Canabalt (PC) review
"I view people who subscribe to the holy book of Canabalt the same way that Orson Scott Card intended readers to view Xenocide's Qing-Jao: as obsessive and deranged failures, compulsively tracing lines in wood until they realize they've accomplished nothing. Then they die."
2009's indie darling Canabalt is a game about a man fated to die. He runs from left to right, jumping over obstacles and leaping from one building to the next. There's always a next building -- his journey only ends with death. The man runs automatically, picking up speed as he makes his daring escape. Players only control his jumps. If the man runs into a bomb, he dies; any other obstacle simply slows him down. If he misses a jump from one rooftop to the next, he falls to his doom.
The goal is to achieve a high score, which is accomplished very easily. Whenever possible, players should let the man run into obstacles. The game is wired to become harder as the runner gains speed, until the random level generator throws an impossible situation in his path. Crashing into obstacles keeps it slow. Keeping it slow keeps it possible.
So, the key to Canabalt success is to press the jump button -- the one means of exerting influence over the running man -- as seldom as possible.
Canabalt is not a good game. This should be obvious. Unfortunately, many gaming "journalists" have fallen into the trap of believing that something addictive is the same as something good.
If you're not learning, then you're not living. I view people who subscribe to the holy book of Canabalt the same way that Orson Scott Card intended readers to view Xenocide's Qing-Jao: as obsessive and deranged failures, compulsively tracing lines in wood until they realize they've accomplished nothing.
Then they die.
"Reviews" at various indie game websites say the game would be better with a story or an introductory mini-movie to explain why the Canabalt man is escaping. The game is otherwise perfect, or so the scores of 10-out-of-10 would lead one to believe.
This game is built around the concept of interacting with the game as little as possible. Cutscenes are the last thing that Canabalt needs. The things that Canabalt needs are so extensive in scope that the result may as well be an entirely different game.
People say that Canabalt hearkens back to an age when all games were simple, but that really isn't true. For one thing, Canabalt never changes. Defender looks simple on the surface, but it demanded both murder and rescue -- and failure to protect the world meant players had to kill everyone when they became mutants. After Berzerk's players acquire a taste for robot slaying, they have to flee from the grinning overlord Otto. There is no such turnabout in Canabalt.
What Canabalt does do well is make "nothing" look like "something". As the man runs from left to right -- keep in mind that the player does not control this running -- birds fly into the air. When the man leaps through a window, glass shatters. Buildings crumble (with no impact on the game) and giant robots shuffle in the background. A lot of things are moving onscreen; the player just isn't controlling any of them.
Canabalt was made in five days for a contest based around the theme of "bare minimum", so this is a case where the creator knew he was making something ridiculously simple. It's the goofy audience that erected Canabalt's undeserved pedestal. Here's a guy who knows how to dress up even the simplest concept . . . and idiots encourage him to keep wasting his talents on crap. If this guy can make non-interaction look meaningful, imagine what he could accomplish on a worthwhile project!
That's why calling Canabalt "a good game" isn't just wrong -- it's downright cruel. The world should acknowledge Canabalt for what it is: a polished turd. Humanity's tragic flaw is that we actually care what others think of us. If we want game designers to reach their potential, we should praise them for the right reasons. Otherwise, we're encouraging inferiority.
Staff review by Zigfried (February 23, 2011)
Zigfried likes writing about whales and angry seamen, and often does so at the local pub.
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