No one sets out to make a bad game. Conversely, not enough people set out to make a really brilliant game. Sometimes, though, it happens anyway. That's Canabalt - a one-button, one-man, one-idea Flash game originally created as a fun but throwaway entry in an Experimental Gameplay Project competition. It's been my go-to game in any idle moment over the last few months, and the strange grey world that I most often see when I close my eyes and let my imagination idle.
As great things do, it went huge. Increasingly for indie webgames, there's an inevitable consequence to that - an iPhone app arriving in short-order. In a time of entrenched piracy and dramatically declining funding for PC gaming, the iPhone is fast becoming a vital way for independent developers to make money. Canabalt is excellent on the PC, most especially the gorgeous, screen-hugging high-definition version, but it's on the iPhone and iPod Touch that it really shines. It's a game that feels as though Apple designed its frighteningly prevalent gizmo specifically for it - control system and game mechanic in perfect harmony, in a way that very little else on the iPhone achieves.
It's not so much that the controls are simple - all you have to do is tap to jump - but that everything you need to do is absolutely apparent within seconds. You're in a city. The city is crumbling. You have to run. Showing it to games-snob friends in the pub, they all knew exactly what to do as soon as I passed the phone to them. Tap to jump. Run as far as you can before dying. Try again. Again. Again! Moments later, their own iPhones are out. Pause. Three more copies of Canabalt are bought and downloaded there and then. Fingers tap. Larynxes expand and contract, shaping laughter and swearing alternately. High scores are exchanged, beaten, gloated over.
It's a scene simultaneously as modern as gaming gets, and a throwback to the sharing and boasting of eighties arcade and Spectrum culture. It's a game for gamers and non-gamers alike, achieving immediate intuition and reward in a way that we're supposed to believe Guitar Hero does, providing we forget about that first half hour of panicky "What do I have to do? I can't do it! I can't press buttons and strum at the same time! Can I give up?"
That said, I can't do the bloody windows for the life of me. Boxes, leaps of faith from collapsing rooftops, giant missiles, the lip of billboards: these I am master of. A timely tap and I'm over and away the obstacle, my pace increasing, my coat tails fluttering faster, the sense and noise of escape pounding in my ears, my eyes, my heart. But then there'll be a window, and I'll panic. I need to jump through it - not over or beneath it. To smash through its implacable glass surface requires entirely different timing to the rest of the game. Now? No. Now! Oh. Thud. Splat.
It's fist-on-the-table, phone-flung-across-the-room frustration, but it's also genius. It's a constant, looming terror, one that stops me from ever feeling complacent, one that ensures my infinite flight from unexplained but obvious disaster is forever urgent and compelling. It's my Nightmare Boss, the great evil I must eventually face. And when I do defeat it, when I do calculate the smooth, graceful arc that sees my jump carry straight through the window and into the corridor behind: well, then I am King Of All Heroes. I love that I have so consistently failed to improve at dealing with a window - partly my own incompetence, but partly the game's forever-randomised course ensuring I can never, ever predict a window, and thus I can never plan for it.
All I ever need to do is press one button or tap the screen once, but somehow each and every time feels different - a new adventure in athleticism. That the creator didn't quite realise what he'd made, the subtlety and diversity of it: well, I can barely believe it. He's got to be some kind of hustler. It's equally triumphant in its storytelling and sense of world - creating so much from almost nothing. Greyscale pixels, no other characters ever encountered: but constant, apocalyptic shaking and the occasional background silhouette of something vast, deadly and robotic. It tells everything it needs to. The world is ending, and all you can possibly do about it is run away.
You'll always feel like you're running to safety, but you're only ever running to your death. You can't win. The only way the game can end is with you falling off a roof, colliding with a giant explosive or thumping into the unyielding brickwork above or below a ruddy window and sliding ignominiously to messy doom. Somehow, the knowledge of this never sticks. This time. This time.
I burn to know how it ends, even though it can never end. No words, no voices, but somehow it's created a sci-fi world I feel I know, and that I want to know more about. Granted, this is at least partially because I'm nerd enough that I can be made to fall for a fictional setting with depressing ease, but it's also because Canabalt's monotone vision of a near-future apocalypse is so complete and self-contained. I can see Blade Runner, I can see Another World, I can see Transformers, I can see Mirror's Edge.
I can see that I have to run.
Check out the Editor's blog to find out more about our Games of 2009.