Of all of the various video game genres to emerge in recent years, one of the more curious is the “endless runner.” If you’ve played the wildly popular Temple Run games, then you’re already familiar with it. There’s no real story line or character arc in “endless runner” games. Instead, your only goal is to see how far your character can get in a procedurally generated environment while picking up various treasures to trade in for power-ups that will help you run even farther next time.
If the definition of insanity, as the popular saying goes, is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results, then “endless runner” games are their own, unique form of madness. You keep doing the same thing over and over again, yet you know there will never really be a different result — just a different distance traveled.
“Endless runner” games can certainly be a fun distraction. They don’t require too many higher cognitive functions to play, just pure reflex, which allows you to sink into a mental state — not all that dissimilar to Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s “flow” — as you push on through the levels. The genre’s inherent simplicity also makes such games ideal for mobile devices, meaning it’s that much easier to get in a few runs wherever you are.
One glance at the recently released Alto’s Odyssey (or its predecessor, Alto’s Adventure), and it’s tempting to lump them in with the rest of the “endless runner” genre. On the surface, they have all the earmarks of the genre: there’s no story line beyond the barest of character bios, and the primary goal is to simply see how far you can progress through the scenery, avoiding obstacles while performing tricks and collecting coins to earn points and level up.
But after even just a few minutes of gameplay, it becomes quite clear that the Alto games are their own special breed; they work within the limitations of the “endless runner” genre only to ultimately transcend them. Or, put another way, while most “endless runner” games are simply about the end of your journey (i.e., the distance you’ve traveled during your run), the Alto games instead encourage you to slow down and reflect on your journey — to observe and pay attention to where you are as much as (if not more than) how far you can go.
Much of this is due to the games’ beautiful design. Alto’s Adventure sends you snowboarding down an endless slope while Alto’s Odyssey takes you through deserts and jungles. In both games, the simple yet highly stylized artwork allows for frequently beautiful vistas as you glide along the ground or soar through the air. The games’ landscapes are littered with huts, ruins, campfires, hot air balloons, and other suggestions of society in the distance, imbuing the games with a Romantic “nostalgia of a lost civilization” (as Kyle Keating wrote in his Horizon Zero Dawn review) that makes you wonder what (and who) else is out there even as you’re focused on what’s in front of you.
Furthermore, changes in weather and the passage of time give the games’ worlds a solidity that belies their simplicity. Merely starting your journey in the morning, continuing through the evening and on into the following morning, or making your way through a thunderous rainstorm or howling sandstorm, gives a sense of drama to your trip.
But there’s more to the games than just (very) pretty visuals. The UI’s simple elegance, the delightful little animations (e.g., when you flip through a waterfall or watch the various layers of landscape drift by in the setting sun), the gently wistful soundtracks (which recall Steve Reich’s graceful and evocative minimalism)… all of these elements combine to create an experience that makes you want to slow down and observe a little more closely, which overrides the traditional point of an “endless runner.”
Thankfully, the Alto games come with two features that encourage slower, more contemplative and observant gameplay. The first is the ability to take in-game photos. While ostensibly there for sharing your sweet snowboarding tricks with friends or bragging about them on Twitter, I’ve used it in order to linger a bit longer in a particularly beautiful vista, to better enjoy the rich, saturated colors of a sunrise, or to try and catch a clearer view of something off in the distance.
The second feature is the games’ “Zen mode,” which strips out most of the gameplay mechanics (e.g., earning points) so that you can just focus more clearly on your journey. (Or as the developers put it, “There’s no on-screen UI competing for your attention — it’s just you and the endless mountain.”) Not surprisingly, some have found playing the Alto games to be an act akin to meditation. As blogger Jason Kottke put it:
I’ve played Alto’s Adventure a lot over the past year and a half. Like very a lot. At first, I played because the game was fun and I wanted to beat it. But eventually, I started playing the game when I was stressed or anxious. It became a form of meditation for me; playing cleared my mind and refocused my attention on the present. Even the seemingly stressful elements in the game became calming.
Some may scoff at the idea that playing video games could ever be akin to spiritual exercise, but Robert Rackley points out that possible overlap does exist:
The core of a meditative practice is directed focus on something. The most common object of focus is the breath. In mindful breathing, the mind is attuned to breathing, and when distractions inevitably arise, the mind is being trained to gently come back to the breath. In the Christian tradition of Centering Prayer, the practitioner learns to respond to distraction by mindfully bringing focus back to a sacred word. It is in these rituals that we can find a growing ability to let go of things that are not helpful and focus on the beauty and simplicity of the life that God has given to us.
For some, playing a game like Alto’s Adventure can be a calming substitute when meditation is difficult.
To be clear, there are no explicit religious elements or overtones in either of the Alto games; these aren’t proselytizing tools. At the end of the day, they’re snowboarding games (or sandboarding, in the case of Alto’s Odyssey) that try to get you to pull off more impressive tricks, stunts, and grinds with each subsequent run.
But thanks to their careful attention to detail, elegant gameplay, and a beguiling atmosphere created through visuals and music, the Alto games encourage you to slow down and be more mindful of your surroundings. Obviously, that starts with your surroundings within Alto’s Odyssey (so that you don’t, say, crash into a rock, fall into a chasm, or get tripped by an annoyed lemur), but that mindfulness can easily bleed into the real world.
I’ve mentioned before the games’ environmental beauty. Seeing one of those gorgeous sunrises, particularly after a harrowing night of howling snow or pouring rain, invokes a sense of yearning for whenever real light breaks through true darkness, bringing with it a sense of wholeness, safety, and renewal.
We find echoes of Eden in so many cultural artifacts, be it a stirring novel, a haunting piece of music, or a lovely painting. Why shouldn’t we also find them in games where you glide through never-ending mountains, deserts, and jungles, games where being mindful of where you are in the moment turns out be far more important and enjoyable than seeing how far you can push yourself to go?
This entry was originally published on Christ and Pop Culture on .