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The Games Of Christmas: December 2nd

As surely as the snow falls on any day but Christmas day, so the second day in December plays host to the second game on our incredible seasonal advent calendar. It also plays host to a feeling that we’ve forgotten something. Presents? Decorations? Is it the nagging feeling engendered by too many years under the heel of heavy consumerism? We can’t tell, so run, run! Run to the very tip of the indicative hand of the one true leader of the Autobots to discover…

Canabalt!

Jim: For some reason Canabalt reminds me of that thing where kids first learn to walk, but they haven’t quite mastered it, and end up accelerating in a straight line until they crash into something, or simply tip forward and crash in a heap. Good times. It also reminded me that one-button games can be totally awesome. There’s a fascinating article over on Gamasutra which examines the possibilities of the single button interaction, and I can’t help wonder if the designers of the break-neck running game read that before embarking on their masterpiece.

Alec: I have a nemesis, and his name is Window. I can’t think of many other game enemies I fear/hate quite as much as Window. His dread presence is perhaps what makes Canabalt simultaneously so thrilling and exasperating to me. At some point in your breathless free-running escape from the urban apocalypse that’s shaking Canabalt’s greyscale world to the ground, you’ll encounter something very different to a ledge or a crane or a rooftop that requires a split-second jump across to. A window. A huge, plateglass window, just a little below your current vertical position. In an instant, the physics of what’s required from you are torn up, thrown to the uncaring wind. You have to arc up and then down, but colliding with the window while there’s still enough forward momentum to smash you through it. It’s simply a matter of timing, but somehow it feels like someone’s suddenly rewritten the laws of the universe.

I can’t do it. I just can’t do it. I hate you, Window.

I’m pretty good at the game otherwise – but even though its endlessly spooling rooftup run is ultimately a doomed one anyway, the appearance of a window is a sign that my breakneck escape is over. Several months on, it’s still not deterring me from trying again, again, again. This time, I can do it. I’ll show you, Window.

It’s because Canabalt conveys so much from so little. A thin, grey horizontal strip, a handful of pixels that are just enough to demonstrate flailing arms and fluttering suit tails, an indistinct cloud of white that’s so undeniably a flock of panicked pigeons, a constant background shake that tells you Bad Shit Is Happening Here, dramatic, silhouetted cameos from airships and flying fortresses. It doesn’t matter how many times someone tells me the game has no ending – the impeccable urgency of the piece means I will always feel like I’m running to something. This time I’ll do it, I swear.

One button, more sense of purpose than most anything else I’ve played this year. And my archest of enemies. If only you could talk to the windows…


Kieron: I do talk to the windows. Well, talking is probably an over-delicate way of describing it. Think swearier.

Canabalt is just a glorious little thing. I mean, it was made in five days. It’s a statement that, if you’re talented enough, in five days you can make one of the finest games of the year. It proves that anyone talking about the impossibility of doing anything worthwhile in games without an army of programming slaves is basically either a liar, a shill or just a bit dense. It’s an expertly judged piece of minimalism, both in its graphical style and its one-button mechanics. I hope developers look at it as a call to arms.

I also play games with it. No disrespect to Danny B’s splendid score, but I tend to use it as this year’s Audiosurf and drop various other tracks over it, which twists the game’s timbre. The track which I most connect Canabalt to is Music Go Music’s Warm In the Shadows, which I mentioned when I first posted about the game. Modern disco glacial endless propulsion. It highlights the coolness and distance of the game beautifully.

So, I start playing around with other stuff. I reach for Classic Disco and Lost In Music, which only seems to work during its chorus – but everything works to Lost In Music’s chorus. I spin a different way, going epic. Suddenly, with Born to Run playing, the game becomes hilarious. It reaches a climax with the enormous bridge, where the characters desperately spinning arms becoming melodrama personified.

Delightful Girlfriend, on the way to the bath, suggests Vangelis. Which does exactly what you expect it to. A few minutes later, a shout comes from the Bath. “I GET THE FEELING TAKE MY BREATH AWAY MIGHT BE GOOD”. And lo – it’s suddenly an overwrought eighties romantic scene. Win!

Of course, this has me thinking about 80s stuff now, and I reach for Rush Hour, which turns the chase into a giddy silly thing. And then I find myself thinking it’s all been a little delicately feminine so far, so I reach for Motorhead and we’re in a HYPERMACHOHYMNTOVELOCITY! It doesn’t work quite as well when you slow down after clipping an obstacle, but when you’re going full out, it’s a joy – of course, this makes me realise why the Disco worked so well, because it’s weightless nature meant that it embraced the slower speeds as well as the faster. Which makes me wonder how Kraftwerk’s Autobahn will sound and… well, I’ll just go and try it.

Join me. Do recommend your own soundtracks to Canabalt. I’m going to be here all day.

John: I love that this was created in just a couple of days (and then later refined). Admittedly I’ve spent more time playing it on my iTouch than on PC, but it’s exactly the same experience in both forms. One button, really only one idea, and yet so compelling.

It taps into the desire for a high score in a splendid fashion, and most importantly, has an instant restart that makes it very hard not to play yet another game.

My only issue with it (beyond sharing Alec’s frustration with being so rubbish at jumping through windows), is the opening few moments in the corridor. Those two awkward jumps with the low ceiling aren’t part of the game again, and somewhat take away from the pleasure of a split-second restart. I do wish it would start with just a straight run to the smashable window, and then onto the rooftops.

I still insist on calling it “Canablat”, it should be known. My brain decided that’s how it is spelt from day one, and nothing will convince me otherwise.

Also, jumping over giant missiles is brilliant.

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