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Hard games as a disempowerment fantasy

Bennett Foddy explains why he made his latest, Getting Over It, to hurt a certain kind of person

In the announcement trailer for Getting Over it with Bennett Foddy, the game's developer and narrator, Bennett Foddy, describes it thusly:

"It tastes of bitterness. It's capricious. It sets setbacks for the ambitious. It lacks lenience. It's bracing, and inhumane. But not everyone's the same. I created this game for a certain kind of person. To hurt them."

The video in the trailer (below) conveys pretty well exactly how the game would hurt people. Getting Over It puts players in control of a man in a jar who must propel his way up a mountain using only a sledgehammer. The cruelty of the game's level design combined with the cruelty of gravity makes summiting the mountain a daunting task, and one where even the hardest earned progress is one small mistake from being undone.

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"The certain kind of person I mention in that trailer is really a person who's like me, or has similar tastes to me," Foddy told last week. "I started playing games in the 8-bit era, when games were inherently [hard], partly for commercial reasons and stretching a small amount of content, and partly for technical reasons owing to the limitations of the machines at the time. Games from that period are just more apt to send you back, to remove your progress. And if you lose everything, there's a certain flavor of frustration that comes through in those games that I developed a taste for over time."

While these "masocore"-style games may have their roots in the 8-bit era, they've long endured in indie game circles. Foddy pointed to Punishment from Nidhogg developer Messhof and Anna Anthropy's Mighty Jill-Off as a pair of games that produced the specific cocktail of frustration, irritation, and confusion that he was aiming for in Getting Over It. There was also Sexy Hiking, the freeware game which served as the core inspiration for Getting Over It.

"There are two deeply opposed ways of looking at difficulty in games"

"I remember trying to convince philosopher friends that maybe you could think of these feelings as being good feelings, maybe depending on context they're not always negative, that there's a sort of pleasure in frustration," Foddy said, recalling his time as a philosopher at Oxford and Princeton. "And uniformly, philosophers would dismiss that out of hand, like, 'That can't be right.' But there's definitely a certain kind of enjoyment in it."

To illustrate his point, Foddy talked about watching Twitch streamer RockLeeSmile who had been playing Getting Over It, and actually making decent progress up the mountain.

"There was this moment where he's making his third attempt at a particular difficult part of it and he winds up falling a good half hour back," Foddy said. "And he kinda screams in pain, but immediately starts laughing and smiling ruefully. That's the feeling, and not everybody can enjoy it in every moment, but that's the feeling I'm looking to bring out."

The issue of difficulty in games has been a frequent subject of the online discourse in development circles lately, particularly after Ubisoft announced that Assassin's Creed: Origins would have a combat-free Discovery Tour mode so people could enjoy exploring that world without the requisite murder and sneaking around. Foddy said he's sympathetic to the argument that difficult games can be exclusionary and even elitist in nature, but that's not the direction he's coming from with Getting Over It.

"There are two deeply opposed ways of looking at difficulty in games," Foddy said. "It's either the ultimate power fantasy, the ultimate sense of empowerment when you're skillful enough to be good at a difficult game. Maybe that's the appeal for certain kinds of people. But for me, the appeal is that I'm not good at games as a player. I'm not particularly skillful at them, and I perform worse than the average player at these difficult games. So for me, it's a disempowerment fantasy. And I think when you look at people having this public debate about difficulty in games, there's a lot of talking at cross-purposes because two different people might experience the sensation of playing a difficult game in two completely opposed ways."

"Once people started having games you would finish, there frequently becomes a set of expectations about needing to finish them"

Despite some of the arguments, difficulty and approachability aren't mutually exclusive qualities in games. Foddy himself has made some tremendously difficult games that have plenty of pick-up-and-play-poorly appeal (the literal walking simulator QWOP comes to mind). When asked why more games don't manage both, Foddy remembers a compliment a friend once paid him, saying he never feels frustrated playing one of Foddy's games because they don't care if he stops.

"That's not the framing in most single-player games today," Foddy said. "The design style that the industry settled on in the late '80s, as consoles and computers started to become where people were playing games, was that we're going to frame this as a complete experience where you haven't really played the game unless you got all the way to the end.

"That is so universal now that it's almost invisible, but it obviously wasn't the case with early arcade games, which were just loops. There's nothing particularly interesting about getting to the end of Galaga. But once people started having games you would finish, there frequently becomes a set of expectations about needing to finish them. And when you've got that, there's a guilt people feel, or a sense of dissatisfaction, if they stop playing halfway through. That's a type of pressure I feel myself when I'm playing single-player games, and that's part of what's sort of objectionable about really, really difficult single-player games. You've invested in getting to the end, and when you reach a point where you can't continue, there's something sort of abortive about that. And I do think my games avoid that, for the most part."

Even in Getting Over It, which has a fairly clear goal in mind (climb the mountain), Foddy said he uses his role as the narrator to pop in on players and frequently remind them that it's perfectly OK to stop playing or take a break if they're not enjoying themselves.

Getting Over It launched earlier this month for pre-existing subscribers to the Humble Monthly Subscription Bundle. Those interested in picking it up now will have to wait until it launches on Steam December 6. For more of Foddy's thoughts about the appeal of difficult games, check out his blog post from earlier this year detailing 11 specific types of frustration he enjoys.

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Brendan Sinclair avatar
Brendan Sinclair: Brendan joined in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot.
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