Scribblenauts is a wonderful game. Enter nearly any noun in the English language (within a few very reasonable restrictions — nothing vulgar, nothing copyrighted), and that item is summoned for you to use in solving the game’s puzzles. Need to protect a sandwich from some ants without killing the critters? You might beam the food up in a UFO. Trying to grab something from across a pond? You could build a bridge, or just lasso the object.

I’ve enjoyed the game tremendously. The puzzles aren’t all equally inspired, the controls can be fidgety — but the feeling of semi-omnipotence that comes with accessing the game’s vast dictionary more than makes up for these shortcomings. The only thing the game really lacks — as suggested to me by Ian Bogost — is a system of ethics.

Some puzzles do enforce conditions that resemble ethical restrictions. There’s a “heist” level featuring security guards whom you are not permitted to eliminate. But for the most part, Scribblenauts’ ethics are decidedly situational. In general you are allowed to wound, even kill, the most innocent of non-player characters (NPCs) without suffering any in-game penalty.

That’s not meant to be a criticism. The game is juggling quite a few balls as it is. But I’ve found that I have the most fun with Scribblenauts when I deliberately impose ethical restrictions on myself: Don’t attack human characters. Only use weapons in self-defense. Disarm or incapacitate rather than kill.

It occurred to me that it really wouldn’t be that hard to build an overarching ethical system into a future Scribblenauts sequel. So here’s my proposal for a morality mechanic in 5th Cell’s next big hit… Scribblenauts: For Great Justice.

The Justice Meter: In addition to the Budget Meter, which fills as you add objects to the level, For Great Justice would feature a Justice Meter. At the start of a level, the Justice Meter would be filled to 100%. Performing unjust acts, or allowing unjust acts to be perpetrated, would drain the meter. If the Justice Meter drops to nothing, you fail the level.

Events that would drain the Justice Meter: Killing a human NPC would instantly drain the Justice meter. Attacking a human NPC would drain it, but at a less drastic rate. Allowing two NPCs to hurt each other would also drain it, but less drastically still. Killing or attacking animal NPCs would drain the meter, but at a less drastic rate compared to the respective human NPC events. Allowing two animal NPCs to hurt each other would have, I think, no effect on the meter. Circle of life and all.

Special events: In addition, 5th Cell could design levels with specialized justice effects. You might need to find a way to stop a rich man stealing from an impoverished person — the Justice Meter draining all the while. Or a construction crew could be in the process of demolishing an orphanage and it’s up to you to disable their equipment. Loggers might need to be stopped from destroying a forest.

Personally I’d love to play a Scribblenauts sequel with these features. Games are largely about succeeding within a set of restrictions — so why not ethical ones?

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September 23, 2009