Kill Herbie

In elementary school, while all the other boys went off to summer camps for various athletics, I was a more creative soul and found myself drawn to an art camp. My favorite activity at art camp was a cartooning class, taught by a local newspaper comic Lincoln Peirce of Big Nate fame. It was in his class that I learned one of the greatest games I have ever played: Kill Herbie.

Our teacher would cover an enormous table with butcher paper and split us into pairs to play. One player starts by simply drawing Herbie, a generic stick figure, and some ground for him to stand on. The second player has one goal, to kill Herbie. To accomplish that goal the player can use literally anything, real or imagined, only limited by the player’s drawing ability. The Herbie player, on the other hand, has to keep Herbie alive by any means necessary, and can similarly draw anything they desire to defend the hapless stick figure. The two take turns drawing, one an attack and the other a defensive measure to counter.

The only rule is that both players can only use one of everything.

The Minotaur was taken out with Minotaur repellent spray? Well, now Minotaurs and repellent spray are both out of the game. The dynamic encouraged boundless creativity, but most of all the game was designed to always end in a draw. The only way to really kill Herbie and end the game would be to use an attack that absolutely required an item that had already been used. But since both players can only use one of any given thing, in a match between two equally imaginative players that scenario would never actually happen.

So we would draw for the duration of the class period, and at the end all of the Herbies would still be alive. But what stories would be told on that butcher paper. Some players had Herbie digging an elaborate network of underground tunnels, while others found themselves climbing trees, flying jets, piloting submarines, riding hippos, all with arrows to show movement and sequence of events so an observer could follow how Herbie eluded death at every turn.

I was reminded of Kill Herbie recently because I reviewed Scribblenauts Unlimited on Wii U. Scribblenauts is perhaps the closest a video game has come to Kill Herbie, where the limits are your vocabulary rather than drawing ability. I found myself wishing for a multiplayer Kill Herbie mode, where two players could take turns summoning objects to try and thwart the other’s plans.

In the original Kill Herbie that I played, the killer player didn’t have an actual character most of the time but perhaps it could work better that way with both players in control of their own Herbie to simultaneously kill their opponent and defend themselves one object at a time. Or perhaps both physical and disembodied killers could be separate modes. It makes me wonder how open the Steam version of Scribblenauts Unlimited is to mods, and whether such a mode could be possible. I would love to play Kill Herbie again, but my artistic ability has atrophied since I was 8 year old (or perhaps I’ve just grown more aware of how terrible my drawing is).

What a wonderful game, where even though the goal is to defeat the other player, the design practically forces a draw. In Kill Herbie the real victory comes from the story told by the actions, not the end result. It’s the kind of game that only really seems possible when you’re young, when rules and conventions are still loosely defined or still being formed. More just seems possible. I miss that.

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