In Canabalt, your pixelated running man runs for his life through a dystopian world reminiscent of the Matrix, jumping from rooftop to collapsing rooftop and getting steadily faster until he either plummets into the ground, runs into the debris that’s been left lying around or is bombed into a fine mist from the sky. It’s all controlled with one button: all you have to do is jump at the right time to keep accelerating. Best of all, the game was developed in only five days.
The game nails the sense of speed and control, making it a perfect example of flow. How?
Sense of control
The one button controls make it easy to feel in control, but only because they enable you to successfuly tackle every challenge thrown at you (within the limits of your skill, that is). It seems that one of the basic principles of flow in games is that it is enhanced when controls become more sensitive, i.e. as you have to do less to meet the challenges thrown at you. Think of the kung fu master blocking punches and kicks with one arm with a look of thinly disguised boredom on his face. As a bonus, the simplicity of the execution means there are no extraneous elements to pull you out of flow
Sense of speed
There is a limit to the brain’s reaction speed, but you can increase the perceived speed of the character through a few tricks, improving the sense of flow because you make the player feel that they’re going even more awesomely fast. Canabalt uses a bunch of tricks:
- Four layers of parallax with giant shadowy machines stomping around the background create an epic scale
- The occasional jet flying in the opposite direction adds an extra layer in front
- The repetition of the windows/bricks in the buildings adds extra speed
- The character animation is spot on
Sense of impact
This is related to the sense of control. Here, the buildings that collapse as you jump on them and the physics of the broken glass bouncing around you and birds taking off as you run through their midst amplify your involvement in the action. The more of an impact your actions have on the world, the greater the resulting sense of flow when you successfuly keep things moving at the edge of your ability.
The music is a perfect complement to the action. It could do even more: synchronizing the visuals and the sound effects (as Audiosurf does), would increase the sense of involvement even further.
Overall, Canabalt is a pretty brilliant case study in how to generate flow.