Canabalt is pure genius, and possibly the best Flash game I’ve ever had the pleasure to enjoy. It is a true single button game, in that you use a single button to play, period: there are a lot of “arrow keys + one button” games out there, but this isn’t one of them. You control a protagonist in an urban dystopia who is attempting to make “a daring escape.” From what we are not told, but if you observe the backdrop closely you can make an educated guess or two. The running happens without your input: all you need do is press “x” to jump from one building to another: offices to rooftop, rooftop to crane.
This game is a beautiful thing to watch, and my single complaint for its designers is the lack of a recording/replay option. The first thing you’ll notice here is the atmosphere: with a few shades of gray and some delicate pixel work Adam Atomic and Danny B have created the Blade Runner of Flash games. Academia has conditioned me to feel dirty for comparing a canon film to something made in Flash, but I’m not going to back down: considering its scope, context, and medium, Canabalt does what Blade Runner did for its own context and medium. It is a stark, atmospheric, posthuman platformer.
They say atmosphere is in the details, and it is: the shattering and flying of glass as you run through a window, the tinkling as it hits the ground, the falling and rolling that looks like it was motion captured using little pixilated people; the shaking of the world as machinery flies overhead, old buildings that collapse from under you, smoke in the distance, and harvesters, and cranes. Some rooftops hold pigeons that fly away as you run by: pigeons so simple and abstracted that the moment becomes a tiny piece of poetry, something remembered from long ago—but like everything in this world they are gone in a flash, and can’t be dwelt on till you’re dead. The simple techno soundtrack is stark and minimalistic as the landscape, and as you run it joins with the patter of your footsteps to form the feverish sound of escape, which becomes your heartbeat.
The minimalism of Canabalt is wonderful. The use of a single button for control brings it into stark relief for what it is—a game—and at the same time invites comparison and contrast to what it is not—an animation, a micro-story, a traditional poem. Where in other games you get bogged down by controls, and the intricacies of story and world, in Canabalt you are freed by simplicity to consider the thing itself in its most basic form. One button up, one button down. Again.
And so, with this single repetitive action Canabalt quietly insists that we think about the medium. What makes playing this simple game different from reading flash fiction or watching a short animation?
Well, for one thing, an animation would have an end. We’d see a man running through the same urban haze, but then we’d see him jump off a final rooftop and land sprawled in front of the White House. Or he’d jump into nothingness that would become a basketball court, and we’d see the familiar swoosh of the Nike logo: just do it. In other words, there’d be some kind of point or message to bring the thing to a close. Not so in Canabalt. Here you just run, and run. Until you die.
By not having an ending or a message, the game highlights what comes before the end in a unique way: an animation or micro-story would inevitably end up being about the escape—or whatever came at the close—while Canabalt is about the process of escaping, about the feel and adrenaline of the pre-escape moments that always get overshadowed in other mediums. A book or a film or an animation can’t end with a failure message. Canabalt can.
Is there somewhere to escape to? Could you have made it had you lived a little bit longer? Possibly yes. Maybe the game does have an end after all. But the fact that you never make it leaves you with no conclusion beyond “what if?” In this way the game paradoxically highlights the nature of the interactive medium, while still being incredibly linear: it highlights the player’s ability to do otherwise, to change the story’s ending, by putting that ending eternally out of reach.
Perhaps, then, the game makes you think not of our ability to do otherwise, but about determinism: how we all run the same race and all die in the end: how the “single button” of our free will means very little considering all the props outside of our control.
It may seem like I’m going overboard reading into the game, but that’s just the thing: ultimately, Canabalt can make you think about any number of things in that way only a well-constructed, open-ended metaphor can. And in all of this, Canabalt points consistently to the nature of games and how we approach them, showing that even a conspicuously minimalistic, short, linear game can be beautiful—and make us think about possibility, free will, and process—in a way that books and film cannot. One button up, one button down. Time to play again.
- Matthew Kaplan's review at Game in Mind, where he asserts that Canabalt might just be the game of the year, AAA titles notwithstanding.
- Tim Rogers' review at Action Button, where he gives the game four stars (out of four), and calls it "Super Mario Tetris."