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.
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!"