Alto's Adventure and the Legacy of Canabalt

This is EXTRA CONTENT. Read the main article first.

The journey to this article is a bit unusual. It starts with Tim Rogers.

I’ve been fascinated by Tim Rogers for a long time. I think the first thing of his that I read was his 2004 review of Katamari Damacy. It was deeply personal and emotional in a way that I’d never seen from games writing before and it’s one of the foundational pieces that made me want to start writing about games myself.

I’ve followed Rogers’s career ever since then. There’s plenty I could say about the turns he took and how I felt about them - in short, my opinion of him is now much more complex than it used to be. What’s relevant for this discussion is that after he left Kotaku in early 2020, he started a Patreon to fund the creation of long-form video reviews of classic/significant video games. As of this writing, he has 3,515 patrons providing $15,912 per month and has put out five videos, ranging in length from just under three hours to just under six hours.

In my mind, this data point slotted in as an interesting comparison to Jim Sterling, whose Patreon currently has 7,774 patrons providing $14,942 per month, and who apparently does podcasts and livestreams and other such stuff on top of a YouTube channel putting out 10-20ish minute reviews and video essays once or twice a week. Like Rogers, Sterling built up an audience making content for a larger website (I first encountered Sterling’s work on Destructoid) but with a highly personal and idiosyncratic voice that stood out from the rest of the website’s staff, and was then able to go solo and take that established audience to Patreon where they support a full-time career without the editorial pressures of a larger website or its advertisers.

Sterling, though, still seemed to be in “growth” mode - optimizing content length/frequency/transience/etc. for YouTube recommendation algorithms and such. I’ve never wanted to do that, so Sterling’s example didn’t seem like something I’d want to follow. But Rogers isn’t chasing anybody’s algorithm. He’s diving deep to create several-hours evergreen essays that don’t connect to anything trending and which can have gaps of several months in between. It seems clear he’s making the content he wants to make in the way he wants to make it - and yet it’s still working and he’s got a very similar Patreon support level to Sterling.

That made me sit up and take notice, and as I watched Rogers’s video reviews part of what I was looking for was why this worked and whether I could take a similar path. One of the things that I concluded was that all of his videos are at least as much about him as they are about the game being reviewed. People don’t support him and watch his content because they want to learn about the games he discusses. They are subscribing to Tim Rogers the human being and how he thinks and talks.

I thought about how this compared to my own approach with Pixel Poppers. The internet was a very different place when I started posting my video game thoughts in 2009. There was a lot less competition for quality game analysis and virtually all of it was written. So when I put out interesting and insightful blog posts, that was enough and I built an audience almost effortlessly. In one of my most-regretted decisions, I let that audience evaporate over several years where I barely posted because my energies were focused solely on my job. When I tried to come back in 2018, game analysis had almost completely moved to YouTube and there were far more independent creators putting out their thoughts. (This includes Rogers and Sterling! In 2009, they wrote for major game websites. Now they both make videos independently.)

It had been clear for a while that if I wanted to compete in this new landscape, I needed to update my approach and make video essays instead of blog posts. But what I realized after watching Tim Rogers’s new videos is that there’s another important change I’d need to make. With so many creators and so much content out there now, I also needed to have a distinctive personality that came across in my work. I needed to put more me into it so that people who enjoyed my essay on, I dunno, Dragon Quest Builders 2, would follow it up not by searching for more DQB2 content but by checking out my other content and would be interested when I put out new stuff.

For years I’d had a habit of trying to make my essays as impersonal and bloodless as possible, to keep myself out of my work and let the ideas speak for themselves. But if there’s barely a person in my writing, is it any surprise that almost nobody ever engages with my writing anymore?

Engagement (and I mean this in a much more human sense than marketing sense) is really important to me. What motivates me to create is feeling connected to other people and feeling that I’ve given them something they enjoy or learn from. A decade ago when every article I posted got a bunch of comments, those feelings came easily. Now that most of my posts are met with silence, those feelings don’t come often and it’s hard to want to keep writing.

So if I wanted writing to be worth it, I had to change how I wrote. I needed to break my habit and put far more of myself into my work. I needed to bleed onto the page.

That was in the back of my mind when I played Alto’s Adventure after it went up for free on the Epic Games Store. So when the game gave me an interesting emotional reaction, I found myself wanting to try writing about it. Not to illustrate a deep insight or make a persuasive argument about game design. I wanted to deliver an emotional payload. I wanted to take a thing that made me happy and share it in a way that would make other people happy too.

I wanted people to share my feeling that Canabalt deserved to be held up in the same esteem as other genre-defining hits like Grand Theft Auto III and Minecraft. I wanted people to feel awe at how game designers expand on each other’s work and create far more amazing things than anyone could in isolation. I wanted people to see the untapped potential still spread far and wide in game design space and feel the same hope that I did.

As I wrote that article I tried to bleed into every sentence, to make sure that nothing I said was merely informative but also evocative and infused with human emotion. I had to fight my instincts and it was more tiring to write this way. But it felt good and I think it was worth doing. The close friends I showed the draft to liked it and mentioned how different it was from my usual work. This felt really promising, and I thought I might be able to continue in this direction and breathe new life into Pixel Poppers.

(And I suppose it’s only appropriate that Tim Rogers found his way into the essay. My memories of Canabalt were tied up with him, as I’d read his review back when it was published in 2009. I may not look up to him in quite the same way now that I did then, but he’s still a fascinating guidepost along the way.)

It was also clear to me that this needed to be a video. A lot of my essays could in theory be done as videos, but most of them would feel forced into the format and work better in text. It would be hard to find constant visuals that wouldn’t simply distract from the ideas. (The main exception here is Rhythm and Readability: Why Bubsy: Paws on Fire! is the Best Bit.Trip Runner which talks about a lot of visual ideas and was originally planned as a video; I compromised with a lot of GIFV embeds.) But with this essay, visuals and sounds would support rather than distract from the core of what I wanted to convey. Seeing the games (and in a couple important instances, hearing their soundtracks) and hearing the tone in my voice as I spoke about them would greatly enhance the emotional experience.

But right about the time I was happy with my drafted script and was starting to compile gameplay footage to use, some weird things happened in my brain. I’ve written extensively about them here and here, but the short version is that a side effect of some nootropics I was taking was that I started caring far less about video games. Revitalizing Pixel Poppers didn’t seem important anymore, and I stopped working on the video.

Ultimately, I decided to just go ahead and embed the video clips into the text and publish the article that way. That was a much more achievable goal that I could knock out in a weekend. The outcome is probably only about 40% as effective as the video version would have been, but having the text and clips sitting unpublished on my hard drive is 0% as effective. And I figured that if I ever did decide later I wanted to work on videos again, I could always come back and do a video version of this. I wouldn’t be too surprised if that ended up happening somewhere down the line. (I’d probably make a video version of the Bubsy article too.)

So that’s how we got here. Still not sure where we’re going next.

As for cut content - there isn’t much, because the post was always so focused. But I would like to share this 2009 interview with Adam Saltsman that I wish I’d found a way to include. It’s a fantastic time capsule from right after he first released Canabalt, talking about his inspiration and how the game came about. This is the Adam I reference at the end of the article, the one I want to visit and show his legacy. I’d love to see the look on his face.