Why Are Clumsy Games Like Octodad and Flappy Bird So Big? Watch This Video To Find Out
It's hard to explain the fun of a game that's ridiculously (and intentionally) impossible. Not impossible in terms of it's difficulty or challenge, but purely in terms of its controls. Bad control and bad gameplay are practically synonymous because one almost always accompanies the other, so it can be hard to imagine eking any kind of sincere enjoyment out of them. This is probably why when my game-loving mom first saw footage of Kickstarter success story Octodad: Dadliest Catch, she was not impressed. She watched the character flapping and flopping about, desperately fumbling his way through a grocery store, then chuckled and said to me, "Oh, that doesn't look very good."
The idea that a game could be anything but terrible if even skilled players can manage little more than comical flailing is counter-intuitive, and yet this kind of clumsy gameplay has become phenomenally popular. Why? Because even at its most frustrating, it's good old fashioned slapstick fun. See for yourself:
Last night I streamed Octodad: Dadliest Catch on my Twitch.tv channel (alongside my friend Austin Walker), and I assembled some of the very best clips into the video above. You'll have to excuse me for the salty (puns!) language, but awkward controls can lead to a lot of frustration.
At the same time, that frustration rarely kept me from enjoying the game. Failing in something like Octodad isn't the same as failing in any other game. You don't fall on spikes, you don't lose your coins -- usually, you just flop around and do something ridiculous. You knock over a fruit stand. You mow yourself instead of the lawn. You tumble limply down a jungle gym. In essence, you're a deep-sea Charlie Chaplin, and that takes the sting away from almost every failure.
This slapstick stress-relief isn't unique to Octodad, but instead a core aspect of what makes clumsy gameplay so damn fun. Consider games like Surgeon Simulator, QWOP, and (to a lesser extent) current viral hit Flappy Bird. Even beyond the screen, physical games like Twister, Jenga, and KerPlunk often work along the same lines -- both your successes and your failures are framed in absurdity and whether you win or lose it's nearly impossible to keep a straight face. Gamespot's Danny O'Dwyer recently made a case for this kind of dumb fun in gaming as a palate cleanser in between more serious (and conventional) game experiences, but I'd say it goes even beyond that. Dumb fun is for everyone, even if you've never picked up a controller. It brings the seasoned pro down shoulder-to-shoulder with the bumbling newbie, and there's something really satisfying about that.
That's not to say Octodad is dumb, though. The clumsy gameplay is supported by a cute story and well defined characters, and all together they make this game a joy to play in spite of the few exceptionally irritating points here and there. If you'd like to read more, I strongly recommend Carolyn Petit's full review of Octodad: Dadliest Catch, as well as this more somber piece by Ashton Raze about Octodad as an analogy for invisible illnesses. You can also download the original Octodad, which was a student project, for free on Windows, Mac, and Linux.Tweet
Iris Ophelia (@bleatingheart, Janine Hawkins IRL) has been featured in the New York Times, and has spoken about SL-based design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan and with pop culture/fashion maven Johanna Blakley.