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QWOP and Simulation Design, Pt. 2

July 10, 2012

Image courtesy QWOP Tumblr.

Part one of this article is available here.

So, QWOP.

The controls in QWOP tersely inform you that Q and W control “thighs”, and O and P control “calves”. From there, it’s up to the player to discover what that means, and to determine for himself how those controls interact with the physics modeling, often with hilarious results. It doesn’t take long for even an experienced player’s run to degrade into either a shuffling crab walk, or to simply flip over outright.

Even though there are only 4 buttons, the control scheme is (apparently) intentionally un-intuitive. It’s quite easy to lose track of which button maps to which leg, leading to the all-too-frequent somersaults. So, too, does the physics system work against the player. While most similar games rely on simply falling into a rhythm to keep the legs cycling, even small deviations from that rhythm (or small deviations in the physics simulation) can quickly spiral out of control. Playing QWOP well is a ballet of tiny corrections, any of which is likely to throw off the player’s timing and may result in a fatal error. When playing QWOP, I’m often reminded of a canard that we were told when studying calculus in high school: everybody who can catch a ball thrown to them already knows how to do calculus in their heads, it’s just a matter of figuring out how to do it on paper. QWOP forces you to do the calculations on paper before you’re allowed to lift your arm to catch the ball. It’s possible, sure, but it’d be a hell of a way to play baseball.

As a game, it’s hard to characterize QWOP as “good”, but it has an odd charm, and an addictive quality. “It can’t be that hard”, you tell yourself. “Just 4 buttons.” But it does inspire an odd devotion among its adherents, some of whom have completed the full 100m after, one only assumes, hours of practice. There’s even QWOP cosplay, after a sort. It’s perfect for sharing in the internet age. Consumable in just a few minutes, yet packed with surprises. Searching google or twitter for “hardest game ever” yields more than a few results pointing to QWOP.

QWOP is the first in a series of odd physics based athletics games on Foddy.net. The spiritual sequel, called GIRP, applies much the same design philosophy and disregard for the player’s ability to control the game to rock climbing rather than sprinting. But whereas QWOP fails to replicate anything approaching the experience of a real runner, GIRP is surprisingly successful at capturing the feel of rock climbing. GIRP maps the keys on the keyboard to various handholds on a rock climbing wall, and the player’s fingers to arms. In much the same way a free-climber might pick and choose his way up a wall, the player is forced to carefully consider his ascent. By randomizing the keys required for the next handhold, the player is forced to constantly weigh different approach paths against the complexity of the contortions required. It’s a bit like Twister for one’s fingers, but with a better defined goal, and without the sexual tension. It’s actually a brilliant bit of design that makes clever use of the haphazard layout of modern keyboards.

As with QWOP, the physics simulation, rough though it may be, is key to the game, requiring the player to take advantage of a swaying and shifting body that he has only indirect control over. But also as with QWOP, we find that the player’s worst enemy is really his or her own, very real, body. Even the best typist can quickly become overwhelmed with the un-intuitive layout of keyboard, and lose track of which finger corresponds to which hand grip. It’s all too common experience to carefully plan an approach, and attempt to launch oneself towards the next grip, only to find onself tumbling unceremoniously down after releasing the grip that was holding the climber to the wall instead of grabbing the next. While the character on the screen may be flopping about like a ragdoll, GIRP reminds us really how poor our kinesthetic senses really are.

GIRP. Like QWOP, but with arms.

Aside from QWOP and GIRP, there are a handful of other games on Foddy.net, several of which might be characterized as simulations or as fantastical sports. I may write a standalone feature about Pole Riders at some point in the future, it’s the closest Foddy has come to envisioning a wholly original sport, it has several quite clever things going on under the hood, and the overall mechanics are, again, quite charming. It reminds one of nothing so much as the game you’d come up with if stuck in a school gymnasium with pole vaulting equipment, medicine balls, and some industrial steel cable. But really, at the end of the day, it all comes back to QWOP.

It’s hard to say what QWOP is. Is it a reminder of the staggering complexity required to co-ordinate all the weight and body movements that we all take for granted? Is it an (albeit limited) hard-core physical simulation of a generally ignored sports genre? Or is it simply a lark? I’m not entirely sure. And even though I’m not entirely comfortable calling it a good game, I think it might just be a masterpiece.

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