Everybody Runs

Let’s talk briefly about the endless runner. The first instance of the genre I recall encountering was Adam Saltsman’s Canabalt in 2009, and it instantly seemed like a game-type whose time had come with the advent of touchscreen handhelds. The roots of the endless runner—with its constantly moving protagonist and emphasis simply on survival as a measure of success—seem to lie in those dreaded platforming levels where the screen scrolls at a constant pace. Entering those levels in Super Mario World or similar I was usually frustrated by the inability to take a breath and plan my next move, or to take time to break all the blocks I wanted - having control of pace taken from me as a player was often irritating in those circumstances, but that’s not my experience with endless runners.

It has something to do with the relative simplicity of what’s being asked: simply to assume control of the character’s movement in a single axis (normally the y in the games I’ve played) and to sustain movement as long as possible. Just as the simplicity of the controls make the genre perfect for playing on an iPhone, so too does this setup: you’re doing well if you last more than a minute or two, which works well for playing in bursts; but the genre has a powerful one-more-go pull that means you can also sit and play for a while. Here are my four favourite endless runners, including the two great releases from this last week that inspired this post:

Canabalt

There’s evidence to suggest the endless runner dates back to Commodore 64 gaming in the 80s, but there’s no denying it was Canabalt that popularised the genre in the modern era. Quite rightly it was one of the first inductees to MoMA’s video game collection in 2012.

Super Hexagon

This one works slightly differently to many of the other entries in the genre, but it’s coming from the same place in terms of gameplay: move that little triangle on its hexagonal axis and keep it from crashing into the incoming walls as long as possible. (As with many endless runners—for some reason—the game also features a killer soundtrack, this one from Chipzel).

Fotonica

I had this first-person twist on the endless runner downloaded a while ago for the Mac, but it makes so much sense on a touchscreen handheld and the new iOS version is perfectly executed.

Alone

Described to me as ‘Canabalt at the speed of Super Hexagon and somehow living up to that hype - this is the game I’m currently reaching for when I want to briefly flood my system with a hit of adrenaline.

The Goldfinch

I have just put down Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch having read the final 50 pages in one sitting of constant wrestling between competing desires: to speed through to its conclusion, and to savour its every last word. The final chapters have left me a little stunned, entirely in awe of how sublimely they are written, and—not to put too fine a point on it—elated; glad simply to be alive and to have been so touched by a work of art.

The final moments of Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding had a similar emotional upswing that quite literally sent a shiver up my spine, but Tartt’s execution is more sustained. At the end of her 850 page novel she’s bold enough to have her narrator elucidate the emotional truth of the narrative, and somehow it not only works but is thrilling in a way it has no right to be. It’s a trick only a writer of Tartt’s talent could even consider attempting, the poor execution of which would undermine all that had come before. The effect of its resounding success is to leave the reader feeling as though they have been struck like a bell - something of the work itself vibrating out and through them. Personally I don’t think I’ve felt that upon completing a novel since I first read Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion.

I can’t recommend The Goldfinch strongly enough. Read it around Christmas when some of its most important passages are set, when the evenings have grown short and it’s snowing outside. See if there isn’t something there that will be a light and a warmth to you.

iA On The Pain of Thought

I once heard a game developer say that "games aren't released, they escape". That same perfectionist drive also seems to sit behind how Oliver Reichenstein and the folks at Information Architects feel about their blogposts.

Whenever a new piece does arrive it’s worth the wait. Case in point: a new post, titled ‘Putting Thought Into Things’ was published today; here’s a particularly smart couple of paragraphs:

I fully recommend reading the whole thing over at iA.net

Boyhood

Richard Linklater is one of those rare film directors whose output I’m always compelled by; there’s a meditative streak to the best of his work that I’m really drawn to. It’s there in the stoned, brink-of-adulthood ruminations of SubUrbia (1996), and the hypnotic, dreamlike conversations of Waking Life (2001). For all of its visual flamboyance, its that same philosophical bent that drives 2006’s (much underrated and under-appreciated ) A Scanner Darkly. And where Linklater’s love for language and ideas really blossoms, of course, is with the Before… trilogy (…Sunrise (1995); …Sunset (2004); & …Midnight (2013)): a cinematic triptych that has a special place in my heart - its characters re-visited every nine years and almost exactly that same distance removed from my own age so that it feels oddly personal, like a visit from the ghost of relationships future.

Not having any knowledge of Boyhood (2014) until shortly before its release, I had a hard time picturing how cinema could match Linklater’s Before… films for the powerful pull of watching a life unfold. (The works coming closest to this in recent years are less grounded, more synesthetic pieces like Malick's (stunning) Tree of Life (2011) and—in some odd, diagonal way—Aronofsky's The Fountain (2006).) And yet, all this time, Linklater was playing himself at his own game: shooting Boyhood piecemeal over more than a decade he has put together exactly the kind of beautiful, human narrative showcased in the Before… films, but without allowing himself to cut away for the best part of a decade between sequences. Boyhood is interested in its characters in the same way as the Before... pictures and Waking Life are, and as too few other films seem to be. All of the drama plays out at a relatable level and is all the more powerful for it: no car chases, no gunfights, just the vividly rendered ups & downs of a simple life. (Or, rather, the first couple of decades of one - somewhat greedily I find myself hoping that the project will continue on and I'll be sitting down for Manhood in 2026.)

I was so happy at this year’s Oscars to see Spike Jonze take home a richly deserved award; come March next year Linklater should also have a statue on his mantlepiece. Two easygoing auteurs with a penchant for modest personal exploration - a decade or so ago they seemed unlikely winners. But time, as Linklater’s oeuvre will inform you, has a funny way of changing things.

When Hulky Meet Spidey?

Even if you’re not hugely into comics there’s a good chance you understand why you’ll never see Superman arm-wrestle Thor, or Batman and Iron Man having a conversation about who’s richer and has cooler gadgets. For the longest time there have been two major players in the world of comics publishing—Marvel & DC—and in each case the two characters fall on either side of that divide. The Avengers brings together multiple Marvel characters, and the upcoming Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice will see DC’s two titans on the same screen, but never the twain shall meet.

What might be less clear however, is why certain Marvel characters never seem to run into each other on the silver screen. The Avengers movie, and the solo adventures of all its constituent members (plus the S.H.I.E.L.D. TV show), are happening in one continuity. It’s fun to watch that universe grow, and look for cameos and references across the films, but to a fan of the comics it’s frustratingly obvious to see the film-makers run up against the limits of what they are permitted to show or even reference. Put simply, it’s a drag to know you’ll never see any two of Hulk, Wolverine and Spider-Man in the same frame.

The mystical force that keeps these universes separate is something more powerful than the Infinity Gauntlet, or the Tesseract, and far more insidious even than the Aether… it’s the immutable power of copyright law! Whilst Marvel owns all the rights to the use of its characters in print and on TV, the film rights are a different and more complicated story. Believe it or not there was a time in the distant and murky past (the 1990s) when superhero movies were not a permanent fixture of the box office. The Batman movies of the day were unsuccessful both as action films and in the camp comedy they reached for, and Jurassic Park (1993) and Independence Day (1996) set the templates for the summer blockbuster. It was in this climate that Marvel began selling movie rights to its characters. Spider-Man went to Sony, X-Men went to Fox, and both grew successful franchises out of what they had bought. So successful in fact that Marvel took the decision to begin producing their own films based on the properties they retained, beginning with Iron Man (2008).

Under the guidance of Avi Arad and Kevin Feige, the series of films that introduced Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, and Captain America, and then assembled them for Marvel’s The Avengers (2012) has become the second highest-grossing film franchise in history. Now well into its ‘Phase Two’ and with releases allegedly planned as far ahead as 2028 Marvel’s Cinematic Universe has become as reliable and regular a source of entertainment as the comics themselves.

However, having struck deals for licensing out some of their most popular characters, Marvel—acquired by Disney in 2009—find themselves in a strange position: for all of the epic, dimension-hopping scale of their film series there remain some simple things they cannot do. Things, I’m willing to bet, many of their creatives dearly want to do. The relationship between Spider-Man and Hulk is long-running comic book gold, and it probably stings the writers as much as the fans that we don’t get to see it on screen. It probably makes the accountants weep too; think how much money an X-Men / Avengers cross-over would make! Who wouldn’t want to see what happens if Iron Man runs into Magneto?

But it’s not just the inconvenience - we’re now starting to see the fragmentation of these universes. The character of Quicksilver, seemingly unanimously considered the highlight of Bryan Singer’s X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014), is also glimpsed at the end of Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014). The concepts for the character in each case are clearly different, they’re played by different actors, and what happens to one will have no bearing on what happens to the other. This is seemingly permissible by a quirk of the agreement Marvel has with Fox: Quicksilver (and his sister Scarlet Witch) are the children of Magneto, and therefore part of the X-Men continuity owned by Fox, but both—in print—have served as long-term members of the Avengers and hence are fair game for on-screen use by Marvel. With Avengers: Age of Ultron releasing in 2015, and X-Men: Apocalypse hitting screens in 2016, the two competing versions of Quicksilver are likely to prove somewhat confusing to moviegoing audiences. Good luck explaining copyright law to the seven year-old who doesn’t understand why one Quicksilver hangs out with Wolverine and the other isn’t even allowed to say his name.

It’s not impossible, of course, that this tangle can be undone. If enough money changes hands we could yet see a cinematic conceit bring together characters from the separate universes. So the idea that we might one day see a Hulk & Wolverine fastball special isn’t completely dead, but I wouldn’t hold my breath… unless I was Namor the Sub-Mariner… the rights to whom seem to be with Universal Studios, along with Howard the Duck. So there’s your next big team-up blockbuster I guess.