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Alto's Adventure and Solipskier: The loneliness of the endless runner


I reckon that the loneliest lines in all of poetry probably belong to Hart Crane, who got to witness the birth of the modern office job and wrote:

Some page of figures to be filed away;

-'Til elevators drop us from our day...

Elevators. Elevators! To be squashed in amongst fellow humans, but to also be so solitary, travelling in the non-place of the falling car for a dozen floors, separated by the memory of work with its endless pages, by the thought of the subway to follow.

Today we'd all be on our phones, of course, devices that often impose a powerful kind of isolation even as they connect us with the rest of the world. So fitting, then, that the modern filers and droppers could play an endless runner as they race towards the lobby. Maybe they could play Alto's Adventure, a sad pastel-and-shadows confection, a headlong dream of escape.

Alto's out now, and while a few early runs suggest it's just a touch too busy for its own good (tricks, grinds, collectables all fight for your attention as you hurtle down the hill chasing after your fleeing llama), and even as the cascading, insistent soundtrack hints that you're watching a really emotive advert for private health insurance, there are moments when you feel truly alone. With the stop-start tutorial behind you, with the best-run marker a distant memory, you will hit a patch of ice, gain a sudden boost in speed, hop over a rock and think: Cor, I have come a really long way here. The hilltop farm with its windmill seems extremely remote, and you're by yourself in the wilderness, crags rising in the creamy distance, surrounded only by snow, by the polite little sail shapes of passing pines, and by trails of coins that guide your eye and glow when night falls. Loneliness tackled at speed: this is what this genre does best, although it can be hard to remember that given all the chicanes it's taken over its short lifespan.

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Alto is lovely, then, but what it really reminds me is that my favourite endless runner isn't Canabalt, the first and the most iconic, but Solipskier, another wonderful early example of the form that featured, amongst other things, the best tactical deployment of Chopin that I have ever witnessed. Solipskier's great idea wasn't a strain of collectable, or an upgrade shop or a passive mission system. It was that your little skier was cut off from the monochrome world around him by headphones blaring loud music, and by his sheer forward momentum. He was so clearly the only person left in existence that it was your job to build his entire environment, laying down the icefields he raced over and the peaks he jumped from.

Solipskier, and Alto, to a degree, are reminders that loneliness can be strangely empowering, that there can be a thrill to withdrawing from the planet for a few minutes - a thrill that everyone who plays games will probably recognise. The endless runner has suffered somewhat as the smartphone market has evolved, but at heart it can still do exactly this kind of thing - and this kind of thing, it turns out, is still worth doing.

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