Where Things Grow: Failure and Frustration as Game Mechanics in Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy
Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy is an idiosyncratic video game – almost to a fault. This genre bending game knows exactly what it is: a trial in patience, suspense, and frustration. Frustration is literally built right into the game. As a player, you often wonder why you’re masochistically whipping yourself, playing this game over and over, trying to reach the top.
If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Or, at least, according to the great psychologist Abraham Maslow. In this case, if all you have is a sledgehammer, everything looks like smashable drywall for your pent-up rage. (Psychologists are currently agnostic on that issue.)
Getting Over It presents itself as a simple game: a bare-chested man, half-embedded in a black cauldron, has to ascend a vertiginous landscape, half-landfill half-mountain. The singular game mechanic of sledgehammering your way (as though moving around with a crutch, or on stilts) through the game’s single level is a deceptive facade. The difficulty is nearly exponential.
The mechanic of projecting the character up the mountain sides with only a sledgehammer as a guide becomes increasingly precarious. Each little bit of progress that the player makes causes anxiety as much as it does triumph. For each new height that the player reaches raises the stakes. If you fall, you’re going to start over; you’re going to have to get over it.
Failure is a guaranteed condition built into Getting Over It. Everyone that I’ve seen play the game – including popular Let’s Plays from PewDiePie, Markiplier, Jacksepticeye, etc., reviewers, friends, and myself – has been broken it. To say that the game is “difficult” isn’t precisely the right way of thinking about it. Rather, difficulty is enhanced through the adrenaline that the player experiences when making tedious progress. The player is always aware that, if their actions are not exactly on target, then the game will punish them by sending the character right back – all the way down – to the beginning. It’s like a game of Chutes and Ladders, but from Hell.
Unlike other games that cushion failure, Getting Over It psychologically punishes its players for doing so. Most games allow for checkpoints, save spaces, and so forth, but Getting Over It threatens the player with their own incompetence the entire time.
The psychological aspects of Getting Over It manipulate the brain in the way gambling does. When gambling, the brain is susceptible and manipulatable to variable rewards. Such success, though far from guaranteed, is more than enough to make up for a handful of failures. The brain is tricked to continue playing despite lacking a statistically informed, rational reason. In the same way, achieving new progress in Getting Over It causes celebration and addiction to play further. The player falls for the sunk cost fallacy, resenting the time they just spent climbing the mountain, only to come crashing back down once again. Failure doesn’t extinguish the player’s emotional investments in this game, but it certainly causes many (including me) to rage quit.
Despite the inherent frustration that players experience throughout this game, reviewers of Getting Over It practically fawn over its execution. How can you love something that causes you to throw your controller across the room? One answer is to turn to the lead developer Bennett Foddy, who clearly knows what he is doing with game design. Humble as the game is in its component parts, the game evolves self-aware commentary and develops lore that isn’t altogether clear, but makes you think.
The game’s commentary arises out of Bennett Foddy himself, whose background in moral philosophy informs much of the narrative architecture of Getting Over It. Foddy’s philosophical background undergirds the entirety of the game’s taunting meta- commentary. The somewhat innocent remarks made at the game’s beginning, like “There’s no more intense feeling than starting over” soon devolve into mocking observations like “Frustration is essential to the act of climbing.”
And yet there are brilliantly charming moments that supervene the game’s frustrating bits, such as Foddy’s metaphorical meditation on imaginary mountains: “It already felt like my inability to get past the new obstacle was my fault as a player, rather than as the builder. Imaginary mountains build themselves from our efforts to climb them, and it’s our repeated attempts to reach the summit that turns those mountains into something real.”
Here, I’m reminded of Edmund Burke’s classic treatise, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, which at one point remarks that the beautiful and the sublime (aesthetic terms) are most called into being from a mountain’s top, as opposed to looking up at a mountain from the valley below. The question becomes one of which causes more “awe”: the view from above, or the view from below? Burke answers above, and so too it seems that Foddy reinforces this idea by writing imaginary mountains into his story. If these imaginary mountains “build themselves” from “our efforts,” then perhaps Foddy is allowing the player a moment of ego, a moment of congratulations. The player’s efforts, when seen from above, are not in vain, even as the game laughingly throws the cauldron-laden character back to the game’s beginning. Something – a mountain, perhaps – is being built.
I’m also reminded of Robert Pirsig’s quasi-autobiographical novel, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, in which the narrator realizes that “It’s the sides of the mountain which sustain life, not the top.” In fact, I’m stunned that Foddy omitted Pirsig’s passage, for it hauntingly aligns with other embedded quotes throughout Getting Over It. Foddy incorporates Friedrich Nietzsche, William Blake, Shakespeare, and so forth, and yet this passage by Pirsig feels right at home within Getting Over It’s world. Mountains are symbolically a pinnacle of human spirituality, and for this game to subvert the mountain is to subvert spirituality. A bold move, to be sure.
The lore of this game builds itself out of these aforementioned philosophical quotes, peppering the player’s failures throughout the game. But the lore is most strengthened by the artifacts that exist in Getting Over It, which consistently and critically commentate on consumerist capitalism. At first, the player encounters a disposable coffee cup, something you’d see passing from the hand of a Starbucks employee to the hands of a college student. As the player ascends, however, the trash becomes mountainous. Eventually the player encounters mangled playground equipment, a literal mountain of discarded cardboard boxes, and so forth. This idea of consumerist capitalism is a slow burn throughout the game, but becomes explicit when Foddy narrates that “Things are made to be consumed in a certain context, and once the moment is gone they transform into garbage.”
Insurmountable as this game is, both in terms of game mechanics and storytelling, there is an embedded profundity to this otherwise silly and absurd game. I laughed when I saw someone play Getting Over It for the first time: the character model looks like a deformed Ken doll, the ‘plot’ is almost nonexistent, and the singular game mechanic is preposterous. But, uniquely – and this is why Let’s Plays of this game have reached such success – this game is frustrating even if you aren’t playing it. Most games have a kind of “you have to play it to understand it” appeal to them. Not so with Getting Over It. Frustration is vicarious; frustration is infectious; frustration becomes addicting.
For a game that advertises itself in terms of its difficulty, the length of the game is entirely contingent upon the player’s adeptness. Some speedruns of Getting Over It clock in under two minutes. For some players, on the other hand, it takes hours and hours. The game’s level design and storytelling, then, become entirely reliant on the failure of the player. Each failure adds a level of depth and complexity to the philosophical undercurrents of this game: undercurrents about inadequacy, struggle, and “climbing” through life.
Getting Over It is as much a test as it is a game. It tests patience. It tests remembrance. It tests the player’s very ability to do the same thing over and again, meeting failure face to face, and yet climbing up to meet it again. This game is The Myth of Sisyphus. Entire essays should be developed and devoted to the project of interweaving the beautiful (taunting) literary and philosophical quotes that make up the bulk of Foddy’s commentary. But for now, returning to Robert Pirsig feels most appropriate to summarize this bizarre, layered, masterful game:
“Mountains should be climbed with as little effort as possible and without desire. The reality of your own nature should determine the speed. If you become restless, speed up. If you become winded, slow down. You climb the mountain in an equilibrium between restlessness and exhaustion. Then, when you’re no longer thinking ahead, each footstep isn’t just a means to an end but a unique event in itself. […] To live only for some future goal is shallow. It’s the sides of the mountain which sustain life, not the top. Here’s where things grow.”
Blake Guthrie (Twitter: @BlakeGuthrie) is a Graduate Research Assistant at the University of North Florida, and a columnist for Epilogue Gaming. He hosts the Ludonarrative Podcast (Twitter: @LudonarrativeFM) and Need For Nuance (Twitter: @NeedForNuance). If you like Epilogue Gaming’s work, you can support us by following on Twitter at @EpilogueGames or subscribe to us for as little as $1 a month on Patreon. For more of Blake’s work, check Epilogue every other Friday.