Incrementing Towards Finitude: Playable Portraits of Late Capitalism Part 2
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the incremental game came about alongside the endless runner, both seeing their genesis in the web game arena but truly proliferating on smartphones. In an endless runner it is not a single resource that continually increments, but rather the environment itself; characters do not move through the world so much as the world moves through them. This illusion is achieved with two of the oldest tricks in animation–the run cycle and the scrolling background–as made famous by Hanna-Barbera cartoons like Scooby Doo, Where Are You! and The Flintstones.
Adam “Atomic” Saltsman’s Canabalt is often cited as the game which codified the endless runner, and for good reason. However it has also been noted that the endless runner actually encompasses two different concepts, games where running is automatic and games which use procedural generation. For clarity I will refer to these as auto-runners and infinite runners respectively. This distinction is important because while it is clear that not all auto-runners are infinite runners, there are also infinite runners which are not auto-runners, such as Rescue: the Beagles, Probability 0 and Icy Tower. Then there are games which are neither auto-runners nor infinite runners but contain some sort of force or creature that gives chase, such as in SkiFree, Dino Run and select levels in the Crash Bandicoot and Sonic Adventure series. Lastly there’s the related concept of the auto-scroller level, most exemplified by Super Mario Bros. 3’s airship stages, where the framing of the game camera is treated as a physical pane that can crush Mario if he gets caught between its edge and a platform.
Another thing to consider is that endless runners are often assumed to be a subgenre of the platformer. Yet Scott Rogers in his Swipe This!: The Guide to Great Touchscreen Game Design suggests that Konami’s pioneering shoot-em-up Scramble–which is neither a platformer nor procedurally generated–is a forerunner to the genre. Simon Parkin on the other hand points to the Commodore 64 game B.C.’s Quest for Tires as a proto-endless runner, however while the game has been called a platformer it doesn’t meet my personal definition because it does not simulate gravity. Besides, the combination of auto-scrolling and platforming had already been done multiple times before Quest For Tires, such as in Jump Bug, Jungle King and Moon Patrol. Universal’s Snap Jack is also notable for combining auto-scrolling, platforming sections and light procedural generation. Thus I think we should break down the false equivalency between platformers and endless runners in order to allow for a broader range of examples.
For instance The Infamous Worm Game from 2001 which would go on to inspire Fly the Copter (aka The Helicopter Game) the next year have both been overlooked as potential infinite runners. We can also look way back to proc gen driving games of the 1970’s like Hi-Way, Super Bug and Night Driver. The “launcher” genre of Flash games also seems particularly relevant for its use of proc gen and scrolling backgrounds. Even Adam Saltsman released Gravity Hook and Fathom before Canabalt, which signalled his interest in procedural generation. Now that I have more fully contextualized where the endless runner came from, I want to move on to readings of Canabalt and my own Canabalt-inspired game Stunted.
While the presentational trappings of Canabalt are a War of the Worlds-style alien invasion, the real offscreen apocalypse occurs to Canabalt Guy’s left, as every object that enters the gamespace is despawned once out of sight. In this way Canabalt represents both infinite growth and infinite waste, resembling the automation of the modern production line. In Canabalt you do not run from anything so much as you run against capitalism. In its greyscale videogame form Canabalt shares an aesthetic link with late 90’s “cubicle movies” like The Matrix and Fight Club, reflecting the anxieties of the young urban professional in a workaday treadmill. Canabalt Guy even has an unofficial Twitter account where he makes morose observations about his standing in life, or rather lack of standing, his latest tweet as of writing reads “I am so tired of running.” After all, what better place to watch the end of the world than the infinite (doom)scroll of the algorithmic timeline that is as parasitic to the smartphone as the endless runner?
Although every round of Canabalt is unique, it always starts in the same office building with the same box on the ground, always bursting out of the same glass window. While this scene appears as random as the rest of the game, it actually imparts some important information to the player. Comparing Canabalt to an earlier infinite runner, Tom Sennet’s Runman from 2003, one notices that the two have nearly identical gameplay loops: dodge obstacles while slowly gaining speed, thus leading to increased challenge. However Canabalt intervenes in this loop by having some obstacles such as the aforementioned box be non-lethal, thereby decreasing Canabalt Guy’s speed allowing for strategic self-encumberment. While Runman demonstrates the untenability of sustained accelerationism and frictionless capitalism because every game results in assured loss, Canabalt represents the self-perpetuating cycle of boom and bust; the game can hypothetically go on forever. Though on the surface Canabalt portrays an apocalyptic event, in Cameron Kunzelman’s aesthetic categories of finitude the game most closely aligns with bleakness–a present condition of crisis that stretches ad infinitum.
Enter my own contribution to the endless runner genre, Stunted. Like Canabalt, the game was conceived during a game jam, namely the 2016 Toronto Game Jam (aka TOJam), and an updated version dubbed Stunted DX: Director’s Cut was released in 2018 on itch.io. The title Stunted is a double entendre, referring to both the main character Ed the Stuntperson and a central conceit of the game that it only lasts for two minutes (as per TOJam’s recommendation). This is alluded to in the game’s subtitle “A Finite Runner”, or as I would later describe it “an endless runner that ends.” This tagline is also twofold, referring to both the time limit and the physical end of the camera frame Ed runs through, where instead of oblivion to his left there lies a backstage area complete with craft service table. While Canabalt Guy is clearly an office worker, Ed makes his living as part of the gig economy, even in the game’s comic-style intro he is always on the run.
In Stunted the relationship between gameplay and capital is made explicit. Instead of total meters run or points gained per obstacle Ed earns $50 for every 5 consecutive seconds of footage shot, as well as additional money by performing stunts such as defeating/evading ninjas or rolling on barrels. If Ed chooses not to work, there will be consequences (the theme of the jam), and the consequence in question is the same as not working in real life: no more income. Additionally Ed must also pay a $400 medical bill for every heart of health he loses. From the historical context of the 2016 American election cycle, it’s clear that the cruelty of for-profit healthcare was in the back of my mind while making Stunted.
Observing new players of Stunted, it is common that due to the initial difficulty they do not make it the full two minutes and lose all four hearts of health, resulting in an early game over with a negative balance and low credit score. Most players take it in stride however, as the game humourously subverts the expectation that losing health won’t have any effect on scoring. I also purposefully designed the game to allow for a strategy of disengagement; players can earn some amount of money then safely ride out the clock backstage. However it never occurred to anyone that this was a viable way to play the game. I am unsure whether this says more about player psychology, or to take it as a metaphor for capitalism’s demand to always be proactive. Where Little Inferno refuses to make a critique of late capitalism, Stunted tries and ultimately fails because it is in fact masterable to those willing to put in the effort.