When I wrote a paragraph about Alto’s Adventure a few months back, I really thought I was done with the game; but maybe a month or so later, I picked it up again in a free moment, and this time it stuck with me longer.
The basic issue that I had before was that it was a game that seemed like it should be about virtuosity, but the one-button gameplay didn’t support that enough. And, don’t get me wrong, Alto’s Adventure is largely about the experience of the environment. But, once you unlock the second character, your choice of actions expands just enough to be interesting: you can backflip at the crest of every hill, which means that you can always be doing tricks and chaining tricks, which increases the density of choices enough to bring in more traditionally gamey virtues. And, while I’d actually already unlocked her when I gave up on the game the first time, I hadn’t really realized the consequences of that unlocking.
For me, the major consequence was ultimately that it gave me a choice: I could try to maximize my local fun by doing tricks all the time, or I could try to maximize the duration of play sessions (which, admittedly, has its own more serene form of enjoyment) by being more restrained and only leaving the ground / backflipping when I was sure it wouldn’t have a bad effect. Of course, the ideal is to not have to make a choice between those two, and I found myself being able to avoid that choice more and more: initially because the second character let me be successful with tricks much more often, but then later because I got better at judging the risk envelope of tricks, learning when it’s safe to do a backflip (or a double backflip or a triple backflip). And, beyond that, the game starts having tricks actively help you get long runs instead of hurt you: you have to constantly do tricks to stay ahead of the later elders, and if you get far enough, the rock density gets high enough that you have to be spending most of your time time either above the rocks or smashing the rocks.
So there’s an ideal on the horizon; and there are challenges in the way. Not just in learning when a backflip is safe, but in the goals that the game throws at you as you advance (get a certain distance, acquire a number of coins, but also weirder ones like doing a rock bounce to a grind). And, even as you get better at judging your backflips, there’s still one basic tradeoff: the more time you spend in the air, the less likely you are to realize that there’s a chasm coming up that you need to avoid. And with the second character in particular the tradeoff is starker than that: she’s slow unless she’s coming right off of a trick, so she has a hard time with two of the chasm types. So, on the one hand, she wants to be jumping all the time to keep her speed high, but, on the other hand, that increases the chance of landing into a chasm instead of before it. And the game in turn supports that: letting you unlock a hover feather which gives another option for avoiding chasms, giving a visual cue of an approaching chasm by changing the visual zoom / scrolling behavior, and eventually, when you unlock the last character, letting you not only not have to choose between jumping and speed but even letting you survive one chasm misjudgment.
So: a better game for me than I thought. And, of course, the initial presentational / experiential virtues that I saw in the game are still there, and still distinguish the game from others that I’ve played.
This post has not been revised since publication.