In Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy, the indie dev has trimmed away everything that doesn’t support his core mechanic. That approach provides the game with a precise, almost academic, focus.
It was thrilling, in 2007, to follow the breadcrumb trail of handholds up an obelisk in Assassin’s Creed’s Jerusalem; thrilling to survey the cloud-veiled earth below, leap from the highest point, and, wind whistling past your ears, land safely in a pinprick-sized hay pile.
The problem was that it was functional, too. Observing the land from this high perch filled in the player’s map with dozens of icons representing dozens of activities. As a result, climbing became an afterthought, the vehicle the player used to get to the good stuff. The drama and the excitement that were present as Altair reached higher altitudes faded away like mountain air as the player began to understand that climbing wasn’t really about climbing; it was about getting a good look at everything else.
But, in Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy, focusing on anything else is fatal. Foddy, the New York University Game Center professor/developer behind browser-based titles QWOP and GIRP has produced games that, like an academic paper, focus single-mindedly on the thorough exploration of one compelling idea.
In QWOP the player is tasked with using the Q, W, O and P keys to make a polygonal avatar run 100 meters. Q and W flex the runner’s thighs; O and P, contract his calves. GIRP takes a similarly counterintuitive approach, but this time the player is traveling vertically, bouldering a mountain. Each handhold is labeled with a letter of the alphabet and the player must press the corresponding key to reach for it.
By employing this kind of awkward control scheme, Foddy coaxes the player into a heightened state of focus. Traversing Assassin’s Creed’s Holy Land would prove a pilgrimage if, with every step, the player was tasked with minding Altair’s calf and thigh muscles. There would be little time for sidequests if climbing itself posed GIRP’s nearly insurmountable challenge.
The ease of traversal in Assassin’s Creed allows the player to move freely, flitting from task to task with little attention paid to the space between. In Getting Over It, however, moving from here to there is all there is. The player inhabits one of gaming’s stranger avatars: a naked, bald man, whose legs are bound within a black cauldron. They are tasked with summiting a mountain using only a sledgehammer.
After an attempt in QWOP and GIRP, the player was rewarded with a distance, measured in meters, to keep them apprised of their progress. QWOP even marked progress with a chalky white line across the track. In Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy, there are no high scores or PRs. Success is singular: reach the top. Anything else is failure.
On that quest, the hammer proves a deceptively precise tool, one that can be used to find purchase in tiny crevices and nearly imperceptible holds. But, it takes hours for this scalpel-like deftness to begin to emerge. During that learning period, the player will spend hours slowly making progress up Foddy’s mountain of tchotchkes, only to lose it instantaneously.
There are no checkpoints. There are no lives to be lost. There is only gravity. Progress means thwarting gravity, and gravity usually wins.
In the dozens of hours I’ve spent with this game, I’ve never once felt like I was screwed over by archaic checkpointing or a poorly implemented save system. I have felt, plenty of times, like I poorly calibrated my swing; like my impatience got the better of me.
So, when all-encompassing failure comes in Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy, I know that it’s my fault. I know that I have treated climbing as a means to an end, not as the thing itself.