Crayon Physics Review: Draw the World in Newtonian Colors
By Matt Peckham
PCWorldJan 15, 2009 7:56 am PST
In Crayon Physics, scribbles and doodles wriggle into existence. Lines become lifelines. Right angles become brackets, braces, even fulcrums. Circles trundle down slopes or link wagging elastic ropes that jostle or slingshot irregular waxy bits around colorful, curlicued landscapes. Dappled trails of red and green, yellow and blue materialize gradually as levels load, like a child’s scrapbook page surfacing through a creased, pockmarked canvas.
And it’s a game?
Yep. And to win, all you have to do is draw stuff.
Not just any stuff, mind you. Crayon Physics, true to its title, transforms whatever you dash off with your crayon-tipped pointer into a two-dimensional object with physical heft. Draw a box suspended by nothing and gravity pulls it down until it encounters something else, say another box, or a ramp, or a sawtooth field of grass. Draw that box so it’s halfway over a circular object at rest and when it drops, the box’s weight and momentum will edge the circle into motion.
Remember science terms like “potential” and “kinetic” energy? Think that, fielded by crayons.
Your goal, as you work through dozens of linked “island” maps, is to nudge a small red ball on one side of a page toward a star perched strategically out of reach.
Get the ball to the star, that’s all there is to it, and the game doesn’t care how you do it.
Initially, the doing’s a snap. Drop an object on the ball to prod it left or right along a flat surface. Lay straight lines between pillars to clear gaps. Draw ramps down from platforms and nudge the ball with the mouse (you’re allowed a trifling bit of inertial leverage) and gravity does the rest. Pitch sufficiently large objects onto the ends of seesawing levers to fling the ball toward the finish line. There’s some leeway in these early levels for experimentation if you want to intentionally Rube Goldberg your way to the finish line, but it’s mostly plain, point-to-point tutorial stuff.
Eventually, however, you’ll encounter layouts that require more sophisticated spatial thinking. How do you get the ball off a solitary pillar toward a free-floating star? What’s the ideal size and shape of an object that’ll torque a fulcrum and fling the ball at just the right trajectory to clear a castle turret or slip through a distant narrow opening? Where’s the optimal place to add joints to a lever so it swings at the right speed and angle to hammer through a series of momentum-draining curves?
And then the game adds rockets. And force arrows. And more stars. And don’t be surprised if you’re blazing along only to come full stop at a level that leaves you stumped for dozens of minutes, even hours.
Did I mention it’s all ridiculously cute?
Occasionally, you can circumvent what you might surmise the level designer’s intentions were by inventing a “simpler” solution. (Anything goes, after all.) Some players might interpret that as “gaming the system,” an underlying flaw symptomatic of an over-broad approach to player control. Since you can do anything, you will, they’ll argue, as they narrowly crunch logistics and muscle through levels as if they’re simply mazes. Which of course they are. Except for one thing: They’re playgrounds, too.
I’ll spare the philosophizing about “just what is a game, anyway?” and skip to the point: Crayon Physics is more than merely a clever, whimsical game. It owes a debt as much to Garry’s Mod and Armadillo Run as Super Mario World. It’s about musing ideas into existence you can’t in real life using elemental physical principles. It’s about lingering over solutions, not just robotically punching through them.
Sure, you can do anything you like, and occasionally you will, but you’ll also find the allure of swiftly cobbling together any contraption your brain cares to cable to your fingers practically irresistible. If you’re like me, you’ll even revisit levels you’ve already found the simplest “win” states to, just to come up with wildly improbable, stupendously absurd alternative ones.
And that’s what makes Crayon Physics sui generis. It’s a game. It’s a toy. It’s both, and it’s neither.
One last thing. If you ever find yourself on Jeopardy staring down Alex Trebek and the category “Oddly Enough Entertainment” includes a screen with the description “These two words are least likely to appear contiguously in a sentence,” now you know which two those are.