I’m stuck on Level 15 there.)

    I would love to see videos of various “solutions” on hard levels if anyone knows where I can locate a few.

  47. Daniel Rutter says:

    I think puzzle games with this sort of looseness have great value. I don’t think they’re _better_ than the puzzles that don’t let you take the Rubik’s Cube apart and re-assemble it solved, but I don’t think they’re worse, either.

    The freedom to do awful, perverse things that’re not at all in the spirit of the game can, in fact, yield fantastic results. Yes, it lets Joe Average bludgeon his way through with some misshapen W. Heath Robinson/Rube Goldberg mess of a contraption that’s always within a pixel of failure. But it also lets ingenious people – including Joe Averages who’ve had their whole problem-solving paradigm, man, revolutionised by their first real contact with a computer-created physical world – create really, really brilliant, and also _funny_, solutions to problems.

    Look at Bridge Builder/Pontifex, for instance. The more difficult chasms in those games can be crossed with a well-engineered bridge that looks as if it might exist in the real world. Or they can be crossed with horrific, lurching abominations that start out in an impossible-to-engineer unbalanced state, pivot vastly like the Eiffel Tower stood on its nose, deteriorate visibly while they do the job of letting the train pass one way and then the other (or whatever), and two seconds later collapse utterly.

    It’s usually easier (but _only_ usually easier – q.v. the Obfuscated C Code Contest) to create that sort of bridge than to create a “proper” one. But I contend that the mental exercise involved – and the entertainment gained – may be every bit as good.