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?