What I talk about when I talk about endless running

We don't talk much about endless runners-- but anything we play this much of is worth talking and thinking about.

“I run in a void. Or maybe I should put it the other way: I run in order to acquire a void. But as you might expect, an occasional thought will slip into this void.” – Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

We don’t talk about endless runners much. There was a flurry of conversation over Canabalt, but when the genre moved from PC to mobile – the no man’s land of in-depth video game criticism – that conversation ended. You might think we don’t talk about the actual physical act of running much either, but Haruki Murakami went and wrote an entire book about the philosophy of putting one foot in front of the other called What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. If he can find things to say about going fast with your legs we can learn something from the genre of endless runners, because anything we do often enough is worth thinking and talking about and I play video games about running a lot more than I actually run.

What You Learn Sticks With You

In Canabalt you’re a man in a suit who jumps from an office window onto the rooftops of a crumbling grayscale city, and then just keeps running. There are smoke and giant robots in the background, and sometimes buildings collapse beneath you or a missile rudely slams down into your path, but whatever’s going on is unexplained. You don’t know why you’re running, whether you’re trying to escape something or racing towards it. You just keep thumping along, alone.

There are a couple of clever-clever things about Canabalt. One is that there’s only a single input. You hit any key if you’re on a computer or tap the screen on a phone or tablet and your guy does a jump. Hold it down and he jumps higher, but that’s it. You don’t control his running – he just runs.

There are a million games about jumping, but most of them require you arrange yourself neatly in the exact right position before you leap into space. Fuck that, says Canabalt. Running isn’t something you think about. If you had to actually think about what you were doing, you’d end up like QWOP.

QWOP isn’t a game about running. It’s a game about failing at running. Each of the keys you press – Q, W, O, and P – controls a different part of your athlete’s legs. You tap them, trying to find a rhythm while your legs jerk and spasm. One leg flits forward extravagantly, foot in the air. You hammer the keys frantically, deciding that maybe the problem is the O, what if you try hitting everything except the O, and now you’re inching along the ground on one knee, torso tilting backwards precipitously and you’re about to collapse and maybe if you press the O it will save you after all but no, you’ve fallen on your head. You traveled 11.4 meters.

QWOP says “everyone is a winner”. QWOP lies.

Involuntary Runner is a game in which you control the internal organs of a man who runs and jumps as you slowly inflate and deflate his lungs (pressing L) while quickly but not too quickly beating his heart (with H) while also controlling his digestion (space bar) and intermittently releasing farts (the enter key, an oddly inappropriate choice). The farts help you jump, because of course they do. Usually what happens in Involuntary Runner is that you concentrate too much on the breathing and your heart rate drops so you don’t run fast enough to make a jump, or perhaps you fail to release enough gas which makes you explode. Involuntary Runner takes the ultra-precise style of game controls to their logical extreme. It gives you too much to do, forces you to think about things you never think about.

The other clever-clever thing about Canabalt is that it’s endless. There’s an algorithm that places the buildings and randomly chooses whether the next jump will be short or long, whether there will be a missile or a window in your path. You can never learn the pattern, so instead you learn to jump as late as you can from the collapsing buildings, leaping just before they vanish off the screen; jump early for the windows so that you catch them on the downward arc rather than overshooting and splatting into the wall above them like you’re high-fiving a treetrunk.

(On the subject of windows, I hate them. I swear at windows in Canabalt so much that people on the train must think I have a Windows Phone. Fucking windows.)

That randomness means you can only react to situations rather than memorizing them. It’s procedurally generated. If you ask game designers about procedural mathematics they’ll talk about generating seeds with a hyperbolic paraboloid and if you’re confused about what a paraboloid is, well, it’s a special kind of quadric surface, and if you’re confused about what a quadric surface is it’s a particular kind of D-dimensional hypersurface and a hypersurface is a generalization of the concept of the hyperplane which is any codimension-1 vector subspace of a vector space and OH MY GOD it’s definitions all the way down. We’re confronting the infinite.Canabalt is endless, in theory. Just like an individual person’s life can seem like an insignificant slice of the existence of the universe, an individual game of Canabalt is a drop in the bottomless ocean of its potential. They say if you make it past 5,000 meters you see a flying saucer, but I wouldn’t know. I’ve never dived that deep.

One reason I’ve never made it past 5,000 meters is I don’t like to slow down. Deliberately tripping over obstacles is the only way to moderate your speed. There’s no actual downside to this, and it’s easier to play this way. This is the path to high scores in Canabalt-- but it’s also less fun. The sensation of velocity is incredible: your tie and suit tails flapping, pigeons scattering, glass thrown forward as you hurtle through it. Hitting top speed in Canabalt is exhilarating. You won’t live as long, but you’ll enjoy it more, and there’s an obvious final lesson in that.

Things Only Runners Understand

“Competing against time isn’t important. What’s going to be much more meaningful to me now is how much I can enjoy myself, whether I can finish twenty-six miles with a feeling of contentment. I’ll enjoy and value things that can’t be expressed in numbers, and I’ll grope for a feeling of pride that comes from a slightly different place.” – Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

Ski Safari 2 Ski Safari 2

Canabalt gave birth to an entire genre of endless runners. But if endless runners were punk rock and Canabalt was its Ramones, then SkiFree was the proto-punk Stooges. (Robot Unicorn Attack is The Sex Pistols in this analogy.) SkiFree was released in 1991 with Windows 3.1. A simple skiing game, you slide downhill avoiding trees, snowboarders, and dogs while aiming for jumps. Potentially, that hill goes forever. In reality after coasting down it for 2,000 feet an abominable snowman grabs you with his spindly arms and rams you into his gaping maw. The snowman is to SkiFree as windows are to Canabalt.

Ski Safari is your chance to have revenge on that snowman. One of many endless runners designed for mobile after Canabalt’s success, it puts you on skis and a mountain, rushing left to right as an avalanche rumbles behind you. Joining you in the mad race are a menagerie of creatures, including penguins and yetis. But unlike the abominable snowman of SkiFree with his terrifying snaggle-toothed grin, these yetis are essential to your survival. Leap onto them and you speed up, riding them down the slopes, occasionally picking up a penguin co-pilot.

Although the yetis are safe, Ski Safari adds a new danger to the Canabalt formula with its avalanche. Slightly faster than your base speed but slightly slower than the speed you hit earning a boost from doing a trick, the avalanche is the perfect enemy, implacable but temporarily defeatable. Ski Safari also has missions, objectives that tell you to pluck an eagle from the sky and then ride it through a log cabin, for instance. Spitting in the face of God like this gets you a gold star, and works towards unlocking a higher score multiplier.

The missions are borrowed from Jetpack Joyride, another endless runner about eternal fleeing from left to right, only this time with the aid of a stolen jetpack and through a science lab full of lasers and missiles. The missions give you something to work toward and shake you out of the rut of your preferred playstyle, pushing you to buy power-ups you might not have otherwise tried, or playing in a riskier way because you’re working towards a bonus you get from narrowly escaping death. You’ll probably discover you actually like some of these alternate playstyles, though you’d never have tried them otherwise.

As Ski Safari is to SkiFree, Jetpack Joyride is to an older game called SFCave. Released on the Palm PDAs in the days before tablets, it gave you control of a worm flying through a tunnel, pressing a button to rise before naturally falling, steering to avoid green blocks. There are no missions in SFCave, and playing it today with only high scores to chase, it’s hard to get as worked up about it as the PalmPilot yuppies of the past would have. Here’s the lesson from that: life without a goal beyond extending your survival is pointless.

A Kind Of Crossroads

“Running day after day, piling up the races, bit by bit I raise the bar, and by clearing each level I elevate myself. At least that’s why I’ve put in the effort day after day: to raise my own level. I’m no great runner, by any means. I’m at an ordinary—or perhaps more like mediocre-level. But that’s not the point. The point is whether or not I improved over yesterday.” – Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

The staggeringly popular mobile game Temple Run tweaked the endless runner format in a different way – it moved the viewpoint. It showed your runner, who has stolen a cursed idol from a temple and is now being chased by demon monkeys, from behind.

Changing that viewpoint gave Temple Run the opportunity to complicate things by adding turns. As well as swiping up to leap obstacles and down to duck them, you swipe left and right to turn. Sometimes you come to a T-intersection and you have the option to go left or right. I usually go left and don’t know why. Left, I go, left then left then left. But I haven’t looped, haven’t come back to where I started. Quadricoatl, Aztec god of procedural generation, has placed me and anyone else who steals that idol in Temple Run under a curse. You never complete a circle, never cross the breadcrumbs of your old path. There’s always undiscovered territory ahead.

Temple Run inspired descendants, other endless runners with the viewpoint set behind you. These upstart children take Canabalt’s minimalist approach and then add stuff to it, and while some get away with it there’s definitely a point where you’re overstuffing the turducken. Subway Surfer puts trains in front of you as well as pursuit behind. That’s a clever tweak to the basics, but then it throws in jetpacks and shoes that let you super-jump and coin magnets and it’s all a bit distracting. Temple Run: Brave adds archery sections where you’re safe from the bear pursuing you but can tap on targets to shoot them with your bow for bonuses.

All these things shake up the formula and fight off repetitiveness, but the endless runner is one genre where repetition actually isn’t so bad. Doing the same thing often enough drops you into that void Murakami writes about, that pleasant place of no-thought where the rest of the world drops away and you are the running. Tinkering with this beautiful simplicity pulls you out of that serene state where you run like the wind and start feeling at one with things.

And something important is lost when you stop running from left-to-right. Being able to see the world ahead – and, in Temple Run at least, realize it’s a looping illusion created by Quadricoatl – takes away part of the mystery. In Get Water!, an endless runner of the traditional sidescrolling variety, that mystery returns. You play a young girl in a developing country who has to skip school to collect water for her family, which you do by tracing your finger across the screen to follow droplets of pure water while avoiding water that’s bad. You fingerpaint your own rise and fall across the village you live in, but it doesn’t remain a village forever.

Eventually, you leave that village in search of more water and the extreme right of the screen reveals a jungle, and the ruins of a temple. You are the reverse of the colonial outsider hero of Temple Run, and are traveling back into your own people’s past. The colorful peacocks who try to trip you up in the village are now aided by screeching monkeys, and the jolly educational tone is replaced by something darker.This is the final lesson we can learn from endless runners. When they embrace the 2D origins of games they remind us of the sense of discovery and surprise as simple a thing as sprinting across a changing landscape can create, never able to fill all the blanks in our internal maps but slowly coming to understand the threats that inhabit them. Here be monsters, these games say. Now run.

“At 26.2 miles there’s a sign that says, “This is the distance of a marathon.” There’s a white line painted on the concrete indicating the exact spot. I exaggerate only a bit when I say that the moment I straddled that line a slight shiver went through me, for this was the first time I’d ever run more than a marathon. For me this was the Strait of Gibraltar, beyond which lay an unknown sea. What lay in wait beyond this, what unknown creatures were living there, I didn’t have a clue. In my own small way I felt the same fear that sailors of old must have felt.” – Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running