Why you should care
Fumblecore helps you dig into the fun that is epic failure.
All I was trying to do was run. It’s not so hard: calves and quads, up and down. A child could do it. But I couldn’t, which is the magic of QWOP.
Developed in 2008, QWOP is a simple video game. You use the Q, W, O and P keys to control the legs of an Olympic athlete trying to run 100 meters. But it turns out that it’s a lot more complicated than that: The controls are wonky and awkward. You’ll try to step high and fall back. After several minutes, due to a fall, I go backward. The strangers crowded around me at the arcade where I was playing — awaiting their turns at the controls — were laughing, and so was I.
This is the joy of fumblecore games: They’re challenging, not because the thing you’re trying to do is hard, but because the controls make it so. Also, the game is designed to make you fail. QWOP is considered the first major hit in the genre, but others include Octodad: Dadliest Catch (you play an octopus masquerading as a human male) and Sticky Cats (you are a cat trying to steal a fish and escape a house while sticking to everything). In Surgeon Simulator, your character tries to perform heart surgery in a moving ambulance. An analog antecedent: Think of Operation, the board game where you try to remove various objects from a man’s body using tweezers, but are often betrayed by your own shaky hands.
The physics of the game sound fun — with the same comedic style that is fumblecore’s signature — but this game is not fun.
“With a normal game, the controls are designed to give you a sense of power and control,” explains Ben Rausch, one of the founders of South African gaming party Super Friendship Arcade. “With a fumblecore game it’s almost the inverse: I’m so bad at this, but I’m having the best time.” These games can be played in app form, on desktops or even in some nouveau arcade settings. Some, like QWOP, are played solo, while others, like Sticky Cats, are meant to be multiplayer.
For those whose pleasure and pain centers are really crossed, there’s a way to level up. The latest game from Bennett Foddy — who designed QWOP and also used to be in the band Cut Copy — is Getting Over It, featuring a man whose legs are stuck in a cauldron (or perhaps he is half man, half cauldron, centaur-style?). His only tool is an enormous, long-handled hammer used to lever himself across the landscape, scaling rocks, trees and mountains.
The physics of the game sound fun — with the same comedic style that is fumblecore’s signature — but this game is not fun: It is a particular kind of torment. Forty-five minutes in, having been stuck halfway up a tree more times than I could count before falling out and having to start again, I was questioning my own existence. Why was I doing this, when it was obviously pointless — working my way slowly up a Sisyphean slope, never reaching the top, barely making a mark in a cold, dark universe. Foddy’s own description of the game reads: “I created this game for a certain kind of person. To hurt them.” Every single step forward feels like the largest accomplishment, and every step back reinforces that none of those accomplishments have anything like permanence.
It is a genuinely great game.
Others obviously agree. Getting Over It racked up 300,000 downloads in its first two weeks, and Octodad: Dadliest Catch grossed nearly $5 million in its first year, while QWOP, estimated to have been played by millions of people, has been featured at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But there aren’t many fumblecore games, and those that exist aren’t all breakout hits. While this is an international phenomenon — Sticky Cats is a South African game; Foddy, an Australian, is now based in New York — it’s not a large one.
It may never be: The joy of being terrible at something isn’t for everyone, and many people play games partly to enjoy the finesse and skill that their characters have, rather than their penchant for dropping stuff. But for those who love watching physical comedy, this is a chance to control it (and be frustrated by it), a foray into the comedic that’s rare in the gaming industry.