Interview: Scribblenauts Creative Director Jeremiah Slaczka

Scribblenauts is the game that allows for you to summon just about anything you can think of in order to solve puzzles or satiate your own inner omnipotence. To get the lowdown on the game and the inspiration behind it, Jeffrey Matulef spoke to 5th Cell’s Creative Director Jeremiah Slaczka at this year’s Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle. He found out where the idea for the game came from, as well as the newly suggested official Scribblenauts tattoo.

TGR: What initially gave you the idea for Scribblenauts?

Slaczka: After Drawn to Life I still had a couple ideas. One was this building block idea called, "Once Upon a Time" where you’d write stories on the bottom screen like "the dog went through the forest", and then it would play out on the top screen. I thought, "That’s a really cool idea, but it’s not a game." So I shoved that idea for a while. And then I had a dream… I’ve never had a game dream before. I was in this Aztec Temple and there were these rooms, and in these rooms there were these weird puzzles to solve. There’d be like these three pictures and I’d have to line them up and then the exit would open up and I’d go to the next room. And in the other room there’d be like these dirty dishes and you’d go wash them. There wouldn’t be any clues – you’d just instinctively know what you were supposed to do with these objects. So I thought, "That’s a really cool idea for a game." But it didn’t really have a hook and there’d be no replayability, so I thought, "What if I just smash all these things together and we use keywords to solve puzzles? Then the replayablity becomes infinite."

TGR: Does the game have any kind of story at all?

Slaczka: No. No it doesn’t. And I didn’t want it to. I have another game coming out in October called Drawn to Life: The Next Chapter. It’s a direct sequel to the first. There’s a Wii version too, but we didn’t work on that. The Wii version is very different from the DS. And that game has a lot of story. I actually have a background in screenwriting and I’m really big into story, but for Scribblenauts I didn’t want it to have a story because I wanted it to be accessible to everybody. Just get in, get out, have some fun. Story can turn off a lot of people. Some people will want to skip through the cutscenes and just play, and some people will want to watch them. But we wanted this game to appeal to everybody. So it’s sort of a lowest common denominator- make it as simple as possible. That’s why I made the starites – they’re a macguffin – you just know you want to get them. Then think, "OK, what do I need to do to get that?"

Just one of the many ways to help a lumberjack in Scribblenauts

TGR: Did the thought ever cross your mind to do a very silly Katamari-esque story?

Slaczka: There was! That’s why it’s actually called Scribblenauts. Originally [Maxwell] was an astronaut and he would go around these different planets and help them by scribbling on this notepad. So we kept the name. So if you write ‘Scribblenaut’ in the game, you’ll actually get the original Scribblenaut. He’s an astronaut dude who looks kinda like a robot, but we wanted a guy who looked more human, so we went with Maxwell.

TGR: This makes me think that if you get the licensing – and you’re WB, which is somehow affiliated with DC who published Batman – this concept sounds like it would be perfect for a Green Lantern game. He goes to planets, summons objects at will, etc. Have you thought about maybe going to DC and asking them for the rights to make the ultimate Green Lantern game?

Slaczka: That’s an interesting idea. If it does well, we’ll see where it goes. But that’s a cool idea!

TGR: What are some of the most interesting solutions you’ve seen people come up with in Scribblenauts?

Slaczka: Well, there’s one I saw today where there’s a guy in the desert and it says ‘refresh him’. The obvious answer is like ‘lemonade’ or something, but I was like, "Dude, c’mon. Challenge yourself! Think of something more creative." So he typed ‘monsoon"’and it worked. It started raining all over the place with all these black, dark clouds and I’d literally worked on this game for over a year, demoing it since E3, going to all these shows, and nobody has ever written that before – and I was like, "Wow." I was literally this close to explaining why it wouldn’t work, because it’s an event, not an object, but then it worked. I’m still surprised at what’s in there!

TGR: Is there anything really cool you put in there that you’d really like people to find?

Slaczka: There’s a lot of cool stuff for people to find. We actually came out with a strategy guide. I know that it sounds like that defeats the purpose of using your imagination, but there’s so much stuff in there that we worked hard on that we’d like people to see.

Scribblenauts is a game that even dads and mummies can enjoy.

TGR: Is there anything about the game that you’re maybe not 100% satisfied with?

Slaczka: Well, that’s like asking any artist ‘is your work done?’. I would’ve liked to have gotten some celebrities in the game like Chuck Norris. That would’ve been cool. So maybe if we do another version, maybe. We just didn’t have enough time to make everything as awesome as possible. We only had a year and I wish we had two or three years to make it even more awesome. I mean, we had one year in development when most AAA games have three and we’re competing against them – I think we did a really good job.

TGR: Would you like to do a sequel to this if it’s a success?

Slaczka: Yeah, if it’s successful. It’s up to WB, so we’ll see where it goes. 

TGR: So if a big fan were to get a Scribblenauts themed tattoo what would you recommend it be of?

Slaczka: Um… Cthulhu? Oh, I know! A ninja shark! Because that’s our company football team. We’re called the Ninja Sharks with Lasers. So we put that in the game. You can type in ‘ninja shark’ and then glue a laser to them and get that.

TGR: So you’ve heard it hear first, folks; if you really want to show your appreciation for Scribblenauts on your body, get the company football team mascot, the Ninja Sharks with Lasers from Scribblenauts!

Slaczka: We were trying to think of the most ferocious animal we could think of and that was a shark. So we thought, "What if it was a ninja shark?" But then we added lasers and were like, "Yes! How do you get more ferocious than that?"

How indeed. To see how a ninja shark with lasers stacks up to Cthulhu with lasers check out Scribblenauts, out now in North America for the Nintendo DS.

Author: Jeffrey Matulef