There's a certain type of video game genre called "masocore," in which players engage with Nintendo-inspired games like Super Meat Boy or 1001 Spikes specifically because of their difficulty and the love-hate relationship it fosters. One false step results in death or failure. Overcoming the challenge provides the ultimate sense of accomplishment.
Dong Nguyen, the Vietnamese developer behind DotGears Studio and the creator of the mobile hit Flappy Bird, would appear to transcend even that label. His follow-up title, Swing Copters, hit the iOS and Google Play app stores late Wednesday, San Francisco time, and it is unlike anything you have ever played. It's already blowing up mobile gamers' Twitter feeds and stirring online conversation.
"For Swing Copters, what's really happening is that it's being driven by the success of Flappy Bird," said Joost van Dreunen, the co-founder and CEO of SuperData Research. "People are saying, 'Oh it's the new one,' in the same way you would say of a musician, 'Oh it's the new album.'" Another factor: the game is a cruel lesson in failure.
Swing Copters isn't just harder than Flappy Bird. The game is impossibly difficult, in a way that feels both familiar to Flappy Bird and yet at the same time in a different galaxy altogether. Which raises an interesting question: How in the world can you make a game this hard while still leaving open the possibility for players to figure out its secrets? It feels reminiscent of the running game QWOP, the purposefully ridiculous indie button masher designed to poke fun at ideas of challenge and reward in gaming.
You're placed in in the shoes of a small pixelated character tasked with flying skyward while avoiding swinging pendulum-like hammers. Seems simple enough, yet the first second you play the game you begin to grasp how harsh the physics are. Avoiding the hammers is only the surface of the singular task. Reining in the near-uncontrollable and twitchy internal logic of Swing Copters, which is designed to negate everything you as a player want to be natural and smooth and easy, is the true challenge.
Where Flappy Bird would ease you into the necessary rhythm to float through the game's green pipe obstacles, Swing Copters punishes you unapologetically and in a way that renders you feeling helpless. Throughout the first 20 times I played the game, achieving of top score of 1 point, I began to develop a sense that there was some chaotic, meaningless force at work.
-- Dan Counsell (@dancounsell) August 21, 2014
"This cannot be this hard," I remember telling myself. Nguyen must have designed this not as a true game, but as a cruel joke, a more-than-masochistic experiment wrapped up in something designed to be challenging and worth our time. I had to put my phone down, but not before venting my frustrations to a friend -- and that's part of the appeal, according to Van Dreunen.
"By making something really difficult, of course people will go on online and say, 'This is really impossible, you have to go check it out,'" he said. "That becomes the story around it. The difficulty level and the necessary level of masochism required to play this game becomes a topic of conversation, and a vehicle to promote this game directly."
Yet knowing Flappy Bird, I understood that Nguyen does have a deep respect for classic video games and the art of challenge and reward, if only in a modernized experience that aims to go beyond the established titles of the time. Picking up Swing Copters for a second take later on in the night, I was able to achieve a score of 3 points by taking deep breaths and thinking in a way that goes beyond puzzle solving or timing: it required a strange, zen-like concentration in which you must not bend the game to your will, but the other way around. Success, whatever that meant any more, felt so sweet.
"Flappy Bird was really sort of relentless," Van Dreunen added. "It's void of any kind of sophistication when it comes to mechanics. You do one thing. Your character doesn't gain abilities. You become this servo mechanism of this simple algorithm and it's a fascinating thing that it has so much [resonance] with audiences."
Jesper Juul, a game designer and game academic and theorist, explores this contradictory idea inherent to the medium in his book, "The Art of Failure: an Essay on the Pain of Playing Video Games."
"It is safe to say that humans have a fundamental desire to succeed and feel competent, yet game players have chosen to engage in an activity in which they are almost certain to make them fail and feel incompetent," he writes. "In fact, we know that players prefer games in which they fail. That is the paradox of games."
Perhaps Nguyen knows this, that everything from Super Mario to Call of Duty is just an elaborate design mechanism around failure with a small window of success. Or, as he has said in interviews in the past, it could just be his style. He may know no other way to design games but ones that are imbued with a mind-boggling difficulty.
In April 2013, the Guinness Book of World Records awarded the fastest 100-meter QWOP run to Roshan Ramachandra of India. The 23-year-old software engineer did it in 51 seconds, while most players can barely get past 5 meters without falling over.
Maybe Swing Copters, too, will go from a game in which players can barely score five points to one in which world records are awarded to those who fly for hours.