On the Strange Transcendence of Flappy Bird

Curious to find out what the big deal was, I downloaded a game called Flappy Bird on my iPhone. I’ve been playing the game for a total of about two hours or so, and yes, it is very addicting (and difficult!). In a great piece for The Atlantic, video game critic Ian Bogost explains why Flappy Bird is popular, difficult, and addicting:

Flappy Bird is a perversely, oppressively difficult game. Scoring even a single point takes most players a considerable number of runs. After an hour, I’d managed a high score of two. Many, many hours of play later, my high score is 32, a feat that has earned me the game’s gold medal (whatever that means).

There is a tradition of such super-difficult games, sometimes called masocoreamong the videogame-savvy. Masocore games are normally characterized by trial-and-error gameplay, but split up into levels or areas to create a sense of overall progress. Commercial blockbusters like Mega Man inaugurated the category (even if the term “masocore” appeared long after Capcom first released that title in 1987), and more recent independent titles like I Wanna Be The Guyand Super Meat Boy have further explored the idea of intense difficulty as a primary aesthetic. Combined with repetition and progression, the intense difficulty of masocore games often produces a feeling of profound accomplishment, an underdog’s victory in the dorky medium of underdogs themselves, 2d platformer videogames.

flappy

On what makes Flappy Bird so difficult:

Contemporary design practice surely would recommend an “easy” first pipe sequence to get the player started, perhaps a few pipes positioned at the bird’s initial position, or with wider openings for easier passage. More difficult maneuvers, such as quick shifts from high to low pipe openings, would be reserved for later in the game, with difficulty ramping up as the player demonstrates increased expertise.

But Flappy Bird offers no such scaffolding. Instead, every pipe and every point is completely identical: randomly positioned but uniform in every other way. A game of Flappy Bird is a series of identical maneuvers, one after the other. All you have to do is keep responding to them, a task made possible by the game’s predictable and utterly reasonable interactions. Just keep flapping.

This is a very introspective analysis:

What we appreciate aboutFlappy Bird is not the details of its design, but the fact that it embodies them with such unflappable nonchalance. The best games cease to be for us (or for anyone) and instead strive to be what they are as much as possible. From this indifference emanates a strange squalor that we can appreciate as beauty.

And then Bogost gets transcendental:

Flappy Bird is not amateurish nor sociopathic. Instead, it is something more unusual. It is earnest. It is exactly what it is, and it is unapologetic. Not even unapologetic—stoic, aloof. Impervious. Like a meteorite that crashed through a desert motel lobby, hot and small and unaware.

I flap, therefore I am.

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