[25 January 2009]
PopMatters Associate Multimedia Editor
As the technology of video games continues to develop and allow more variation and choice for the player, a new kind of relationship begins to develop between the author and the player. Since the video game is no longer forcing us to follow a particular path, the strange burden of making the most of a game now falls on the player instead of the author. They are instead giving us the means for an experience rather than holding our hands through the process. Originally starting out as a tech demo based on Harold and the Purple Crayon, Petri Purho’s Crayon Physics Deluxe is an impressive example of this concept fully in action. By making a physics puzzle game where you can do anything, the game’s challenge slowly becomes doing something worthwhile with that freedom.
Each puzzle consists of rolling a red ball into a star. The player can draw any shape they like and can bolt the shape into place or attach it to a string to give them motion. Taking a cue from the crayon aesthetic of the game, obstacles will often be what you’d see in your average crayon drawing such as clouds, boats, and other fun stuff. There are also rockets in the later puzzles to play with momentum that add a new layer to the puzzles.
Since you can draw anything and then bolt it together however you want, you can literally create just about anything. Levels are explored via a giant world map that’s drawn with a similar crayon aesthetic and the developer even lets you doodle on the map itself. Given how blank many of the level maps are, you’ll often find yourself drawing in a tree or happy face as you progress around. The game adds to this setting elegantly by having the background always be a rumpled piece of paper. It comes with a very easy to use level editor and the developer is continuing to support usability and access to these. A recent patch to the game also supports solving the puzzles in different ways by allowing you to win an extra star by not using bolts, string, or even awarding yourself an “awesome” prize.
The game’s reward structure is interesting because it was added several days after the game had been released. While many websites praised the game, others pointed out that the open nature meant it was easy to break the game design. That is, you can often just put a bridge together and nudge the ball into the star instead of creating an elaborate contraption. You start to develop a variety of tricks around the design such as putting the ball in a cage and tying it to a giant block. Loop the string through the obstacles, detach the block, and the ball gets yanked right into the star as the string pulls it through. By my personal count, there are about 20 or so puzzles that I couldn’t use one of my usual tricks for and had to study the level itself.
The issue with the game then becomes a sort of Gordian Knot dilemma. When Alexander the great was challenged to untie an incredibly complex knot and prove his intellect, he chopped it in half with a sword. Crayon Physics gives us that same knot and lets us choose between the sword or actually working out the puzzle.
The reward structure was eventually added because the game didn’t have an incentive to not just slice the puzzle apart. Proponents of the game pointed out that you can break just about any game design and that shouldn’t be considered a flaw; critics noted that it shouldn’t be so easy to unravel the author’s intent. Purho wanted, in his own words, to let people ‘solve puzzles with [their] artistic vision and creative use of physics.’ Any discussions about authorial intent require examining the definition of a game and defining the relationship between author and player. The player in almost any game has input on the rules, whether it be adjusting the challenge or weapon of choice, but obviously the designer does as well. What Crayon Physics Deluxe represents is a game where the author’s intent is barely a whisper. Some levels will have occasional hints, such as adding a drawbridge to a castle to steer a rocket or adding a mast to a boat to create a lever. Others will literally just be the ball on one platform and the star sitting on another with no real indication of what you’re expected to do. Corvus Elrod, in the linked post above, defines a game as “a set of rules and/or conditions, established by a community, which serve as a bounded space for play.” Without the reward structure, the first element of that definition wasn’t quite in place.
The second part of that game definition, community, still plays the dominant role in the game. Despite its single-player nature, this is a game whose true appeal lies in the online components. Another addition to the game has been an instant replay feature, and eventually there are plans to make it easier to upload solutions online for others to see. The levels made by users are already fairly impressive and there are plans to streamline accessing those as well.
The reason for all of this is that you can only motivate yourself to make something creative or interesting for its own sake for so long. One solution to this problem is Purho’s extensive work creating a community that is already going strong despite its recent creation. What the game stumbled upon is that when dealing with freedom in a game, you still need some kind of encouragement to actually do something. Purho’s first two awards for beating the puzzle under conditions (no bolts or no nudging) are challenges that a person can impose on themselves. The last one, however, stays true to the game’s desire to get people to be creative. The Awesome Award is given by players to themselves when they create a solution that they feel is elegant enough to deserve it. The remarkable thing about creating this achievement is that it neatly solves what both sides were complaining about with the game. The ones claiming you can win without being creative are simply being reminded that they’re cheapening the experience while the ones who enjoyed the freedom have nothing imposed.
Given the creator’s claims to continue supporting the game with patches and his excellent delivery so far, Crayon Physics Deluxe seems like a solid investment. For $20 you get a puzzle game that comes with an excellent selection of levels, interesting challenges to solving them, and the promise that the only limitation will be yourself. Leigh Alexander once wrote that engagement is a choice. With Crayon Physics Deluxe you certainly need to make that choice, but the nice thing is that you can engage quite a bit if you do.