I have nothing to back this up but a general feeling, but I think clips of video games make up about 25-75% of all video content on the internet. A lot of the clips are for popular games, like Minecraft, or Fortnite, or Call of Duty, or Roblox. For months on TikTok, the algorithm has been serving me clips from GTA V, which I can safely describe as “Runescape for bros” based on its unyielding longevity.
One area that has escaped me for a long time is mobile gaming. Mobile games are bad. They’re money sucks in the same way that arcade cabinets used to be, and they drain your battery, and the controls suck. It’s something of a blind spot, and based on what I’ve recently been seeing on TikTok, they will continue to be. I’ve entered TikTok’s mobile game hell and though many aspects of it remain consistent, it sill manages to regularly surprise me.
This week, I decided to immerse myself in a genre of video that spotlights what I’ve decided to call Shitty Autorunners. An autorunner is exactly what it sounds like: the player character moves along a set path and responds to certain user inputs, but is also constantly moving. A lot of Shitty Autorunners revolve around gaining, conserving, or strategically reducing mass.
In one, a runner collects tiles that they can then use to build staircases out of thin air. In another, a runner made of yarn has to collect yarn of the same color, which changes as it passes through certain gates. At the end of the level, Yarn Person gets fired out of a cannon, with the distance based on yarn amassed. (Many of the games feature some sort of scale at the end to maultiply a player’s score based on how much material they finish with.) In another one, a Slime Person dodges obstacles that are constantly lopping bits of slime from their body, and running over new bits of slime to regain mass.
There are so many of these games, which makes sense because on a mechanical level, they don’t seem too complex. Vegetables getting sliced as they make their way through a kitchen. Logs growing and then getting sawed down. A farmer compiling a pole long enough to be used for vaulting over color-coded walls. A pencil that has to worry about its tip being worn down and getting chunks lopped off from its eraser end. Collecting trampolines. Dodging buzzsaws on skyscraper roofs. Color-matching spheres. Amassing enough material for a hang-glider.
I liked a few of these videos to bookmark them for this piece and for now they constitute much of my feed. I resent them in part because it is clear that, like the good thing videos, they are the product of some sort of automated production system or no-thought-required playbook.
Many of them are set to sounds that have nothing to do with the video which I was confused by before realizing… it’s genius? You usually don’t hear the game audio, you just hear a popular TikTok sound. Neither half of the package, audio and video, helps illuminate the other in any way. These are usually either popular music tracks, or, for lack of a more definitive term, bits? Someone telling a dumb joke, or a funny anecdote, an unbearable parody of another TikTok track, #storytime, stories that don’t even resolve before the video does, lazy disses, text-to-speech negging, audio taken from some TV or movie. The audio never lines up with the video, but they somehow manage to complement each other in a devious way — if you’re intrigued by the audio, you’ll keep watching the video, a quasi-advertisement for a game that’s never identified.
If you’re hypnotized by the ebb and flow of the video, you’ll put up with the audio. I was trying to think of a cultural ancestor for these types of hypnotizing mobile-game videos and what they really remind me of are screensavers. The same lizard-brain satisfaction one might get from seeing a DVD logo hit the corner exactly, or seeing the growing nest of pipes that never collide, narrowly escaping disaster, can be sensed in this corner of TikTok. But if I had to compare these types of videos to one screensaver, it would be the Brick Maze.
The “3D Maze” screensaver is like playing an endless level of Doom or Wolfenstein, and the Shitty Autorunner levels on TikTok have a similar feel. They exist on the razor’s edge, glancing at defeat, or victory, or catharsis but never quite getting there. They end before you can really figure out, like, what there whole deal is.
And the more of these you see, the more you will ask yourself, “What the hell is happening with mobile games??” because some of them are nutso. There’s one where you collect butt implants and then jump on the blob from Heavyweights to catapult someone else towards butt implants and at the end of the level you twerk. There’s another popular game where you control a chisel and try to create as large and curly a scraping as possible? Here’s a game where you try to roll out a red carpet but avoid saws and have to make sure the carpet is large enough to logroll on at certain points.
It goes on: two people tethered together balancing on rolling barrels. A floating head with a disconcertingly long tongue trying to like cakes but not mounds of poop. A game where you have to age and de-age you character from baby to old man depending on the circumstances. Roll as large an ice cream scoop as you can to fling into a disemboddied head’s mouth. Eat burgers to fart high enough. Get as fat as possible.
I can’t really articulate why these games exist, but I think I can at least understand why they persist. Memes are about keeping the same structure and swapping out the proper nouns, and these games are similar. Get more X, spend it to avoid Y. Rinse, repeat until dead.