State of the Art – “Canabalt”, or everything that’s wrong with video games

[If you haven’t played “Canabalt” yet, do yourself a favor and play it: it’ll only take a few minutes to understand what I’m writing about.]

There’s a reason why I normally don’t write about indie games such as “Canabalt”. In fact, “Canabalt” may the best example of why I don’t ever do so. If you haven’t noticed, “Canabalt” has become a sort of poster-child for indie development. It was mentioned in both Destructoid and Eurogamer on game of the year lists, and attracted considerable attention from nearly all media outlets, even going as far as getting a review from über-mainstream IGN. Let’s discuss its merits. First, it is obviously an exercise of extremely elegant game-design – the only interaction with the game is through the one button that makes you jump. Like Ulrich’s character in Metallica’s cinephile music-video “I Disappear“, your character is trapped in some random metropolis skyscraper, trying to escape the impeding doom of collapsing buildings. So, he’s continuously on the move, running game style, forcing you to time your jumps in order to go from rooftop to rooftop, while avoiding incoming obstacles and pitfalls. The desolate world that surrounds you, painted in a mono-chromatic palette, is always crumbling, victim to some unknown Wellsian menace, as ships and tripod-like machines pass by in the game’s backgrounds. And so, your character is always running and running and running, as the soundtrack’s electronic beats keep pushing the tempo higher and higher, running and running and running for his life, ever faster, ever quicker, and ever more dangerously, as obstacles keep hurling through the air just to bar your path. Once you die, you just start again, playing the pattern memorization game to push further in your harrowing escape, and then die again, repeating this cycle for all eternity: there’s no end to the game, you just receive a better score for staying alive for more time.  “Canabalt’s” simplicity is its stroke of genius: an accessible game, with minimalist interaction and aesthetic – one button,  one objective, one color, one music – all playing in unison to make for a superlative entertaining, addicting experience. Its authors deserve all the credit they can get, for doing so much with so little.

OK, by now I have surely got you wondering, if “Canabalt” is that good, what’s with the article’s title? Why would anyone deem “Canabalt” a symbol for  everything that’s wrong with video games?  The reason is simple, “Canabalt”  is incredibly fun, but… that’s it. There’s no point to it, no message, no aesthetic experience, no nothing. It’s as innocuous as most video games. This isn’t bad per se, it’s a wonderful game in its almost offensive superficiality, but that’s precisely because we’ve become acquainted and appeased by video games’ lack of anything beyond their pleasurable, shallow exteriors. It’s remarkable, and I’d think almost insulting to creators, that big company design logos can be so easily replicated with such simplicity and scarcity of means. You see, “Canabalt” isn’t really indie. As much as it is designed by independent developers, its game design philosophy is nothing but a thin, slimmed down version of mainstream video games’. This is why it so easily resonated with the mainstream – it’s language was immediately understood by both journalists and players, and its elegance garnered it praise for still being able to achieve that which all games are measured by: fun. This should get people who love video games thinking… and thinking really hard, for if something as naked as “Canabalt” can relate to people in as a powerful way as big budget titles… then what are big publishers spending their millions on? What is the point of throwing all those dollars into creating complex three-dimensional engines in service of bland aesthetics, over-long scenarios for botched narratives and super complicated game designs… if it can all be reduced to such an elegant little video game?

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  • Comments (19)
  1. Silly man. You say that because you’ve never tried the iPhone version which, mind you, was nothing short of touching…

    It’s a Super Mario level, redone using black and white tones and changing the character from a humorous overweight plumber with a quirky mustache for… Michael Jackson…?

    The game is innocent, however, free from any blame. They did well as you pointed out, taking all the restrictions into mind. The problem, as it always happens every year, is that someone needs to fill the voids and this year called for some indie sensation game that was supposed to appear out of the blue and eventually be hyped all the day to heaven – in that sense, Canabalt was as good as the next. Shame on those people.

    • ruicraveirinha
    • March 12th, 2010

    The game is not the problem, of course, i think it’s a good game, and I was honest in my feelings of praise for its authors. It’s the medium’s agents’ perception of the game that worries me. We surely agree on that.

    Cheers, Bruno-san!

  2. Let me see if I get this… your complain is that Canabalt is a little, elegant, minimalistic game that has the same game mechanics of other games and is as effective without having millions of dolars to support it ?

  3. Oh, I really prefer this hiper kitsch rip-off with robotic unicorns: http://games.adultswim.com/robot-unicorn-attack-twitchy-online-game.html

    The colours and music alone will put some hair on your chest. It’s the stuff Replicants dream of. 😛

    • ruicraveirinha
    • March 13th, 2010

    @Coyote

    You’re not understanding my line of thought. I’m not criticizing “Canabalt”, in fact I am praising it (I think that’s pretty clear in my text). What I am criticizing is mainstream game design, that with millions spent in shiny graphics, massive logistics, complex production, can only produce games that are as entertaining and (un)profound as a small indie game. “Canabalt” could hardly be more than it is. But mainstream games, with studios spending all that money and only marginally producing similarly entertaining, but innocuous games, is more than motive to be weary and critic. And the fact that “Canabalt” was met with such praise by media is proof, not just of its merits, but of the insidious logic that governs most studios and the journalism that surrounds them.

    @José

    I actually think it’s not that bad.

    Cheers guys!

    • Coyote
    • March 13th, 2010

    Ok, so I guess I understand your line of thought, but wanted to be sure.

    I think that is, for the most part, something odd to complain about, almost a fallacy. It is truth that some mainstream games don’t attempt to explore more than what this game is about, which is a pity (for them). However, to rule out games because its mechanics can be archieved by much more simple, less ambitious examples is unfair to both parts. Mechanically-wise, Metal Gear is not much different than pacman, Bioshock is not much different than Doom, Pain much different than Flower, Braid than Mario, and Heavy Rain is not much different than Dragon’s Lair or Guitar Hero.

    More praises to Canabalt for aiming at something simple and elegant, and archeiving that (many big budget games can’t even do that), but, while I consider production values to be worthless without an aim, I also consider game mechanics to be just a part of games, and not something that uses (or needs) production and process beyond a certain point. Gameplay is part of the language used by a game to transmit something, and while I do agree that its, for the most part, the most crude of the tools, I do not need every game to try to reinvent the language.

  4. Question: will anyone at all play it more then 5 minutes? 😮

    • ruicraveirinha
    • March 15th, 2010

    @Coyote

    “However, to rule out games because its mechanics can be archieved by much more simple, less ambitious examples is unfair to both parts.”

    I’m not talking mechanics. Though “Canabalt” is, as dieubussy so accurattely describes, nothing more than a “Super Mario” level. What I’m talking about is your psico-emotional relationship with the game. It’s a matter of the whole package, and how it shapes interaction and experience with the player.

    “Mechanically-wise, Metal Gear is not much different than pacman, Bioshock is not much different than Doom, Pain much different than Flower, Braid than Mario, and Heavy Rain is not much different than Dragon’s Lair or Guitar Hero.”

    Wow, settle down Coyote, now who’s being a demagogue?

    “Gameplay is part of the language used by a game to transmit something, and while I do agree that its, for the most part, the most crude of the tools, I do not need every game to try to reinvent the language.”

    Sure, we don’t need reinventions in every game, but we also shouldn’t want lack of reinvention in nearly all (mainstream) games… which is precisely what media and the players demand. And a propos, think about this:

    1. What was the last game you played that you couldn’t fit into a genre, and couldn’t describe it as a sum of other games’ languages, game-play, or ideas?

    2. What was the last game that made you think or feel differently during the experience?

    3. What was the last game that truly blew your mind, so innovative and creative it was, that had to say: where did this all come from?

    Now, you might say this is by accident, but it isn’t. Did you know that game design guidelines actually mention that you should choose a genre, choose the best references for the mechanics to position your product, and the small innovations (and I do mean small, gadget-y, gimmick type things!!!) it can bring to the foray of its competition’s library. Games are not designed to be creative, they are designed to be popular and commercial. The media and audiences only augment and potentiate this dogma.

    @mors

    Reactonary Mode: Not if you have a life, and prefer to spend it doing interesting things 😉

    Cheers guys!

  5. Didn’t want to sound demagogue. My examples are only to illustrate that mechanically and gameplay-wise, mainstream and “artsy”, creative and derivative games, all share the same building blocks. Bioshock and Halo share the same conventions. Its like the language, the same for everyone… Wheter it can be used to write Twilight or The Godfather is up to the writer. It shouldn’t be a demerit to the whole medium either, as you wrote previously

    I will answer your questions, although my answers can be a little too mainstream:
    1. That is a tough question. Gameplay-wise, I would say Noby Noby Boy, but its hard to think of any other recent example. I would like you to name a few…
    2. Flower, Bioshock, a lot of games actually… Granted, some would use Disney movies levels of sad music and mellow dialog to make me care when some character dies or something big happends, but I wouldn’t give a damn about videogames if I thought they only are able to make me waste time…
    3. Gameplay-wise, again, only Noby Noby Boy… In regards to setting and characters, I have seen my share. Heavy Rain as characters that range between stereotypes to really interesting. Another example for me is actually Brutal Legend, mainstream and flawed as it is, the amount of creativity and love for the source of inspiration is something to be commended.

  6. Note: When I said: “It shouldn’t be a demerit to the whole medium either, as you wrote previously”, I was linking to your previous post. href linking doesn’t seems to work on the comments…

    • ruicraveirinha
    • March 16th, 2010

    Wthout wishing to turn this into a bigger discussion:

    “Flower” and “Bioshock”, good choices. Would it be fair to say they represent state of the art in video games? I would disagree. They’re great mind you, but they are not representative of video game elite. You get one, maybe two of those artistic/high-profile games every year, and still, very rarely are they recognized as being as powerful as you or me may think. That’s my point.

    “Noby Noby Boy” is indeed a very original game. Now think back how many could stand side by side with it, and you’ll get where I’m going. Now, you say this is matter of language. I beg to differ, this is a matter of tropes and authors over-reliance on them. You want a game about war – just design another FPS with some silly WWII/Vitenam/IRaq story on top. You want fantasy – RPG with some cool aesthetic. You want adventure – go with action-adventure, use some old literature epic poem as reference and you’re off… , etc, etc, etc. Nobody designs games any more, people just copy the closest references they can find and add some meaningless addendums in hope of catching media’s attentions. These elements are not a language, for that is much more low-level and simple and basic, these are archetypal strcutures that have become crutches for scenario, art, game and level design.

    Cheers guys!

  7. Oh, please, let me answer those questions too!

    1. What was the last game you played that you couldn’t fit into a genre, and couldn’t describe it as a sum of other games’ languages, game-play, or ideas?

    Populous (1989)

    2. What was the last game that made you think or feel differently during the experience?

    D (1995)

    3. What was the last game that truly blew your mind, so innovative and creative it was, that had to say: where did this all come from?

    MDK (1997)

    My silly-partially-serious answers serve to show that we shouldn’t be after those topics in the medium. The language and genres have been built. Designers should work creatively with them. I’m not suggestion the castration of new design ideas but, consider this, for instance: a lot of Heavy Rain detractors are shouting that it doesn’t “innovate” from Fahrenheit and, as such, it’s worthless.

    What I’m saying is that old recipes can be used as long as something personal and interesting is being cooked (terrible metaphor) – and, you’re right, that means not having to chase unprecedented commercial success.

    We need more honest people working in the industry, that’s for sure. I recently read that Kenji Eno left the industry because he felt D2 was trying too hard to cope with the blockbusters of its time (and, of course, even if he doesn’t admit it, because D2 was a big time commercial failure). Either way, he’s nothing but a gentleman.

    • ruicraveirinha
    • March 17th, 2010

    I think that, for the sake of argument, you’re being too literal. Obviously, what I meant was the same as what you call “working creatively”. Adding something to previously established conventions, but always adding something that makes us feel different, that actually changes the experience for the player. That is why I asked the second question in the first place.

    About Heavy Rain, it is tructurally similar to Fahrenheit, but it adds so much to in terms of player experience – in the way it shapes players’ relationships with characters, tells a simple, but meaningful story (as opposed to an epic sci-fi mess) and uses contextual metaphor-driven gameplay – that you must concede to its innovation. The problem is that mainstream media is biased in terms of what it concedes to be “innovation”, and only looks for technicalities that bear very little importance in the end result.

    Bottom-line: there is barely any creativity in the medium, even considering the so-called indie strata. It worries me that players have become addicted to formulae, publishers to focus-groups and designers to pre-baked genres and aesthetics. Curiously, “D2” was symptomatic of the new development paradigm of the XXIst century, by showing that even a visionary such as Kenji Eno had to bow down to commercial logic and follow the trend of its time: create a Resident Evil clone. Console video games simply need too much money, people and resources to be created; this ups the risk, and consequently diminishes stakeholders desire to sponsor creativity. The only possibility of change is for players to actually sponsor video games that are different, to create new niche markets that make it viable for authors to explose their work. But that pressuposes an elitist media, cultural awareness of videogames status as a highbrow medium… and a lot of time…

    Cheers!

  8. http://designcave.typepad.com/the-game-design-cave/2009/10/what-games-soft-drinks-have-in-common-1.html

    I think the above piece contains the answer. Cannabalt is a tasty piece of candy, rather than a full meal like many other games. You aren’t going to see many people play it for more than an hour.

    • ruicraveirinha
    • April 4th, 2010

    Dagda-mor, I liked your article, but it does not head in the direction I’m trying to get at. I think the problem is that what you call “full meal” (keeping with the analogy at hand) is just a mcdonalds type of sugar candy. There is as much nutritional value in the latest shooter or sports game or action/adventure as there is in a small byte sized game as Canabalt. As Csikszentmihalyi would say, we as human beings, are not complexified by video games. Even what the author refers as mechanically deep games, are still hollow and shallow – they do not teach us anything except for complex rules and game play which we decode through a number of silly, meaningless skills that the game forces us to learn.

    We are still talking of an audience of empty vessels. The Hamburguer may feel right when you start eating it, but the shallow pleasure it arouses is gone the minute you sit down and think about how well it tasted. There aren’t that good a meals in video games, and people consistently misconceive complex gameplay with a truly gratifying video game – one that teaches you something about an author’s life, ideas and emotions.

    Cheers and thanks for the comment.

  9. dude … when a sushi comes out ~ warn me about it 😉

    • ruicraveirinha
    • April 4th, 2010

    Your palate wouldn’t handle it – that’s the problem in the first place.

  10. Talking about elitism ~ :s

    • ruicraveirinha
    • April 5th, 2010

    Start eating good food once in a while – when the sushi comes, you’ll be ready.

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