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Indulge your inner child with 'Crayon Physics'

One of the most inspired and imaginative games out there looks like it was plucked from a 5-year-old’s coloring book.
Image: Crayon Physics
Watch your drawings come to life in the new puzzle game "Crayon Physics Deluxe." But whimsical as it may be, this game — created by a 25-year-old student from Helsinki — is much more than mere child's plays.Petri Purho

One of the most inspired and imaginative games to come along in a while looks like it was plucked from a 5-year-old’s coloring book.

It’s a world of crinkled notebook paper and crayon scribbles.  It’s a place where castles and dinosaurs and rockets look like they’ve been scrawled into existence by immature hands.

But “Crayon Physics Deluxe” – a puzzle game that launched for the PC last week and for the iPhone the week before that – is a game that’s smart and sophisticated precisely because of the way it uses the most rudimentary of childhood expressions to engage our inner creative genius.   

It was at last year’s Independent Games Festival that “Crayon Physics” started turning heads in a big way. Those who got a look at the demo version of the game cooed with delight at the way its childish visual style housed game design as thoughtful as anything out there. And despite competing against the likes of the superb “World of Goo,” it managed to walk away with the festival’s Seumas McNally Grand Prize (and the $20,000 check that goes with it).

Created by 25-year-old Petri Purho, “Crayon Physics Deluxe” got its start as a game the computer science student from Helsinki whipped together in a mere five days. And now that the full game has finally launched, it is proving to be every bit as wonderful and whimsical as the early buzz made it out to be.

The thrust of the game is this: There is a ball over here and there is a star over there. You must move the ball to the star by using (virtual) crayons to draw the physical objects that make it possible to transport the ball to its goal. (In the iPhone version of the game you draw by touching finger to screen, and in the PC version you use the mouse to draw with your crayons.)

For example, in one early level, the ball and the star stand on two platforms separated by a chasm. With your crayon, you simply draw a plank across the chasm, which allows the ball to roll into the star. In another level, you’re faced with not only a chasm, but a star that has been placed higher than the ball. This time around, you can draw a hammer and a ramp. When the hammer swings on its hinge, it strikes the ball, which rolls up the ramp and touches the star.

Simple as it sounds, it’s a delight to behold. The game gives physical properties to your scribbles with enchanting accuracy. It’s like a kindergartner’s dream come true: The objects you’ve conjured in your imagination spring to life before your eyes, imbued with their own weight, beholden to gravity and momentum … and to your whims.

That is, there are many ways to transport that ball over to that star.

“Crayon Physics Deluxe” presents players with more than 70 different puzzles and its brilliance is found in the way it challenges you to use your imagination to envision and then implement your own unique solutions to each one. Will you draw a simple plank to move the ball from point A to point B? Or will you draw an elaborate contraption of ramps and hinges and wheels? Will you send the ball on a journey through slides and teeter-totters, or will you devise a catapult to fling it through the air?

Ultimately, Purho deserves heaps of praise for the way he’s enabled players to become collaborators with him in his game. “Crayon Physics Deluxe” is not about showing us how smart a game designer he is. Instead, Purho has given us the tools and presented us with the goals and then said, “Let’s see what you can do.” (And just look at some of the amazing solutions players have come up with here and here.)

Perhaps what’s most magnificent about this game is the way the entire concept congeals as one complete idea – the childish crayon drawings, the way the player feels like a kid being handed art supplies for the first time, the way the game – like a good parent – gently encourages us to stretch our creative wings.  This is what playing is all about.

But don’t take my word for it. This is what Purho, who has spent the last year and a half working on “Crayon Physics Deluxe,” had to say when I asked him about his game.

People have been eagerly awaiting your game. What do you think it is about "Crayon Physics Deluxe" that's so appealing?

I think it's the drawings coming to life combined with the fact the game looks like a children's drawing. It's something that's very magical and very easy to relate to. And something that wasn't seen before.

What do you want people to get out of playing your game?

I hope that the game will inspire players to be creative about how they play the game or games in general. I wish people would be more creative in general and go for trying out things beyond what is required of them.

When you made the levels in "Crayon Physics Deluxe" did you have specific ideas in mind about how the player would complete them?

The levels are very open ended and the whole point of them is to be there to teach players certain mechanics. Once they've mastered the mechanics, the game becomes more about finding the most creative/awesomest solution to the puzzle presented. That's the reason why I didn't go for the usual restrictions that are in puzzle games, like limiting the resources you have and only allowing one or two right solutions to the puzzle.

What effect did winning the IGF grand prize last year have on you and on your game?

The IGF prize had a huge effect on my life. I would say that it was the turning point for me, when I went from being someone who does games for a hobby to being someone who does games for a living. I also got somewhat depressed, because I wanted “World of Goo” to win the IGF grand prize.

What did it do that caused this change?

I wasn't sure if I wanted to or even could do games for a living. Winning the IGF gave me the confidence to move forward with this. And also it gave me the money I needed to finish the game properly.

You mentioned in your press release that you released a trailer for your game on YouTube before your game was completed and people started making clones of the game. Do you think it will affect how well your game sells?

I'm pretty sure that the clones will affect how well the game is going to sell, but I'm not really worried about the sales. The game has already been a profitable investment for me financially and I didn't start doing the game to make money off of it. I started working on the game because I wanted to do something that was really unique and hadn't been done before. That's the part that makes me pissed about the clones. Also, it's really sad to see how little imagination people have.

You were a student when you made this game and ended up leaving school to finish it. So how did you fund the making of this game?

I had some savings, but nothing major. The IGF grand prize money really helped me pay the rent and buy food.

Can you tell me how "Crayon Physics Deluxe" is doing in terms of sales? Are the games selling as well as you hoped/expected? Better? Worse?

The sales have been way better than I expected, but then again everyone tells me that I'm a pessimist, so my expectations weren't that high to begin with. I'm a bit hesitant to give out numbers at this point, but I might do that in the future.

What advice do you have for other independent game makers out there who would like to have the kind of success you've had?

Do games, that's the only thing that's worked for me.