QWOP turned failure into comedy and found viral immortality

Screenshot: QWOP
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Indie games have gone from a fringe movement to a massive commercial force, in the process transforming what and how we play. Our Game Could Be Your Life is a look back at the phenomenon through its most important games.

The first time most people ever saw QWOP was around December 2010, when a YouTuber named Critical declared it “The Most Difficult Game Ever Created.” In the video, which has been viewed almost 9 million times, the monotoned YouTuber grapples with a simple game in which a runner constructed in blocky, primary colors, attempts to run 100 meters. He fails miserably. Over the course of six minutes, the runner performs splits, backbends, abrupt tumbles, and physical implosions, often not even getting past the starting line. He eventually settles into a weird, one-legged crawl, making it almost 10 meters before melting inevitably to the ground. You get the feeling the video’s six minutes were edited down from a much larger, more painful stretch of time spent grappling with the game. At one point, Critical calls the game “the robot’s asshole.” It seems to have been visited upon him by some malevolent god.

Actually, it was visited upon him by Bennett Foddy, a designer whose path to video game immortality was as unconventional as the work he creates. It’s a strange twist of fate that he has found enduring success as a game designer—he’s on faculty at the NYU Game Center, and his most recent work, Getting Over It With Bennett Foddy, is a bona fide phenomenon—given that he had two separate careers before getting there. His first brush with fame was as bassist for Cut Copy, a beloved synth-pop band that he joined mostly as a favor for a childhood friend, quitting just before they went on tour with Franz Ferdinand. “I sorta work best if I can whimsically switch tasks,” he said in a recent interview, and the long hours of waiting around to play didn’t suit him. After bailing on rock stardom, he indulged that whimsicality studying philosophy at Princeton and Oxford. At one point while procrastinating, he decided to try making a game by following an online tutorial. “The best design work I’ve ever done in my life,” Foddy has said, “has been work I’ve done when I should have been doing something different.”

His style—impishly difficult with an itchy, single-screen immediacy—was already in place when QWOP came to him in a flash in 2008. The idea was to take the protagonist of his recent cricket game and try to “make a sort of a serious running game,” he told me, adding, “like, a sincere thing.” He aspired to create an earnest track-and-field simulator, a game in which you didn’t just hold a directional button to run but actually grappled with the human body, each of the game’s titular buttons (Q, W, O, and P) manipulating different joints. In his mind danced images of old, physics-driven motocross games, which impressed upon the player some of the majesty of athletic competition.

After a couple hours, he realized he had something different—and much funnier—on his hands. He showed the prototype to his wife, who agreed that there was something there, albeit not exactly what he had set out to make. “It seemed better to follow the slapstick of it than try to get it under control and make it a real thing,” Foddy told me. He put the prototype up on the indie game hub TIGSource, where, over the course of a few weeks, he received feedback and implemented a few of the game’s signature traits, such as the single hurdle arriving halfway through and the lightning-quick restarts after each failed run. QWOP received more attention than his earlier games and brought a brief influx of traffic to Foddy’s site before trailing off, as viral things often do.

Then, in 2010, after Critical released his video, he got a call from his hosting company. “There was a colossal wave of traffic, and the server kept falling over,” he recalled. A few other YouTubers had started talking about the game, too. Viral momentum like this can be self-propelling, especially when it invites you to do something. Since QWOP was a simple Flash game, anyone who wanted to give “the most difficult game ever created” a shot could do so, immediately. For indie developers, Flash had served as an easy, no-frills way to distribute games throughout the indie boom of the early 2000s, allowing lower-stakes games and easy experimentation. Curious players didn’t need clunky consoles or expensive rigs or even downloads to try out their work; they just needed an internet connection and a browser. “The reason QWOP can be what QWOP is is because I’m not asking anything from you but to click the link,” Foddy said. “And to look at the game for 30 seconds and get the joke and either continue to play the game or not.”

Even among Flash games, QWOP is strikingly immediate, all of its buttons laid out right in the name. There’s never a pressure to figure it out; as difficult as it is, there’s also a cheery sense that what you see is what you get. Part of the fun is being bad at it. Every failed attempt displays the total distance along with the phrase “Everyone is a winner,” a fundamentally untrue statement that nevertheless matches the spirit of the game. There is no high-score table to compare yourself against, just a simple instruction to “Press space to restart,” which you inevitably do, because the entire experience is so strange and immediate and new. The second you hit your first button and that poor runner sticks a leg out and begins melting backward toward failure, you are playing QWOP.

Visited today, the game retains all of its original charms, but more than that, it feels like a portal to a kinder, gentler internet. Foddy has intentionally maintained the page’s appearance as it was in 2008, so that whenever people rediscover it, it feels, in his words, “like you’re landing on Mars.” Occasional Japanese game shows and Reddit threads steer new audiences toward it, and it makes a quick appearance in the season-nine premiere of The Office, where HR drone Toby is gleefully killing time with it. Now that that show’s in syndication, it’s a reliable source of new visitors, who happen upon Foddy’s site as if excavating some forgotten corner of the internet. Foddy stopped keeping track of the game’s total number of plays somewhere in the hundreds of millions.

Its success led him to turn his procrastination into a full-time vocation, resulting in a string of successors. 2QWOP added a second player; GIRP was a similar take on mountain climbing; the equestrian odyssey CLOP seems much easier and more sedate, until, of course, it too becomes preposterously difficult. (Foddy sells ads against these free games, turning him into a one-man game studio and publisher.) And though QWOP spread largely as a curio, its influence has been broadly felt. Other indie successes like Octodad and Goat Simulator have mined a similar vein of physics-based slapstick comedy. It’s also one of the earliest and most prominent “impossible” games, which have formed into a thriving subgenre of their own, with entries like Flappy Bird and Trap Adventure briefly grabbing the game-playing public’s attention. Foddy expresses a lot of fondness for these games—he praises Flappy Bird’s “stark minimalism”—but they’ve all lacked QWOP’s longevity, which points to a dirty little secret about the game: It’s not actually that hard.

“It’s much easier to say ‘hardest game ever’ than ‘this game is hard in ways that I didn’t expect and am not equipped to deal with,’” Foddy told me. QWOP has been assimilated into the firmament of the internet at this point, which means if you poke around even a little today, you can find detailed tutorials on the game. You can jut a knee out, like Critical did, and groin-crawl to the finish line, or you can put in a little time and learn the right way to run, alternating button presses carefully and gradually discovering that, even if Foddy abandoned the goal after two hours, the roots of a “sincere” running game are still here. Dig in and figure out those strange, counter-rotating controls and you begin zeroing in on the feet themselves, planting each one carefully on the ground to gain purchase and propel the back leg forward, one astonishing step after the next. When the rhythm clicks, there’s nothing funny about QWOP at all—just pure, zen-like concentration.

At least, until your knee buckles and you flip face-first into your ankle, leg trailing wildly over your head as a comic exclamation mark. Ultimately, as with so many other great early indie games, QWOP acts a sort of corrective to the streamlining and simplification of big-budget titles. If a game like Spelunky taught you to embrace failed runs, QWOP was even more subversive, turning failure into its own reward. While games strive to minimize frustration, Foddy’s work gleefully foregrounds it, demanding that we appreciate failure as a fundamental component of play, the way the sweetness of chocolate collaborates with a hint of bitterness underneath. Difficult games, Foddy says, are interesting in the same way that conflict-free games are: as something to loosen up our idea of what makes a good game. “We’re definitely not at the point where we’ve figured out the medium and it’s time to do refinement for the next 500 years,” he says. “We’re nowhere near that point with games.”