Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Getting to Grips With the Games of Dr. Foddy

I first heard of Bennett Foddy's game QWOP via a 'demotivational' poster posted on one of the many meme sites I incessantly stared at while writing my dissertation last summer. The image displayed a picture of Modor with a strangely primitive rendition of a man falling backwards in a running position; the lower text read 'One does not simply QWOP into Modor'. After chuckling in a confused and self-conscious way I quickly typed the word 'QWOP' into Google, hoping for a simple answer to my apparent internet illiteracy. I then spent the rest of the day struggling to play QWOP, a game in which the player has the apparently difficult task of making a man run 100 metres.

In many ways QWOP is simply a funny game in which the basic faculty of running - possibly the most popular and simple modes of transport either in life or represented in computer games - becomes a task of immense difficulty. The ridiculousness of the actions on the part of the game's runner as the player tries to negotiate the utterly different controls generally results in either fits of hilarity or bewildered frustration, or both. Whereas pressing a directional arrow had sufficed throughout gaming's history, QWOP forces the player to reacquaint themselves with the human body as a means of propulsion. The Q and W keys are assigned to the character's thighs while O and P are the calf muscles. Pressing these keys causes the character to move each muscle and, hopefully, the body forwards. Whether this occurs in stiff spasmodic jolts or smooth strides is really down to the player's familiarity with the control scheme and seeing as it's a scheme which belies all our collective knowledge of 'how games work'  it generally requires a great deal of practice.

But with practice comes achievement, however slight, and thus a sense of satisfaction. If recent games such as Dark Souls have had us all wetting ourselves at the fact that a game could satisfy through hard work, then QWOP already had this principle down to its most rudimentary yet enjoyable core. Moving a character fifteen metres without falling over was, for me, quite an achievement - and it took a good full day of playing to get even that! When I achieved this I instantly messaged a friend, only for him to proclaim a high score of twenty five metres. I spent the rest of the evening trying in vain to best him. QWOP made running fun and very challenging. I love Foddy's blurb for the game - which perfectly sums it up:


The game cleverly turns the most familiar and rudimentary of computer game interactions into a satisfying and incredibly challenging game of itself, requiring the player to come to terms with an entirely new method of interaction between keys and on screen action.     

Similarly Foddy's later game GIRP forces the player to reassess player/game interaction with another very different and challenging control scheme. GIRP puts the player in control of a rock climber who has to scale a cliff before the sea rises to engulf him. It's a more dramatic  setting than QWOP's challenged athlete and the controls reflect this. The player is initially confronted with a wall of hoops with which to grip onto and presumably climb with. Each grip also comes with a letter, by pressing the letter on the keyboard the game character reaches towards said grip and, if it's in reach, hangs on until the player lets go of the key. While this may seem easy enough I was surprised by how tough, both mentally and physically, this game was.

One does not simply QWOP 78 metres

The game manages to produce a new relationship between the player and the keyboard. I found that to get anywhere I had to spend a lot of time looking at the keyboard to work out where to press next and to make sure I didn't inadvertently let the crucial key slip from my grasp. I found it surprising how often I'd let go of a key without really thinking about it, so that each time I became more and more focused on which finger was holding down each key. It felt like I was building a new form of hand-button co-ordination which I'd never experienced in a game before. 

Foddy's other line of work, his day job perhaps, is with the Programme on Ethics of the New Biosciences at Oxford University. His work there, which seems to be based on addiction and sport, possibly goes some way to explain the success of his games. Because, at their core, these games are addictive. In an interview with Kill Screen he said:

the tricky thing about games as an art form, compared to other forms of art forms, is you're giving someone a task and presenting it as a predicament. And that means they're going to have to expend a certain amount of effort to do it at all.

What appears great about Foddy's games and their addictive and challenging nature is that this comes from a different place to normal computer game 'tasks'. Instead of getting the player to solve a time-based or spatial awareness puzzle, both QWOP and GIRP require a unique player-button puzzle to be solved. This isn't just about pressing the button at the right time, this is pressing the right button - which can be harder than it sounds when the button is assigned to something it's never been assigned to before. The challenge in Foddy's games is more obviously situated in the relationship between the player and the keyboard; by making the controls incongruous to usual layouts the games turns the 'predicament' into the control scheme itself and the payoff, the achievement, is getting to see the correct resultant interaction. Getting the QWOP man running, or even striding, in a remotely naturalistic way is beautiful - it makes you feel like your skilled, a master! You have earned control.   

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