I started writing this article yesterday, not too long after Runner was actually released. I successfully completed the article, however, over a 10 hour period, and, as such, there is a very pronounced tonal shift in the work. I have made some editing changes to the article since I started, but I decided to keep the initial spitefulness with which the article is written, if only to remind me that people do deserve the benefit of the doubt, and that I am absolutely able to make a wrong judgment about a person.
This article is long. Too long. Too unfocused, half rambling, all crazy. Since not a damn soul will actually read this article, instead of posting the old standby of “TL/DR”, please instead add the appropriate comment of “What the Fuck is wrong with you.” Punctuation is unnecessary. If you do have genuine comments, I will be shocked, but will happily take your advice.
I write this article with the full knowledge that I could be completely and totally wrong. Please debate my points, if you manage to find them in this madness.
Double Edit: In the original release of this horror story of a blog, I incorrectly labeled the game as a "Flash Game", claiming that the game had been actually programed in Flash. This is incorrect, and only reveals my ignorance of programming languages. I regret the error and apologize for revealing my idiocy: the blog does a much better job of making THAT point. It has since been changed.
Runner: A Comprehensive Analysis
I just finished Runner, an independent game project created by Anthony Burch, Ashley Davis, and Jonathan Holmes. After finishing the game, I felt compelled to write about it, but I would be lying if I said that the impetus for this evaluation comes from the goodness of my heart. No, I’m interested in the game because I don’t much care for Mr. Anthony Burch. I’ve been coming to Destructoid for quite some time now, and I’ve rarely enjoyed Mr. Burch’s work. His reviews are cynical and misguided, coming from a position that no consumer could possibly empathize with or take genuine purchasing advice from; his desire is not to “review” and “recommend games” but, rather, to “grade” games, taking a $60 product and marking it with red ink. Any person who would score a video game-any game at all- a 3 out of 10 and still recommend it for purchase is not the kind of reviewer I want buying advice from.
(Special mention has to be made for the hysterically misguided Metal Gear Jesus article
. My classmates used to joke back in my AP English class that the easiest way to get an A in class was to find a way to compare the text to the New Testament, because it was quicker than taking a look at the material and trying to find a substantive explanation).
I’m not a fan of Mr. Burch, but that puts me in an interesting position; I can honestly talk about the game because I’m not afraid about hurting his feelings. I’m not held back by irrational love for the website or the people who made it. I genuinely believe that honest criticism is a necessity in the world, and I think the folks behind Runner, Mr. Burch included, are man enough to take it. And I’m not so bitter a person that I wouldn’t be interested in what the man I dislike would do in the designer seat.
For those who haven’t yet downloaded the file, Runner is, at its purest form, a clone of the Jet-Ski sequence from Battletoads. Just like the famous gameplay session from Rare’s NES brawler, Runner puts you in the position of “The Runner”, a man who….well… runs. Behind him lies a trio of pixilated sprite ladies. Ahead, a series of magical doors and barriers. Like Pimple and Zitz before him, Runner can move up and down the pseudo-3D plane and dodge doors, while using the spacebar allows Runner to make a ridiculous jump that will clear all those pesky horizontal obstacles. Unlike the notoriously difficult forbearer, Runner doesn’t end when you accidentally collide with the obstacles behind you; the various blockades stutter your movement and cause the women behind you to run faster. Your play session ends if you can make it 5 minutes without being caught by the sprite women behind you….or if you manage to hit one final obstacle….at which point, the game abruptly return to the title screen.
Runner, as a "pure game", is a bust.
It’s not fun. The gameplay is far too simplistic to keep a players attention even for the 3 minutes of the game’s length. The actual mechanics wear out their welcome before you finish the game.
It’s isn’t very original: anyone who played Passage, Braid, or Castle Crashers might be surprised to see design intricacies from these games ripped off wholesale in the game.
It’s far more concerned with telling its “story” then in creating a compelling game sequence (and the game hits you over the head with the blunt end of the story).
The art design isn’t bad, but the game relies on these sequences too heavily, instead of using the gameplay to accomplish the same feat.
The game is far more frustrating than it should be. Making it to the game’s “real” ending is a test of endurance, and many players far more fickle than me won’t go through the game more than once (and the fact that I’ve only beaten the game 4 or 5 times out of the 40 or so attempts can be attributed to madness rather than any kind of genuine gameplay affection).
So, no. Runner isn’t very good as a game.
But let’s go a little deeper than that, and ask ourselves the question I imagine Mr. Burch really wants to hear: does the game work artistically? Does this game have a clear message, or a powerful emotional undercurrent? Does its various design oddities offer a genuine commentary of game design, or merely a portal into the soul of an angry, lonely man?
Let’s make this play scenario as clear as possible.
Runner involves an Anthony Burch doppelganger (I assume it must be a clear analog for the games designer) running away from a group of three girls. As the player runs and avoids obstacles, the girls rise up into the air and reveal small snippets of their relationship with the runner…in the form of massive, oversized art bubbles that make navigating the oncoming obstacles extremely difficult. The only way to actually see the end of the game without being tripped up by the story is to ignore it completely, and focus entirely on the gameplay.
Eventually, you’ll come across a typewriter and, upon grabbing it, will lift into the air and avoid all obstacles for a short time. Your furious typing to take flight and keeps you aloft for a few seconds. Eventually, you land.
After a few more seconds of dodging obstacles, a new girl enters the frame, this time coming from the direction of the other obstacles. If you touch the Runner and the girl’s sprites together, the two of you combine and form a couple (a design decision that isn’t so much homage as it is a wholesale theft from Passage) .You now control the couple together. The only meaningful change, however, is that the Runner’s jump has been replaced with a “love attack”. You shoot a heart in front of the couple, and the heart can bust through the various obstacles. At this point, the girls chasing you have vanished from the screen. It’s just the player-controlled couple and the power of love.
Unfortunately, that love power begins to wane over the next few seconds. The heart becomes smaller and smaller, and it becomes progressively more difficult to break through the obstacles (already a chore because the game prioritizes the animation of the heart power over the actual gameplay usage of the heart power). Eventually, the heart disappears, and your new girlfriend dumps you and runs back towards the left side of the screen.
But then your ex returns, chasing your player character along with the other girls, all ghosts of the heart. As your player jumps over or runs into one final obstacle, the game abruptly ends (I thought the game had bugged out at first). A final dedication to Ashley Davis, the girl who created all of the hand drawn animated scenes that cover the gameplay so nicely over the course of the game.
She is immediately thanked again in the official credits of the game….it’s an odd construction choice, seeing a person thanked in the dedications and then immediately thanked again.
But ultimately, a bizarre credit page is the least of the game's problems.
Let us quickly jot down the specifics of why the “game” part of Runner doesn’t work, and why playing Runner isn’t very fun or interesting at all.
1. As mentioned above, the game play is horribly generic. It’s kind of interesting that a super personal game project(or at least what seems pretty personal) would take such an over the top gameplay sequence like the Battletoads Jet Ski moment as its inspiration. It’s a neat little juxtaposition, but it never gets beyond “kinda neat” in my book, at least from a gameplay perspective. It’s a pretty obvious reference and, worst of all, it doesn’t achieve the kind of transformative experience Burch was looking for.
Inspired by Braid, Mr. Burch has attempted to merge an unconventional story into his game by creating a game play system that “tells” the story. Runner strives away from cut scenes and any meaningful lull in the actual “playing” of the game, for which he is genuinely to be commended. However, the Battletoads Jet Ski gameplay never reaches that Braid moment, where it fundamentally changed our perception of the game being played and the game’s inspiration. Braid powerfully altered the way players viewed the Super Mario Bros. franchise, and all 2D platformers at some level. Runner wants to do the same with the Battletoads, to turn the running/dodge/obstacle action into a metaphor for the turmoil of the in game character (and, I assume, Burch’s own turmoil). What Burch wants is the moment of transformative Imation, and I’m not sure the Battletoads homage is the place to start.
You still want a game about running, and I imagine that the Battletoads moment was
A) Easier to program and
B) A little smaller in scale.
As it stands, I truthfully think you need a different gameplay system, or you need to fundamentally change the entire product, because the current gameplay never manages to mesh with the other disparate elements of the game. The flashing sprites and (relatively) quick speed of the moving obstacles just seems to move way faster than anything else happening in the game, and, as a result…
2. The gameplay, even in its slowed down form, is simply too intense for the kind of game Runner is trying to be. Everything about the game seems to demand a more relaxed, more thoughtful gameplay to exist as the backdrop to all of the lovelorn strife, because the Jet Ski sequence requires too much attention. I spent more time trying to “win” Runner instead of “playing” the game, and I quickly became frustrated. It was as if your game was throwing out my chances to take it seriously as an artistic product (at, least, I hope it was meant to be taken as an artistic product, because it certainly doesn’t work as an actual game). There is simply too much to handle onscreen, and the end result is that, over the course of my 5 playthroughs, I died about 30 times and had to start my game over. However, the other key reason I was dying so often was that…
3. The huge story sequences completely cover gameplay. Burch makes a very conscious design decision to have the girls, at various points in the game, float into the air and tell their story in the form of huge speech bubbles filled with artwork THAT COMPLETELY COVER THE MAIN CHARACTER. This is one of the more blatantly obvious and totally manipulative design decisions that I’ve seen in any game since Too Human. In the game’s attempt to covey its story or its underlying message, it obscures gameplay and leads the player to a series of horribly frustrating deaths. In Runner, it doesn’t feel like dying is your fault; you kicked the bucket because the vengeful designer put you in a situation that was, in gameplay terms, unfair. Allow me to offer a helpful tip, Anthony. YOU CAN ONLY HINDER THE PLAYER THROUGH GAMEPLAY DESIGN. Trying to hide the player with what is essentially the story is not concussive for an enjoyable play session. Much like the Valirike in Too Human, the speech bubbles feel like an unfair punishment to the player, an unnecessary abstraction to the gameplay that serves to make it hard for “kicks”.
Now, Mr. Burch, I understand you’ve been down on cutscenes and the RPG genre as of late, and that one could very reasonably view the oppressive nature of the cutscenes as a commentary on the way story violently interrupts gameplay (emphasized by the moment when the player grabs the typewriter and fly high above the obstacles- now, we can see how the separation of story and gameplay is more conducive to playing, but interaction is more limited). I think it’s a nice undercurrent to the game, as a genuine commentary….but it doesn’t work as commentary. Your game isn’t designed as a satire or direct accusation of various game elements. It’s really designed as a story about one man’s interaction with four different girls, and how those relationships affect his life. You need to find a different means of interaction between the story and the game, one that doesn’t sacrifice either like your current system doesn’t.
You seemed to like MGS4 quite a bit. Why not take a bit of inspiration from Kojima himself? Split the screen in half at a diagonal or some chopped off angle, showing the story on the top and the gameplay on the bottom. That doesn’t allow the two disparate elements to play off each other, but it’s better than your current gameplay setup, and your current gameplay setup just isn’t conducive to actual playing and telling a story at the same time. Besides, the presence of the big speech bubbles (as indicated above) is a wholly manipulative way of telling the story. You do a much better job trying to tell the story through the gameplay (particularly through the little animations that Runner has with the last girlfriend, catching her as the pair run into blockades.) The gameplay should be telling the story….especially because the gameplay you are using to tell a story has already been told in another story in the exact same way.
(That is a logical sentence, from a person who is very smart….maybe).
What I’m saying is that the big finale of the game is, essentially, lifted wholesale from Passage, so the least you could is go all the way copying passage and try to tell the story entirely in the gameplay without cutting away to those oppressive art bubbles. Isolate the art from the gameplay, and tell the actual story without putting any kind of obstruction on the player’s ability to interact with the game.
4. The Music doesn’t match with the gameplay. I really love the music track you chose for the game; wonderfully introspective and melancholy. But it doesn’t match with the speed of the actual gameplay. The song moves far slower than any aspect of the onscreen action. Trying to process the tempo of the song with the much faster pace of the Battletoads inspired antics is far more difficult than it should be. I’m not sure you could do anything about this complaint—the gameplay is, as I’ve stated earlier, too damn fast for the kind of introspective game the rest of the art design and sound choices to flow together.
5. Winning isn’t an objective, it’s an obstacle. Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the game is that it clings so totally to a “gameness”—the very design of the game, with it’s clear objectives (avoid obstacles and avoid girls), along with the subsequent failing of those objectives, means that the player is actively punished with “death” for not following the instructions….but following those instructions is a total pain in the ass because of the gameplay decisions you implemented! And, furthermore, the core gameplay isn’t interesting enough on its own to keep a player coming back more than once, so the only thing you offer to players is the hope that the game will become a transformative experience….but the game ISN’T a transformative experience, and never offers that satisfying or meaningful conclusion that makes the previous design decisions make sense!
The end result is that I only saw the game’s ending out of maddning perseverance, a perseverance I imagine few will have.
Look to the games you ripped off, like Passage and Braid; neither game went out of their way to “punish” players for their mistakes. Braid offered that go-back-in-time-potion to set a puzzle right, while Passage….well, Passage didn’t really punish the player ever. It only takes one playthrough of Passage to gleam its powerful message.
It took me about 20 playthroughs of Runner to see your personal message.
Your game requires too much of an investment for most people to see your game through all the way to the end, and I would say that I’m not the normal player in this scenario.
Take another look at the game you borrowed so much from. Passage has certain confines of being a “game” but it is only a game so much as it reflects direct input from the player. It is mainly a maze of discovery, where the player is able to see the most interesting and more powerful parts of the game on their own, without seeming like they were forced there by the designer.
The game wants to combine the linear aspects of actual “gameplay” sessions that you might find on consoles with the exploratory revelations that are taking from Passage, a game that is, inherently, an exploratory experience. This is the indie game equivalent of having your cake and eating it too. You’re aren’t yet experienced enough as a programmer or designer to make the games you obviously want to create(you know….like Passage)and you’re only able to emulate more simplistic gameplay experiences. As a result, Runner feels like a guided tour down a very clear artistic vision, at the expense of my own sense of personal involvement or interaction with the game.
So, to be clear, Runner doesn’t work as a game, not in the slightest. It ends up becoming a product that is hurt by its definition of interactivity, by the presence of a“losing" scenario, by it's bizarre design and aesthetic decisions.
So, let’s step away from the fact that Runner isn’t a good game and ask a different question.
Is Runner a good experience?
I’m the kind of game player who can rationally judge a product that has bad, underdeveloped elements and still find a meaningful game beacuse I'm more interested in having a compelling experience than playing a fun game.
I’m the player who thinks that Rez is an extremely important gaming experience. Of course the game is a dumb rail shooter. That isn’t the point. The point of Rez is that powerful feeling of your heart swelling with delight every time your onscreen actions perfectly coordinate with the gameplay.
A game can succeed as an experience far beyond the inadequacies of its gameplay. Bioshock doesn’t have particularly good combat(with its overly “game-y” enemies and it’s Vita Chamber “die-your-way-through-the-game” nonsense), but any game player worth their salt knows that Bioshock’s powerful statement about the inherently oppressive and manipulative nature of game design is an important revelation for the medium.
(Even though it’s basically the same revelation from Metal Gear Solid 2 and System Shock 2)
So, if Runner doesn’t work as a game, does it disparate artistic and musical choices work?
Ultimately, I don’t think so, but it’s certainly (and this is the key) a very interesting attempt.
As I mentioned earlier in the blog, Runner wants to do to the Battletoads Jet Ski sequence the same thing that Braid did to Super Mario Bros. and 2D platforming: it wants to fundamentally alter the ways we look at these infamous gameplay sequences, turn them from wholly commercial set pieces of classic games into means for a more personal story delivery. Runner’s oppressive art design, its music choice, its design facilities….all of these elements want to transform our view of a very well known gaming set piece…a gaming set piece with an infamous history.
So, let’s break down the specific artistic elements of the game and analyze them to judge their effectiveness.
1. The running girls. The young ladies chasing Runner are the real “obstacle” through the entire game. If one of the ladies manages to grab you, the game is over (perhaps an homage to the end of the 4 bosses from Metal Gear Solid 4). They’re faded ghosts, and they chase Runner throughout the maze of obstacles.
2. The Obstacles themselves. Flashing in front of Runner, the player has to, just like in the famous Battletoads sequence, has to dodge the obstacles quickly
3. The Art Bubbles. Covering the main character entirely, the art bubbles tell the stories of the various human interactions that Runner has with the three girls chasing him. The story bubbles completely overpower the main character, covering the sprite and making it impossible to know exactly where on the play field the player is moving.
Let’s dissect this sequence a little bit.
Mr. Burch seems to be using this sequence to say to his players that:
A) As mentioned way earlier in the article, the nature of most in game story telling is inherently a manipulative design choice that impedes the player’s ability to actually play the game. The large story bubbles will pretty quickly distract the player and hit that one obstacle that makes them lose the game. That means that the only discernible way to play the game effectively is to
B) Stop focusing on the story and keep focusing on the obstacles coming at the player. This is where Mr. Burch’s design choices become interesting. Why create a game that is only meaningfully playable when we ignore aspects in the game? Why put an element in the game that is designed to be ignored? This doesn’t work as a game design commentary (like the twists of Bioshock or Metal Gear Solid 2) but, rather, on a personal level. If the player becomes increasingly focused on the story bubbles instead of the obstacles ahead, they become tripped up and will eventually be caught by the girls. If the player ignores the story bubbles and concentrates on the obstacles ahead, they have a much better chance of not being tripped up by history, by the past, by the embarrassing and regretful experiences and relationships that dog the Runner every step of the game.
"You know, just like in real life."
Runner poses a pretty powerful life philosophy in its design; if we focus on our past actions, the moments of anguish that we keep inside our heads, then we won’t have the mental fortitude to handle the current obstacles that we must face as we move through life. It might be annoying and frustrating as hell from a gameplay perspective, and it doesn’t feature the wryness and inherent silliness that allow other “bad on purpose” to be successful from a play perspective(like the wonderfully miserable open world sequences from No More Heroes, which delightfully suck on purpose).
However, it is an interesting philosophy integrated into the action in a unique way, and had the game ended there I might have been much more forgiving of the game as a whole. However, just like Bioshock, Runner makes the fatal error of continuing to tell its “story” long after its principle “twist” has been revealed. Runner is far too eager to tell the story instead of allowing players to think about its frantic gameplay, and, just like Bioshock, the gameplay of Runner simply doesn’t have enough meat on its own to interest the player after that twist.
(Another Astonishingly well written sentence).
Runner wants to tell a full story AND have its meaningful game play implications, but the gameplay doesn’t hold up long enough to allow this revelation to develop. Worst of all, trying to find this "bigger than games" moment is a real challenge, because getting through the gameplay sequence is so god damn frustrating. It took me hours to find that substantive twist inside the game. Ultimately, you, as a game designer, need to provide gameplay that is, at the very least, compelling enough for the player that I can, and actively want, to try and figure out "what's going on."
Let’s move on to other artistic elements
4. The typewriter. Upon grabbing the typewriter powerup from the middle of the playfield (and by hitting a specific scripting spot on the map, the player is whisked into the air. His only field of movement is to move backward and forward. The sprite model is frantically typing letters to one of the girls in play(in the form of the game’s only unobtrusive story bubble, which shows the Runner’s hand drawn figure with arms wrapped around a girl, looking very happy together). The letters, however, go flying behind the Flyer Runner, as if he’s not able to come up with a written description that adequately reflects his internal turmoil, the things that genuinely wants to say.
Again, this is another interesting sequence from the game, because it offers a pretty unique perception of writing. For the Runner, writing offers the possibility to say things that he’s unable to put into words….but it doesn’t work, and each possible attempt at purging his heart of its anxiety and fears is tossed aside. As a result, the writing isn’t a purifying experience. It doesn’t offer any kind of respite from his anguish, and you can tell because it doesn’t cause the running girls—his fears—to dissipate. They are still there, dogging his footsteps and reminding him of his anxiety. The writing, in fact, enhances those feeling of regret and loneliness, rather than ameliorating them.
The typewriter does, however, allow the Runner to avoid those life obstacles that would normally cause him to stumble and fall into the hands of the girls, and (most importantly of all) it gives control of the painful memories to the Runner. He is no longer plagued by the random actions and events that caused him anguish, as they are no longer random flashes of suffering. Writing allows the Runner to control these moments of pain and, even if he never is able to send a satisfactory letter, he is allowed, for a moment, to master his life, to control the events of the story. We know this because the player, in controlling the movement of the flying Runner, can move the art bubble that emerges from the Typewriter. The player, for the first time in the game, is able to “shift” the story, to control it.
This sequence, just like the first part of the game, may very well have been given a longer opportunity to breath and develop, but, unfortunately, its sandwiched between two sequences that have their own specific meanings and their own life. Why do I say this? Think about the nature of the sequence again. When you pick up that typewriter and fly into the air….you are no longer the Runner. You’ve transformed into Flyer, and your connection to the game is fundamentally changed. You work with different controls and different gameplay systems. The game now changes the game from a meditation about running to a meditation about flying.
This is a fundamental mistake, a metaphorical juxtaposition that doesn’t reach its full potential. Flying is, and has always been, a metaphor for escape, a means of escaping life’s obstacles and leaving them behind. However, to achieve this flying sequence, the game actually reduces the number of control options you posses. You are only limited to one plane of travel—a single 2D plane of movement-and even though you manage to avoid obstacles, the player’s ability to control the situation becomes limited by a situation that inherently implies MORE control. Any means by which a designer artificially restricts a player should be questioned and judged, but when it comes from a metaphorical mismatch like a flight sequence that contains more restrictions, it ceases to be effective.
I quite like the imagery that Mr. Burch is attempting to conjure in the sequence, but it simply doesn’t fit with the other elements in the game. It’s a metaphor that doesn’t fit with the key gameplay being presented and the control that the player is allowed. The flying sequence exists not to further the gameplay in any special way, but to further the telling of the story. For all intents and purposes, the typewriter powerup is a cutscene. It doesn’t stop the flow of play, but it avoids the obstacles that the player had previously been dealing with (the core “avoid the obstacle gameplay”, while simultaneously reducing the kinds of challenges that the player has to deal with (by placing them in a gameplay environment with no challenge and no real gameplay to speak of.
Mr. Burch crates a moment where an interaction with a powerup results in a cutscene, rather than allowing the players actions to tell the story (he’s actually more successful in this endeavor at the beginning and end if the game, with storytelling elements that are a more direct result of gameplay interaction instead of the triggering of a cutscene. The entire sequence doesn’t work….but it’s an interesting attempt, none the less. It falls apart because the designer didn’t fully think about the implications of his own metaphor, and how his gameplay restrictions clash with his metaphor.
5. The game’s piano piece is, in a small way, timed to the gameplay. Or, to put it in a less stupid way, the speed of the moving obstacles in the Battletoads styled gameplay is scored to the beats of the piano piece. Though, truth be told, It took me an additional 4 hours of writing this stupid article to even realize that the music was synced to the movement of the obstacles. I was never in a position to notice; I spent so much damn time trying to fight my way to the end of the game that I was never in a position to notice. The fasted paced nature of the game fundamentally clashes with a gameplay style that is all about tempo.
I can see, to some extent, what you were trying to do, Mr. Burch. You wanted to create a gameplay scenario where players relied on the music instead of their eyes. You were hoping for, like Guitar Hero players, Runner’s controlling hands would focus on the beat and tempo instead of their eyes to get through a scenario. It’s a nice idea, and the fact that you timed the obstacles to come onscreen at certain points in the timeline of the song is “kinda neat”. But I also think it’s a fundamentally flawed representation of real life, and of the interaction between gameplay and music.
The key aspect to recognize in this design choice is that the obstacles are timed to the music...which means that it’s NOT timed to the gameplay. That means that, essentially, the gameplay is scored to the music, and that the action onscreen is predetermined….not reflective of the players actions. Your use of the music is more cinematic in nature; you’ve scored the game the same way a composer scores a movie, and the aspects that are not in the direct control of the player are the ones getting a musical treatment. I
can see how this is an easier alternative to scoring(musically) the game based on the players actions, but it’s fundamentally at odds with the nature of your chosen medium. You’re making a game, and, as such, the most important facet of the game is the inherently interactive nature of the game. The player is the key facet in your game, not the actual game world itself. You scored the game to the predefined events of the world in the way a composer would score a certain scene, and the result is, of course, the realization that the scene is very obviously manufactured.
The world that you have created in Runner is scored like a movie, and emotional resonance, as a result, is very clearly manufactured. You scored the environment instead of the actions of the player, and, thus, you say to your audience that this game world is itself, inherently manufactured, constructed FOR THE PURPOSE of being introspective and deep rather than actually pushing the player to make that perception based on the nature of the gameplay. The player is the key component to the game, and you need to base the interactions in the game around the player’s decisions FIRST. If you’re planning to make a grand “players are not in control of their games” statement like Metal Gear Solid 2 or Bioshock, then you need to put the focus of the entire game around the player and show how their own actions will lead them to that conclusion. Runner reveals, right at the outset, that it is a manipulative game, and I think players will find that very false construction to be off-putting long before they discover what the game is actually hoping to say.
You can’t score a game like a movie or you risk announcing that your game is a manufactured creation. Perhaps this would have worked out if the game was scored to the player’s jumps, where each move the player made would logically happen at the exact moment of the song you want to emphasize, but, in its current state, the score makes the game feel sloppy, like it doesn’t have the confidence to make these assertions on its own.
Perhaps my other issue with the choice to score the environment instead of the player is that you, in making this design choice, argue that the future, and the obstacles we must avoid in the future, is predestined to happen, and that our actions have very little meaning since we’re merely following the straightforward path of a song. This is absolutely true in the greater sense of the video game medium, of course. Bioshock and MGS2 go to great lengths to show that our actions throughout the game are very carefully monitored and planned by the designers, and that there is very little room for serendipity or exploratory gameplay. However, the game isn’t about following the path of the designer, is it, Mr. Burch? It’s about our passage through life, and the ways that our actions haunt us and dog at our footsteps and can keep us from looking forward. The future is a mystery, and it’s impossible to concentrate on if we look at the past. We have to keep looking forward so we can understand and adapt to the challenges life throws at us.
Unfortunately, that’s not the way the game, or real life works. The future is, really and truly, a total mystery, and we have very little perception on the effects we will have on the world before they happen. We can’t predict the future, so the choice of having a musical backdrop quite literally predict the obstacles we will face in life is a fundamental contradiction with your core story idea.
6. At the end of the game, Runner meets a girl running in the same direction he is. You can avoid the girl completely or interact with her.
If you avoid her, the game doesn’t continue on much further once she leaves the screen. You eventually reach the dedication page again.
If you do interact with the girl (by touching her) the game changes. As mentioned way above here, the jump is replaced by a heart attack that can bust through the oncoming obstacles, the chasing whips of past loves disappear from the screen, and, as you eventually collide into more obstacles because of the awkward amount of time it takes the animation to play and bust out the attack the breaks the barrier, the girl leaves you and, at the very end, comes back as a another lonely memory dogging the runners footsteps.
This is the single most interesting aspect of the game, period.
Yes, navigating the environment with a couple is virtually identical to meeting the wife inside the mazes of Passage. Yes, the girl essentially amounts to a powerup, which, in someone else’s words, could very well be one of the most sexist game design decisions I’ve ever seen in a game, boiling down the opposite sex into a means of respite for a male unable to handle/cope with his various issues.
And yet, in a small way, Mr. Burch, this small section of the game—though it clashes with the other two gameplay sessions—is the closest Runner gets to becoming a transformative experience.
Why? In your choice to use a pre-established game sequence as the core interactivity sequence, you made a game that draws attention NOT to the various intricacies of dodging obstacles in the environment, but, rather, the well established fact that Battletoads is INFAMOUS for this gameplay scenario because it’s stupid hard.
You created a gameplay situation that actually draws its power NOT from the game mechanics in question, but rather their reputation. Battletoads is well known as one of the hardest games on the old Nintendo Entertainment System, and the Jet Ski sequence was one of the most frustrating, timing intensive gameplay sessions in the history of the medium. You focused on the fact that everyone LOSES at Battletoads at this precise moment, and all but the best players can make it through the sequence.
And you made a game that is all about ruining a relationship by running into obstacles over and over again. You focus not on the success of the relationship, but the way in which Runner, the player, perhaps you, Mr. Burch, manage to ruin that relationship somehow.
You equated losing at a video game to losing at a relationship. You’ve brought the failure associated with a bad jump or a mistimed gunshot to the same plane as saying the wrong thing to your significant other.
This is, without a doubt, the single most successful, interesting moment of the entire game. It takes too long to get to this moment, and requires a bit too much patience on the part of the player. But hey, I’m a Metal Gear fan, so I’m happy to put up with the bullshit if the rewards are worth the hassle.
And in this case, I think they are. You managed to create a mechanical scenario that is able to match and evoke the same kind of reaction a person may have if they irrevocably ruin their relationship. This is either a really interesting gameplay sequence that stands as moment when Runner threatens to truly become a transformative work, or it represents a man who suffers from a supreme mind warp where the aspects of reality have become trivialized to the point where video game failure is equal to relationship failure. I personally wish it was the latter, but Runner spends so much time painting the protagonists as a figure for sympathy that I don’t think it works out.
Regardless, this is the one moment in the game that works, because
A) It exists entirely within the controls and interactions of the player. It is the player who must screw up these reactions in order to see the couple break apart, for the relationship to break apart, rather than a sequence that is regulated and determined by in game logic.
B) It works out of and enhances the aspects of the Battletoads game that I remember most clearly; specifically, losing.
This is the single best moment in the entire game…and, unfortunately, the game keeps going past this moment. As soon as the relationship breaks apart, the girl reappears as the ghost onscreen and a new art bubble appears, explaining the exact thing we just saw in drawing form. Just like that pesky Bioshock, Runner is a game that overstays its welcome, and spends too much time trying to complete the “story” of the game rather than allowing the game’s revelation to hold the spotlight.
Indeed, what really struck me as peculiar about this moment is the underlying indication that you didn’t think your players would understand what just happened in their game play if you didn’t explain it to them in art form. This seems like a surprising act of distrust on your part, Mr. Burch. You are more interested in hammering in your game revelation into the player’s mind with a hammer rather than letting them interpolate the on screen reactions on their own. Have a little faith. Don’t be afraid to trust your audience to the point where they can put the pieces of the puzzle together for themselves.
Regardless, this single moment of the game is the closest the game comes to truly being a worthwhile experience, and I say that out of genuine respect. It’s not a perfect moment, and it’s not quite the transformative experience that more polished art games are…but it’s a goddamn close miss.
About the only problem I have with this section of the game is that it's more closely tied to the story of the game, and the shackles of the need to tell a story really keep this moment from developing into something incredible.
My last few thoughts about the artistic construction of Runner
7. Runner is a game about memorization. To succeed at the game, your best option is to have some foresight as to what obstacles are coming at you, rather than relying on the game’s controls and your own quick thinking. However, this means that the future comes at the player IN THE EXACT SAME WAY EVERY TIME.
Is that truly your viewpoint of the progression of life? That we can predict and react to every aspect of life while it’s happening? That’s a far more positive impression of mankind and individuals than I think the rest of the game suggests. Obviously, programming your game for random obstacles is probably impossibility at this juncture of you design/programming career, but I’m not sure that a future that is made up of events that can be predicted is a proper representation of life. Humanity is far more complicated and mysterious and totally messed up to allow for the existence of a period of history in which the same things happen in the exact same order over and over again.
The only way I could possibly condone this viewpoint—a world that is essentially in a state of infinite loop, where the same things happen over and over again—would be if you argued through the game that
A) The entire game is a flashback, with an old man looking back at the events of his life in retrospect and reflecting on the choices or mistakes he made in his life. It may have been possible that this viewpoint could have existed in the game except that there is no mention of this figure in the game, nor is there any indication that the game is a second person look at a man’s life and choices. The other alternative is
B) The Runner is living in a world where his own fears and anxieties keep him making the same mistakes in relationships over and over again. The Runner keeps screwing up his outings with women and the result is that he’s stuck in his own double helix, running through the same obstacles and getting caught up in the same traps over and over again.
I would love if B was the actual intention of the game’s linearity and repetitive, memorization based gameplay (it would be a fascinating homage to Metal Gear Solid 2). I would love to see the protagonist as a figure being manipulated by the game’s actions to live through the same horrible events over and over again, and having to make the same mistakes time and time again. It would indicate that the game and its designer see the world, and their own lives, as a series of mistakes repeated over and over again, keeping designer and player from ever achieving the happiness that they seek. I wish that was the underlying point of the game’s repetitive nature, but I can’t quite say that’s the case, simply based on the evidence provided by the game. You see, if you were trying to create a game world that is inherently a cycle of repeating events, then why does the game take place on a linear, straightforward road? Couldn’t this exact same game take place in a world that is curved and rounded, there-by driving into the player that the game is an exercise in repeated mistakes? The linearity of the game and the game world completely offsets the notion that the world and the mistakes of the main character are cyclical in nature. The two elements don’t mesh together at all.
I imagine the inherently repetitive nature of the game design is just a result of your design infancy. But it’s these decisions that separate the best art games from the trash. Every single element of you r game really needs to mesh together (unless, of course, it’s designed to NOT mesh). It’s these inherent contradictions in your game design that cause the whole of Runner to fall apart in the long run.
8. Runner is a game that feels like it’s very clearly divided into three different moments with three different “revelations” for the player. None of these elements mesh together as well as you’d like, and the whole game feels like it stretches the gameplay past the point of interest. I simply think that 3 minutes of this game is too long for most people to put up with, and I think that Runner may have been more successful if you put all of your energy into exploring one of these three distinct aspects:
A) Avoiding obstacles and not letting our past control our lives
B) Using writing and expression as a means of dealing with the world around us, ignoring the obstacles ahead and allowing us to master the fears and emotions that have thus far control us and affect our choices
C) Using gameplay failure as a metaphor for relationship failure.
Each of these aspects on their own has plenty of meat for gameplay exploration, but it’s too much for your current game to handle. I think you should forget about “telling a story” and really spend some time trying to flesh out these specific ideas about the world through gameplay. As it stands, your desire to complete a story of some kind means that none of these specific ideas has enough time to be explored because the game is so anxious to get to the next part of the story. Focus on the game and not the story telling, and that may be the key to really fleshing out these ideas in a way that’s more meaningful than the product you designed.
So….does Runner work as an experience?
Ultimately, it falls short of being a worthwhile experience. There are too many aspects of the game that are awkwardly juxtaposed, too many contradictions between the game design and the metaphors, too many moments where the hand of the designer ineffectively manipulates the gameplay. And this is all from a game that is too long and requires way too much investment, even for a 3 minute game. Only the most devoted nut jobs (Hello!) will really be able to make it past the game’s frustrating moments, and there just isn’t enough of a revelatory experience waiting at the end of that difficult to handle gameplay. And, of course, it’s not a transformative experience the way Braid is, the way that Runner so desperately strives to be.
Runner doesn’t quite measure up to its lofty expectations, and, to some extent, it’s a victim of your personal design idiosyncrasies, Mr. Burch.
No, Runner is a miss. But it’s a damn interesting miss. For all of the game’s borrowed and stolen elements from other, different, better games, and despite its ability to mesh all those different products into a satisfactory product…but there is life in this game, and some very interesting ideas. Small, isolated successes are here, deep under the surface of the game (the total avoidance of cutscene and the very interesting perception of the Battletoad’s Jet Ski gameplay do work). It’s cliché, to some extent, but several of the stolen elements (particularly the “couple” control mechanic from Passage) are changed and explored in some compelling ways.
Runner is not a “good” game, or a "good" experience, but as a first attempt, it makes me damn interested in seeing what you put out next, Mr. Burch. Runner has its missteps, but (and this is the key) Runner is a game that has ideas
. When it’s working at its best, Runner is far more concerned with using gameplay and interaction to say things about the world and life and the medium, and do more than simply tell a story. You’re trying to do something with your game, rather than just making a fun game to waste people’s time for a few minutes.
I want to see the ways in which you can expand the ideas you’re thinking about, and the ways you’re thinking about using the medium, because they are SUBSTANTIAL. Your game, despite my own feelings about its quality and the specific ideas it explores, is EXACTLY where I want to see video gaming progress over the next few years. I want to see games get personal, and I want to see how designers take their own personal feelings and translate them into an interactive environment.
I started writing this article 8000 words ago mostly out of scorn and spite. Surely I wouldn’t have been so committed to writing this hallucinatory, rambling, prolonged mess of TOTAL LUNACY had it not been inspired by irrational anger. But after thinking about your game and exploring it for a good 10 hours, I can confidently say that I like the way you’re thinking about game design, and I respect you a hell of a lot more than I did a day ago
I eagerly anticipate your next project, Mr. Burch. If you can learn from your design choices and design missteps from this game, I think you could very well make something great.
Or, you know, half great. That’ll be okay too.
Hope you all enjoyed a close reading of a 3 minute game,