If Crayon Physics Deluxe were a sport, it would be figure skating. Pulling off a triple-lutz in sequin tights to the beat of the Footloose theme has a similar mix of technical challenge and artistic flourish. Many games let you show off a sense of style while you play, but few require such an injection of personal flair to make the game work like Crayon Physics does. The game’s style-as-substance concept is both its greatest strength and its biggest weakness.
Winner of 2008’s Independent Games Festival grand prize, Crayon Physics is a 2D toolbox puzzle game like The Incredible Machine, Lemmings or Xbox Live Arcade’s Eets: Chowdown. Where those other games give you a limited number of components to solve puzzles, in Crayon Physics you have just one: surprise, surprise, it’s a crayon. The trick is you can use it to draw whatever shapes you want. Your creations will interact with each other and the environment according to in-game physics and help you complete the goal of moving a red ball to touch a yellow star.
Drop a square so it grazes the side of the ball and you can propel it forward. Draw a line between two ledges to act as a ramp. Balance the ball on a lever, then drop a giant rectangle on the other side to produce a crude catapult. Eventually, you learn some other techniques that let you swing shapes around on pins and build pulleys or springs out of string.
Crayon Physics has dull, repetitive music, but the graphics are bright and humorous–a suitably minimalist art style that looks like the scribbles of some elementary school kids. The game’s interface is clean and simple. Hold the left mouse button to draw. Right-click to erase. The rest comes from your imagination, which is both a blessing and a burden.
It’s very easy to blow through most of Crayon Physics’ more than 70 levels if your only goal is to “beat the game.” It’s also not very much fun that way. Most levels can be solved by drawing a big enough ramp or tunnel, using pins to keep them in place and then stubbornly wedging shapes behind the ball to inch it forward into the star. These inelegant solutions feel like cheating, even though technically they’re not.
The game’s creator, Petri Perho, encourages players to find the simplest or most creative solutions to each level. An update in January made this more clear. In the new version, you can only achieve 100 percent completion on each level by satisfying four requirements. Reaching the star in any manner is one. A solution where you don’t draw pins is another and completing a level by drawing only one shape is the third. Striving for these latter two achievements provides a more focused challenge than the simplistic goal of having ball and star meet. They make Crayon Physics feel more like a real game than just an elaborate tech demo.
The fourth requirement is to build a solution that’s ridiculously elaborate. Watch an example of the complicated ball-transportation apparatuses other players have recorded or download a user-made level and you get a sense of how deep Perho’s seemingly simple shapes-and-physics simulator can get. The question you have to ask yourself is: do I have the motivation and patience to build something like that?
Games like Line Rider, Spore, Boom Blox and LittleBigPlanet have the same “construction set” philosophy, where the “game” that’s provided is also a set of creative tools. With its video editing capabilities, even Grand Theft Auto IV’s PC release is part of the trend. In the case of Crayon Physics, the base game isn’t as fun as the others. To really enjoy it, you’ll have to put in some time and creativity to build a solution worthy of sharing on YouTube. If that sounds like fun, then this game is for you. If not, you’ll be better off with something more structured.
ESRB: Unrated—game’s content is just shapes, but with the ability to draw anything, user-generated content will no doubt contain a few, um, depictions of certain body parts
Plays Like: Line Rider, The Incredible Machine, LittleBigPlanet
Pros: Really flexible drawing system, jolly art style, rewards imagination
Cons: Dull music, requires a big investment to get the most out of it