Canabalt: Ponderings

Ahem.

Well, glad you could make it. I see you found the place alright. And what weather we’re having eh?

Shall we get started then? Wonderful.

For my first post, with your kind permission, I would like to talk about Canabalt, a free online flash based game that cropped up a lot around Christmas in a number of game of the year rundowns (such as on Eurogamer and the all conquering Rock, Paper, Shotgun).

Why discuss a game that’s been out for months and already has bucket loads of words written about it (big buckets, at that)? Good question, cheers for asking.

I guess partly there’s the whole gearing myself up thing, like when you run about in the cellar bonking rats with a level one Rusty Mace before you’re confident enough to venture out into the world and slay dragons (that being a gaming reference–I try to keep rat bonking to a bare minimum in real life), and of course there’s the honest truth that I can’t actually afford any new releases–impoverished and jobless as I am, having to sustain myself through the harsh winter months with mouthfuls of gruel and economy instant noodles.

But there’s a deeper reason for my choice, and that is quite simply that Canabalt is fantastic–smart and assured and intuitive: the kind of game that reminds me why I started playing these geeky interactive light shows in the first place. Any extra attention I can give it is thoroughly deserved.

Canabalt is the latest brainchild of Adam Atomic, a superbly talented young designer with a number of novel little flash games under his sparkly belt, all available for your delectation right here. The idea for Canabalt emerged from a project set by the Experimental Gameplay site, and Atomic knocked it up from demo to finished product in a grand total of five days.

Let’s dwell on that. Five days. In an average block of five days I might just about get round to watching an episode of Road Wars, and that’s only if someone has recorded it for me. And if they carry me to the sofa.

But how about we move off bad cable shows, and move back onto Adam Atomic. Okay, so his name makes him sound like a cheesy fifties superhero, and I for one have never seen him dueling evil dinosaur-headed space villains, let alone shooting photonic death rays from his eyeballs, and if he wanders the streets in a figure hugging sapphire blue spandex leotard I’d be very surprised … but what this man does possess is the power to create massively enjoyable gameplay mechanics in the blink of an eye, and that is a worthwhile power indeed. Though admittedly not as cool as the death rays.

Canabalt is Captain Atomic’s finest creation to date: a sort of dystopian end of the world urban rooftop one button side scrolling leap-em-up (yeah, that’s a genre) available on the old unfounded opinion and tacitly implied racism generator, the Internet, or through Apple’s getting-stuff-device for their iTelephone MacGuffin (look, I don’t have one. Just shut up and go away would you?).

The brilliance of Canabalt–and it’s time for me to attempt to make sense now–is essentially due to the elegance of its concept. You play a man on the rooftops of a city in turmoil. This man has one desire: to run. Towards what and away from what, we are never told–though the stompy robotic behemoths and swooping attack ships in the background provide some clues. But those details, while evoking a surprisingly strong sense of place, are ultimately extraneous. The man runs; that’s what he does. Left follows right follows left follows right [HIP REFERENCE TO GUINESS AD ENDS HERE]. The simplicity of his purpose is so pure and naked and beautiful it borders on the profound. To prevent this man from running would deny him his very raison d’etre.

So when the edge of a rooftop appears and a chasm looms, when the man’s purpose is threatened, you don’t have to be an experienced gamer to know what to do. There’s only one button you can press, as the intro screen has already made clear. You press that button.

The man leaps. He leaps for freedom, for survival; he leaps because that’s what he does.

He lands on the adjacent rooftop and continues on his way. Purpose remains unbroken. But his, and our, elation is short lived. For the man is trapped in his cycle; he runs automatically and can never stop. And every rooftop ends. There is always another gap. To make one jump in Canabalt is to survive long enough to be forced to jump again.

I find–and please, if you are averse to pretentious wankery, feel free to skip ahead a few paragraphs. In fact best if you skip the article, close the blog, and try to never run into me again–but I find there’s something of a Zen flavour about this. It engenders a dawning sense of the frailty of our existence. For do we not recognise the predicament of Running Man (for so he shall henceforth be named) in our own lives? Are we not trapped as he is? After all, to even breathe in is to avoid suffocation long enough to begin to suffocate again in the next moment. We are, as those Zen cats apparently delight in pointing out, like fleas on a hot plate–jumping to avoid the heat, yet cursed to fall back to the plate and need to jump again.

It is for this reason that I find the player’s purpose in Canabalt is so immediately instinctive. We feel a parallel between keeping the protagonist running and keeping ourselves breathing. A process, once begun, must be continued.

(Okay pretension haters, it’s probably safe to come back now. What were you doing? Eating pork pies and watching Road Wars? Sounds amazing.)

But no one runs, or breathes, forever. Eventually a gap is misjudged, a jump taken too soon, a button pressed too late–and you fall. “GAME OVER,” the rather upbeat end screen informs you. “You ran [x] metres before hitting a wall and tumbling to your death.”

Every Canabalt session ends in this way. The game can’t be beaten. One way or another, Running Man is doomed. Yet despite failure being guaranteed, his attempt–like our own–is a noble one. Because in the end, it isn’t about the end at all, but about how you get there.

And here we come to the second important point about the game. For if you were to ask how you “get there” in Canabalt, the answer would be: like a flipping bad ass.

You see, playing Canabalt makes you feel fucking cool. There’s a real visceral thrill to charging across rooftops as buildings crumble around you, windows smash, killer drills fall from the sky (they’re really missiles, everyone else calls them missiles, but my brain sees them as drills and so drills they remain)–and you in the middle, dodging and leaping, desperately trying to just stay alive, just carry on running, for a few moments longer.

Much of the credit for this dizzying spectacle must go to the game’s visuals. The world is realised in luxurious monochrome, with Running Man’s stark black and white outfit thrown into relief against the sombre grey hues of the background. Small visual effects are captivating and effective: the screen shakes, silhouettes of gigantic robots thud by in the distance, flocks of John Woo-esque doves take flight as you blitz past. The end result is a world that feels alive and complete; a world you enjoy spending time in. That Captain Atomic (I’m not going to let that go) could create such a rich universe in so short a time, with so few resources, is deserving of praise indeed.

The character design of Running Man is similarly excellent. Like Miyamoto’s original Mario, he is a triumphant marriage of necessity and aesthetics. The jacket billowing behind him that adds verisimilitude to the aerial acrobatics, his little white socks that not only delineate his shoes from his trousers but also give him the appearance of a hip fifties greaser–through some witchcraft the handful of pixels that make him up come together to form a man who is undeniably slick.

The joyous animation certainly plays a role in this. The frenetic pace of the running, the flailing limbs, that forward roll (action hero rather than toddler at the park style) when you land from height, all help conjure a manic sense of urgency and barely controlled chaos that infuses the entire game.

Add top class audio effects and a brooding techno soundtrack by Danny B (oh come on, I’m trying to sound cool saying “brooding techno soundtrack” like I know what I’m talking about, and you’re spoiling it by laughing at me. It’s like secondary school all over again) … And now you’ve ruined my flow! Anyway, as I was saying … Add tippety top class audioscaping and that dirty electro krunk shit by Danny B into the mix, and you have an experience that tells me one thing: when evil robotic overlords assault our cities and force us to flee for our lives, it’s going to be the cat’s pajamas.

The other major factor in Canabalt’s success lies with the delicacy and intelligence of the game design. From the speed/length of gap ratio to the frequency that killer drills and other obstacles appear, each coding decision is balanced to perfection. Every player death, no matter how infuriating, can only be blamed on one person: the player. There are no bumbling AI routines, no cheating thirteen year olds on the other side of an internet connection. Just you, and your useless, useless reflexes. The game often produces scenarios that are unfair, but what’s key is they are never impossible–or at least they wouldn’t have been if you’d just jumped earlier, or not jumped, or hit the chair a rooftop back to slow you down and give you more time to think, or dodged all the chairs and gained momentum …

The game world is procedurally generated on the fly to a degree based on your input–gaps are calculated according to your speed, which gradually builds but can be knocked back by hitting obstacles–and because of this you sense in every situation an element that was your own doing. In each fiendish moment the game throws at you, you are aware it was partly your own actions that took you there. This feeling of, if not control, at least culpability, is liberating. “My bad,” you think. “I’d better be more careful next time.”

And there always is a next time. The button to “retry your daring escape,” you see, is the same button you use to jump–the only button you ever press, in fact, and the one your finger is still hovering above. All you have to do is push down.

This might sound so obvious to be inane, but I’m not so sure. I feel games should do more to streamline our experiences, to remove the pointless frustrations of searching through esoteric menus for retry buttons or forcing us to slog back from arbitrary checkpoints (I’m looking at you GTA you dog!). I’m already angry that I messed up, why are you poking at me in my delicate state with your fiddlesome annoyances?

Here Canabalt soars. The interface is breezy, practically non existent; the downtime is close to zero. It knows how irritated you are when you fail, and it knows that is punishment enough. It simply places a gentle hand on your shoulder, shrugs sympathetically, and in a modest voice tells you it’s ready to go again if you are. Thank you Canabalt. You bet I am.

I’m aware this is easier for smaller, more basic games to accomplish, but I still believe blockbuster developers could learn much from the tightness of something like Canabalt. The design of the game as a whole in fact, coupled with the swift production time (FIVEDAYS!), in my mind points to Atomic having that intuitive knowledge that makes for a true artist. I think I read that he’s now working on a bunch of mobile games (though I’m obviously not prepared to do the research to verify that–I’ve got cheese on toast to make), and if he’s continuing to innovate then that’s great, but I just hope he doesn’t burn himself out in App hell, because he seems like a genuine asset to the indie world, and someone to watch out for. Plus he can crush trains with his bare hands. (That might not be true)

What else to say? Well I haven’t yet mentioned the windows that must be leapt through–malevolent, fiendish bloody bastards that they are. But they’ve been discussed with such eloquence elsewhere I feel little more needs to be said, save that the adrenalin fueled elation of “beating” one meshes with the tactile pleasure of watching particles of glass explode outwards and hearing that satisfying tinkle as shards hit the ground in such a way it has become my favouritest glass smashing experience since Goldeneye 64.

Now you want me to say something critical, don’t you? I can sense it, moronic slave to fair and balanced analysis that you are.

Well alright, but only because I like you. And because there’s still time before my cheese on toast needs turning.

I guess the game stumbles onto the wrong side of the unfair tracks occasionally, like when a killer drill falls onto a rooftop so short you can’t leap it without falling into the chasm beyond, or when you’re running full pelt and progressive drops in height prevent you seeing what you’re jumping towards, though in a sense these niggles are the price you pay for procedurally generated levels.

And I suppose if you hate running games, or little men, or rooftops, you might find cause for chagrin here.

But for the most part Canabalt is a gem of a game–fast and frantic and joyfully crafted. It feels current, yet harks back to the great platformers of yesteryear. It’s free! It’s got stompy robots! You can smash glass! What more do you want?

Ensconced in his solinium powered charging pod, orbiting the earth from his secret HQ stationed far above the atmosphere, Adam Atomic should be proud. He has achieved what all great superheroes strive for. He has used his powers for good.

(P.S. I’m not usually one for competition–inveterate loser that I am–but if you can’t run more than 5838 metres before dying then I’m better at life than you. That’s just a fact.)

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8 Comments

Filed under Game Ponderings

8 responses to “Canabalt: Ponderings

  1. will

    You sir, are better at life than me!

    Good writings by the way. I look forward to reading more of them!

    Did you ever play Machinarium? Another little game which deserves a lot of praise, although not without some flaws. :p

    Demo here: http://machinarium.net/demo/

    Ta taa for now!

    • Rob

      I’m mentioning Machinarium in my very next post! I only played the demo but it made me happier than a dancing baby. I’d buy the full game if I wasn’t broke.

  2. Tio Ali

    Super stuff. I’ve never played the game..and now I daren’t, in case it fails to live up to the vicarious experience you just gave me. Can’t wait for the next post.

    • Rob

      Thanks. I’ll let you know when the next piece goes up. It’s somewhere between first and second draft at the mo. Now to find out why you’ve both got better profile pics than me …

  3. Ben

    Brilliant article buddy, looking forward to the next one.

  4. Pingback: Aesthetics and Imagination « World One-Two

  5. Robin

    Very nice description of the visceral elements of Canabait. Have to say after playing a few rounds I am at odds with the concept of the randomized levels. They seem to defeat one of the aspects games like this are usually based on: memorization. Thats good, because I hate memorization, but canabait has passages where you think: “Oh, ok, I won’t jump this high/low/short the next time” and you think you’ve learned something. You haven’t, and something else will hit you out of nowhere. I don’t find that bit enjoyable, but I wonder whether it is a necessary component of the Canabait formula.

    Oh, first article I’ve read by the way, will slowly work my way through the lot from the beginning. Enjoying it so far, keep it up you pretentious writer type you. šŸ™‚

    • Rob

      I like not being able to memorise the levels, it places the focus on immediate hand-eye reflexes rather than trial and error repetition. You do learn as you play, but it is a subconscious learning, like playing a musical instrument, as oppose to conceptual mind mapping. It’s as if the part of you playing is deeper than your train of thought, which for me runs something like: “woooo wooo jumpy jumpy jum–ARG WINDOW!”

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