At the heart of Canabalt is a little piece of ludo/narrative dissonance.
In the game you play a character, whom I’ll call MJ (for his resemblance to the deceased pop star), that has the bad luck to be on a rooftop jog when his city is attacked by giant robots. Players must navigate MJ from rooftop to rooftop by deciding when he should and should not jump. This can get tricky because MJ gets faster the longer he runs without interruption, making it more difficult to see what’s coming and react before it’s too late. The robot apocalypse is a dangerous time and there are several gruesome ways MJ can perish.
What’s wonderful about Canabalt is that while it has only one interaction, jumping, it still manages to provide interesting decisions for the player. For instance, while players have direct control of MJ’s jump they also have indirect control over his speed. Scattered across the rooftops are boxes and office chairs that slow MJ down whenever he collides with them, and players can check MJ’s speed by purposely running him into these obstacles. However, since the levels are procedurally generated players must be careful about slowing down too much or MJ might not be able to leap the next gap.
The strange thing about all this is that if you were playing the game by putting yourself in MJ’s shoes you would never slow yourself down to the steady jog that gives you the best chance of survival. You certainly wouldn’t crash yourself into office furniture at regular intervals. Success in Canabalt then depends on the player acting in a way opposite of that which would make the most coherent narrative.
It would be interesting to know how many people role-played Canabalt and how many went for the high score.