Endless possibility is not a notion easily conveyed in video games. Sandbox titles like Grand Theft Auto seem limitless at first, but that illusion disappears once you discover their boundaries. Perhaps that’s why the free-drawing puzzles of Crayon Physics Deluxe are so alluring.
A YouTube demo of the game boasts roughly 2 million views to date, but even without the Tablet PC and stylus seen in that presentation, Crayon Physics Deluxe feels like an exercise in freedom.
The premise is simple: lead a small, red ball — etched in crayon, as the title suggests — to a star that’s strategically placed elsewhere on the screen. This is accomplished with a crayon of your own, which you can use to stencil just about anything. Create a ramp and give the ball a nudge, and it’ll go rolling down. Expand on this by rendering a seesaw and drop a hand-drawn box on the other end to send your ball flying. By the end of the game, you’ll be etching pulleys, hammers, backboards and even vehicles.
Level selection is much like the semi-linear world maps of Super Mario Bros. 3, with branching paths that allow you to skip certain levels and come back to them later (and you can draw on them, as seen below). There’s no plot to tie the 80 challenges together, just a straightforward presentation of one level after the next. In a way, this is a fault, as it robs the Crayon Physics Deluxe of the personality you often see in indie games. Parents, however, might find an opportunity for imagination in the empty spaces, fitting perfectly with the game’s whimsical art and music.
Crayon Physics Deluxe masterfully achieves the illusion of having no limits. With the exception of an occasional tutorial level, it often seems that you could solve each puzzle in a handful of ways. In reality though, it’s hard to say, because you’re never really sure if the game’s designer, Petri Purho, anticipated the solution you chose.
For example, some puzzles I solved the elegant way. It was clear that my drawings were exactly what Purho intended, taking advantage of all the level’s obstacles and objects and reaching the star with pinpoint accuracy.
I also resorted to cruder solutions. Several times, I trapped the ball in a narrow corridor and drew platforms under it, causing them to clip with the bottom side of the ball and force it upwards. In another instance, out of frustration, I started scribbling over a big, clunky monster, only to see that I was actually moving it in the right direction.
By the end of the game, it seemed that I could bypass puzzles entirely by building my own walls and constructing pulleys and seesaws as I deemed fit. Because this rigid strategy worked wonders toward the game’s end, I felt that perhaps Crayon Physics Deluxe’s boundaries weren’t so limitless after all.
But I find it hard to believe that Purho didn’t anticipate this kind of trickery. There was, after all, a level that made pulleys nearly impossible, after I had relied on them for so long. At the same time, every solution that isn’t totally seamless feels like you’re gaming the system.
Still, Crayon Physics Deluxe fails to carry the illusion of freedom as far as it can go. If you’re having fantasies of drawing up massive Rube Goldberg devices, forget it. It’s extremely rare for a solution to require more than a couple steps, partly because each level is confined to the area of your screen. The rare levels that are more elaborate are so satisfying to complete that it makes you wish for more of them.
In any case, don’t let my musings on endless possibility give you the wrong impression; Crayon Physics Deluxe is a must-play. It’s the kind of game I get excited about, because the concept is just so much cooler than the stuff we see every day in gaming. That’s why the YouTube video was so popular, and it’s why you should grab your own stylus, mouse or trackball and try the game yourself.