The Leaderboard: The Loneliness of the Endless Runner

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Lana Polansky looks at endless runners and the ultimate emptiness of capitalism.

My best run on Imangi Studio’s Temple Run 2 was achieved in the dim calm of a stall in a McDonald’s bathroom. I feel like this is appropriate because, with a few exceptions, mobile games are somewhat like consuming a McDonald’s trio: cheap, simple, addictive, fun and largely unfulfilling. Endless runners, in particular, beautifully embody these traits, whether obliviously or deliberately.

I can keep extending this analogy: Temple Run 2 was, for my concentrated, bethroned self, everything my culinary experience at McDonald’s promised to be. I fill my stomach with McNuggets after a long night of studying the way I fill my time with sessions of the game during long bus rides. This isn’t me making an actual value judgment on whether the game is good or bad; I do have issues with the series for its appropriation of “tribal” symbols and its racial and gendered tokenism among its four playable characters (the default is Guy Dangerous, a generic-looking white guy, while three of the six original unlockable characters are present for the sequel.) But as an endless runner, Temple Run 2 succeeds at being exactly what it needs to be: a fun time-filler.

My taste for the game has withered away over time. I might pick it up every so often if there’s nothing else to do and it fulfils my immediate desire to be distracted by something. But for a while, I would fill the negative space of my life with Temple Run 2: bored, in transit, procrastinating, on the can. Before this, my endless runner of choice was Halfbrick’s Jetpack Joyride, and in the past I’ve fixated on Robot Unicorn Attack, Solipskier and Canabalt. I know there are many more out there. There are only so many hours of the day I can spend in the bathroom.

The conceit is simple: Run until you die. Rack up points, or currency, or earn achievements, until inevitably you die. The game asks you to implicitly accept the lack of an ultimately meaningful goal. Just get the most of something before things get too fast and hairy and you jump face-first into a building or careen your motorcycle into a lasershield. There is an intrinsically absurd premise I’m being asked to accept here, and it seems that a lot of these games seem to know it. Many try to dress it up with equally absurd aesthetics (just look at Robot Unicorn Attack), but all this masks is the fact that a game is asking me to perform the same process I undertake every day of my life: Earn more money to own more things, and then get killed by some unavoidable, but seemingly random, obstacle. The notable difference, of course, is that these games do a lot more to make good on the dubious promise of reward as a measure of skill (as opposed to, say, privilege). If only the real world was so meritocratic.

The window-dressing on Temple Run 2 is that I’m a temple-crawling adventurer a la Lara Croft or Indiana Jones, and I’ve awakened some horrible, mythic beast by stealing an idol. Either this gorilla-like thing I’m running from will eventually eat me or I’ll trip up on some kind of debris or obstacle, or fall into a crack in the impossibly long stone path that seems to be suspended in the sky. And I have powers, and those powers are fueled by gems. The length of my run is a symbol of my longevity, and earning a longer one—breaking my record—feels like an accomplishment. But the point is to get more gems, really. Get more gems to unlock more things. Unlock more things to get a better chance at earning gems. And so on, until it feels as though there are no more things to unlock, or to feel excited about unlocking, and the symbiosis between “gaining power” and“earning gems” ceases to feel satisfying. It’s fun to see the world. It’s fun to best the obstacles. But eventually it begins to feel like my reasons for playing are artificially extended. I have missions in the form of achievements that I can earn in-game, but what for? So I can level up. So I can earn a power. So I can get more gems.

Jetpack Joyride follows a similar formula with coins. It has a more fleshed out catalogue of unlockable weapons and tools, but it also lost its fire for me in much the same way that Temple Run 2 did. But there’s a more explicit level of self-awareness in Jetpack Joyride: I can gold-plate vehicle powerups, for instance, like the motorcycle or the lovely “profit bird.” This does nothing to help my progress (sure, let’s call it that), but it’s a meaningless status symbol I can purchase instead of something more “useful,” which, let’s face it, would only be used to make it easier for me to capture coins anyway. Notably, the ultimate jetpack upgrade is just an expensive, gold-plated jetpack whose prodigality is made exceptionally clear by the item description. At first, admittedly, I cared enough to try and earn one. But it got to be like one too many french fries. After awhile, everything just tastes like salt. The joy waned. Even with its awareness, it began to feel like an exercise in capital growth disguised as forward momentum.

(Of course, a wide variety of games are systematically embedded in capitalist ideology. Almost any MMO is a testament to this. The Sims and Animal Crossing are capitalistic up-and-down. This a simple matter of culture creators being influenced by the culture they come from, and then implicitly—often unconsciously—reinforcing it. Endless runners, however, seem to be bonded by this trait, with few actual deviations. Capitalism is in the blood of this genre, and to me they’re emblematic of an approach that, I concede, affects a wide scope of games across a variety of genres. I would discuss this, but then I haven’t gotten my book deal yet.)

But then not all these games deal expressly with systems of currency. The other games I mentioned, Robot Unicorn Attack, Solipskier and Canabalt, only score based on distance run and/or benchmarks hit. So this tells me that having an explicit system of currency in an endless runner is a secondary, but logical, extension of the kind of progress these games implicitly encourage. In Spiritonin Media Games’ Robot Unicorn Attack, I want to collect as many stars as I can and run the furthest distance and perhaps be complimented by the game for my accomplishment. At the height of its popularity it became a status statement for me to outrun my friends. It was hard not to want to qualify for the leaderboard. Mikengreg Games’ Solipskier has this interesting conceit of making the player build the ski track as the skier scrolls over it, modulating the sprite’s momentum and height by shifting the altitude of the track using your cursor, but the same can largely be said about its “endgame,” if it can be said to have one.

While I appreciate Solipskier or Robot Unicorn Attack, or for that matter Temple Run 2and Jetpack Joyride, for their ostentation and absurdity, Adam Saltsman’s Canabalt sticks out for being so pared down, with simple graphics and color scheme, a simple premise, and simple and slick controls. Get the best distance and die eventually. Canabalt knows intimately what it is and gets right to the point. Run forward, earn a number, die. Do it again to get a higher number. Fotonica, by Santa Ragione, is even more pared down. It’s a first-person parkour game set in a Rez-like 3D space wherein the object is to time one’s jumps to land on floating platforms. It’s not strictly an endless runner, but it does have an endless level and it does, like other games, score both on points and on distance traversed. It’s a little more complex mechanically and dimensionally, but visually and narratively, Fotonica relies on an even simpler (or non-existent) premise. Any pretext that an endless runner therefore gives me for playing is only tangentially related to what really sucks me in about this genre: the illusion of progress as linear, the valuing of numerical growth, adapting myself to the mechanics of a system in order to milk the most out of it—and of course, the false promise of being rewarded for the value of my labor. The impulse that makes me equate conformity with self-improvement, and the ideology that comes out of that, makes these games meaningfully addictive for me.

It’s not that I get no other form of enjoyment from these games. There is a degree of discovery involved, both in terms of becoming acquainted with the objects and the environment, and becoming familiarized with the controls and dynamics. There is plenty about real life that makes it worth living despite the ecosystem I live in that defines success in these strict and measurable ways. But it’s hard for me to continue on this so-called path to achievement, be it economic or scholastic or what-have-you, without running out of breath. I get exhausted, and I need a break. So in my downtime on the bus, in the bathroom at McDonald’s, between working, I pull out my phone or open a tab and get a fix of my latest addiction. Still, all I’m really engaging in is an exaggerated and idealized symbol of the larger system I’m already a part of, one where I’ll do my best to collect the most and have all sorts of pretexts to rationalize this process. One where I’ll get to take none of it with me, and won’t ever get to try again.

Lana Polansky is a Montreal-based writer, game critic, Twine enthusiast and professional scowler. She has written for Kill Screen, Billboard, The Wall Street Journal, Five Out of Ten, Gameranx, Medium Difficulty and Bit Creature.

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