Crayon Physics Deluxe, an ingenious video game that looks like it was designed by a third-grader.

The art of play.
March 19 2008 7:00 AM

Crayon Physics Deluxe

An ingenious video game that looks like it was designed by a third-grader.

The annual Game Developers Conference is a chance for all the major players in the video-game industry to show off their flashiest new titles. Attendees at February's meeting, for instance, were treated to a sneak peek of the upcoming Gears of War II, a richly detailed sci-fi action game that appears indistinguishable from a blockbuster sci-fi movie. The game has subtle lighting and shadow effects, water that ripples and splashes properly, concrete walls that crack and crumble to reveal the underlying rebar. To top it all off, the guy leading the demo had his character pump bullets into an enormous cube of meat, which was authentically elastic and viscous in response to the fusillade.

Despite that absurd graphical overkill, or maybe because of it, Gears of War II wasn't the talk of the show. Most of the chatter was about a game called Crayon Physics Deluxe, which didn't get a glitzy demo on a huge video screen in front of an audience of thousands. Why all the love for a game that looks a bit like something your third-grader might ask you to stick up on the fridge? Watch the embedded video below, and you'll understand.

Pretty awesome, huh?

Crayon Physics Deluxe lets you draw objects on the screen by clicking and dragging your mouse, or by drawing with the stylus of a tablet PC, as in this video. The objects you scrawl become part of the game world. The goal is to create objects that propel a crudely drawn ball toward a crudely drawn star. There is no single correct way to scoot that ball around; the fun is in exploring the options. Within seconds of hitting start, you're furiously scribbling blocks and ramps and wedges and seesaws, whatever it takes to reach the goal. Some players may get sidetracked creating hilariously inefficient Rube Goldberg devices. Others will forget the objectives altogether and just draw. (If you want to try it yourself, you can download a simpler demo version of the game here.)

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This unassuming drawing game didn't get the same huge demo treatment as Gears of War II. Crayon Physics Deluxe was part of the Independent Games Festival that's connected to the Game Developers Conference. The Independent Games Festival has been part of the conference for a decade, but there was a general sense this year that the little guys had finally outclassed the big boys. Fast Internet-connection speeds make it easy for anyone to offer the game for download, and there's a huge built-in online audience for simple, time-wasting "casual games." There are millions of gamers out there who don't want a big, polished game that comes in a box. They want something they can launch this second and play while killing time on a conference call. All the big game publishers are getting wise to this market—Electronic Arts just announced an EA Casual Games Division late last year. But the best casual games on display at the conference were still made by tiny teams with no corporate backing, rebellious garage coders who prefer to term their work "indie," like indie rock or indie film.

Gears of War II will take several years, hundreds of people, and tens of millions of dollars to create. Crayon Physics Deluxe was made by Petri Purho, a 24-year-old student at Helsinki Polytechnic. He makes games at the rate of about one a month and offers them as free, PC-only downloads on his personal site. Purho says his hobby was inspired by the Experimental Gameplay Project, the equivalent of Dogme 95 for indie game makers. The tenets of EGP are:

  • Each game must be made in less than seven days.
  • Each game must be made by exactly one person.
  • Each game must be based around a common theme, i.e., "gravity," "vegetation," "swarms," etc.

The notion of a single theme is important. Most major games these days are fixated on building entire worlds. The developers kill themselves to make realistic-looking humans, a realistic-looking environment, realistic physics, etc. The constraints of EGP, however, liberate indie game makers to focus on making a single facet of their game as unique and original as possible. "And if the game turns out be complete crap, I have only wasted a week," Purho writes on his site.

Some of his rapidly prototyped games are … well, complete crap. Daydreaming in the Oval Officecasts you as a cartoony George W. Bush gathering bits of "imaginary pieces of evidence about the Iraq's weapons of mass destruction" while simultaneously trying to keep a globe aloft like a beach ball at a rock concert. The political commentary is a bit trite, and the game isn't much fun to play. Purho himself concedes that this particular game is "as incompetent as its main character."

But many of his experiments are wickedly funny and original. There are many games based on the exploits of Indiana Jones, but Purho's versionis the only one that tells the story from the boulder's point of view, letting players control the rampaging sphere and smoosh wave after wave of attacking archeologists. Another game, Grammar Nazi, is a literate twist on shooters like Space Invaders. Players fire upward at swarms of enemies, but the ammo in Purho's version is the letters you type on the keyboard, and the longer the words you spell, the more damage they do. (Tapping out indie has some impact. Autodidact causes a massive explosion.) Purho made it in a single day.

The original version of Crayon Physics was the Finnish student's 10th rapid-prototype project. It was inspired by the descriptions he'd heard of the classic children's book Harold and the Purple Crayon. Purho coded it in five days and posted it on his site in June 2007. The game won instant acclaim, inspiring him to release a level editor a few weeks later so others could create their own layouts and obstacles. The game proved such a success that Purho chose to violate his one-week rule to create Crayon Physics Deluxe. The months of extra time that went into this fleshed-out version make for a more polished experience, with better re-creations of the player's scrawlings. In the original version, your drawings were automatically squared off; the new version maintains the cruddy imperfections of your line art.Purho plans to charge $20 for the deluxe version once he finishes.

Despite his obvious talent, Purho isn't sure he wants to go into the industry after he gets his computer-science degree. "It's more about writing documents than it is about designing games," he says. "And I really hate writing documents."

Purho will probably have a better chance of moving the industry forward if he keeps flying solo. As the titles on display at this year's Independent Games Festival proved, some of the most innovative products in the gaming world are coming from one-man outfits. Take Audiosurf, made by another game-a-week geek, Dylan Fitterer (with help from his wife, Elizabeth). The game is based on a simple, ingenious concept: transform your favorite music into a game. Audiosurf takes any music file from your computer and turns it into a level. While listening to the track, you steer a little rocket car back and forth to collect the beats as they whiz past and avoid others. It's the perfect way to kill five minutes, and it's currently one of the best-selling titles on the Steam downloadable-games service, where it competes with photorealistic shooters in the same vein as Gears of War II.

While Audiosurfhad its partisans, the Seamus McNally Grand Prize—the indie-game equivalent of the Academy Award for best picture—went to Crayon Physics Deluxe. (Disclosure: I was one of more than 40 judges who voted on the entries.) The crowd whooped and roared as Purho took the stage. His acceptance speech was as clever and succinct as his game. He held up a piece of paper with a crayon scribble. It had two simple words: "F--k Yeah."

Chris Baker is a writer and editor in San Francisco.

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