Review: Canabalt (iPhone)

Canabalt title screen How can a story be told in a game?

I've heard the question come up more often in the last few months than I have in the previous decade. This year in particular has seen more narrative-driven blockbusters with a sophisticated approach to storytelling than ever before. Batman: Arkham Asylum and Uncharted 2: Among Thieves have both been lauded for their intricate (and wildly different) approaches to developing a narrative in tandem with a long-term experience.

The debate even manifested recently in the comments section of Doug Bonham's recent editorial on storytelling in games. Does a story always improve a game? Does it ever improve a game?

I think the question is best answered by asking how we define storytelling. Is it the preliminary text explaining the player's motivations and mission? Is it the thousands of lines of melodrama that fill each installment in the Metal Gear Solid saga to the brim? Is it as insignificant as being told the president has been kidnapped by ninjas, followed with a simple query: Are you a bad enough dude to rescue the president?

I sought to find a good example of how even the most minimal amount of overt storytelling can have a profound effect on how a player experiences a game. And I found it in Canabalt.

This suggestion from the developers flashes when the app is launched. They're not kidding -- Canabalt's soundtrack is absolutely essential if the game is to be fully enjoyed.

What sets Canabalt apart from the myriad run-and-jump platformers is its subtle anticipation of the player's psychology. It expects that initially the player will only focus on the path and hazards immediately awaiting your runner, but with each successive attempt new details will stick in one's mind. You'll sense the energy in the pumping electronic soundtrack, and the beautifully simplistic scrolling backgrounds -- and then it'll dawn on you that the music is not so much energizing as it is harrowing, and the backgrounds tell a story all their own. Then you'll understand why you can't stop running.

It sounds simple, and maybe even not that significant. But from a design standpoint, it's almost a perfect example of merging a game's mechanics with its premise.

Canabalt gameplay

The details begin to stand out more with each successive attempt at escape. The protagonist is surprisingly expressive in his animations, leaping wildly and landing with a quick tumble before picking up the pace. When he encounters an obstacle, he stumbles and loses his momentum, threatening to make the next leap his last.

The pace quickens, the music pounds, the leaps grow wider and less probable -- and the sensation is palpable. Who ever imagined such an unassuming game would be capable of evoking an actual sense of exhilaration?

And that's why Canabalt is such a significant case study. If almost any detail was changed -- if the background was given color or the music was the music was removed -- the game would have an entirely different tone. It'd fall apart. It would be just another platformer with nothing to say.

Utilizing Twitter to share high scores is a hallmark of most addictive iPhone games, and Canabalt is no exception.

Because of the App Store's alluring nature -- and because any app is a mere click away from ownership -- I purchased the iPhone version before I did some basic research and learned that Canabalt originated as a free Flash game playable at Kongregate. Price-conscious players should grab the nearest pair of headphones and give the web version a whirl as it's the exact same game, only with more social networking features (the iPhone version only enables score-sharing through Twitter).

Once you've given it a whirl, consider whether the $2.99 price tag is worth it to you on a platform with countless cheaper alternatives that are just as addictive. But if you carry a pair of ear buds with you and you're willing to part with a few minutes of your time, Canabalt is more than willing to demonstrate how even a one-button game can have something substantial to say.

Canabalt was developed by Semi Secret Software and is currently available on the iPhone/iPod Touch App Store for $2.99. Review copy was purchased for $2.99 and played for a couple hours. (iTunes link)

Recommended for:

  • Those with a pair of headphones and an appreciation for having one's expectations denied
  • Gamers who will pay a premium for style with substance

Not Recommended for:

  • Budget-conscious gamers who will be content to stick with the free web version -- it's absolutely worth playing either way

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