Saturday, January 29, 2011


Run - run - down the hallway - door after door slips by - dodge a chair - jump past a filing cabinet - a window coming up - leap --

And with that leap begins the most exciting interactive entertainment experience I've had the pleasure of encountering lately: Canabalt.

I use the word "interactive entertainment" deliberately. There really isn't all that much "game" to this game. all you do is press one butten the entier time! That one button - your choice of X, C or space - makes you jump over obstacles in your way as you run, run like the wind, in a desperate bid to escape a disintegrating city. The premise is startlingly clear from the beginning. You never stop - on the contrary, you keep picking up speed. You run across rooftops, over construction cranes, through hallways with thankfully-large-but-often-not-quite-big-enough scenic windows at each end. The occasional crate stands in your way; buildings collapse underfoot; now and then, a bomb is dropped right in front of you. (I assume it is a bomb. It's big and heavy and the merest touch results in an almighty bang and turns you "into a fine mist".) It's like every high-octane rooftop chase scene ever filmed in Hollywood mixed together, starring you.

The greyscale graphics are a textbook example of the "retro look". Consciously pixellated forms flow past with breathtaking speed. The hero is maybe twenty pixels tall, but runs, jumps and tumbles with a fluidity that puts me pleasantly in mind of Impossible Mission on the C-64. (Flashback, too. And some of my brother's art.) And rightly so: this is the kind of stuff that was sold as full-price titles in my childhood.

During the odd death-defying leap, when your life is in the hands of gravity and inertia, you have a split second to admire the view across the city, with smoking half-demolished buildings and giant war machines walking around, sweeping death rays across the ground. Sometimes you scare a flock of birds off a rooftop. Sometimes an aircraft roars by, shaking the very foundations.

Yet in all this hectic action there's room for thinking as well - I'm tempted to use the term "emergent strategy". Those crates slow down your otherwise ceaseless acceleration, and this can be beneficial (for that extra heartbeat of gauging the length of the next leap) as well as harmful (less speed means less distance covered airborne). The controls are sensitive enough that a light tap will produce a shorter, lower leap than a forceful push. Sometimes the difference will introduce itself at just the wrong moment, but it can be a tremendous help when aiming for a rapidly approaching window.

Speaking of the windows, they are maybe my biggest gripe in the game. They remain the most common single cause of death. The reason is that, being comparably small, they require careful aiming, which is all but impossible at the speeds our hero is generally travelling. The locations can't be memorised either, as the environment is randomly created as you go along. Nearly always you either jump too late and hit the wall above the window, or too early and smack into the one below it. Even the aforementioned bombs give an advance warning in the form of a "clack" sound - easy as it is to miss in the general pandemonium - so you know to time the next jump a bit earlier, as you definitely do not want to be caught airborne when the bomb drops. Would it have been too much to ask to have some sort of warning sound for an upcoming window as well?

On the other hand, when you do make it, the shards of the former pane rain down so beautifully.

And the sound! There's no question Danny B is the Danny Elfman of game music (though less predictable). I second the author's suggestion of donning your best pair of headphones and "cranking this sh*t up".

In the end, however, Canabalt is something of a zen experience. Getting very far at such breakneck speed requires the player to cultivate a serene oneness with the virtual cityscape. And, like life, your madcap scramble is ultimately futile. There is no successful ending; sooner or later, you die, and are laconically told how far you got this time. The urge to have another go, to do better, is strong. But witness the birds: they're watching the end of the world as we know it from their perches, and they could care less.

It's never about winning... it's about playing well.

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