The genius of IWBTG Part 1: Dying a lot

Posted: July 16, 2012

IWBTG or “I Wanna Be The Guy” is a very well designed video game.

Just saying that seems to be enough to confuse and outrage a vast number of gamers who would think otherwise even if they have played and thoroughly enjoyed the game or enjoyed watching video playthroughs of the game.

If you don’t know what it is, IWBTG is a 2d platformer put together by one dude featuring double jumping, shooting, lots of things that kill you and a ton of references and homages to classic old school titles like Mega Man and Zelda. It’s also a massive hit, has been downloaded two hundred blazblillion times (exact figure.) and is a big favourite among fans of “Let’s Play” videos. Mostly due to its very execution heavy gameplay, almost inevitably sky high death counts and tricky to the point of being plain evil and malicious puzzle design. Anything else you want to know about its history, creator or anything else I don’t need to cover, Google is your friend.

There’s a popular opinion that the game is silly and poorly designed. After all, what kind of game doesn’t warn the player about which of its elements are deadly before the player has any chance to react or deduce the facts? What kind of game design doesn’t provide the player with text, clever tutorials or visual instructions that explain new game elements? What kind of game design sets its difficulty bar to the max right from the get go and never lets up? Aren’t these typically concepts used to describe the failings in games, and the kinds of things modern games avoid at all costs?

So why is this game so popular, why does it deliver an experience unlike any other, why have so many titles sprung up that attempt to clone or recreate its theme and style or pay homage to it? Is this just a ‘b-movie’ type phenomenon where players are enjoying something bad for the comedy value of it being bad?

Not in the slightest. IWBTG is a unique, powerful and very intentional game design of a kind that was one of the very first to revive a well missed experience from games of ages past. This is a game about failure, comedy, progress, failure, adventure, stress, glorious victory, player expectations, reversing traditions, failure and failure. Games like Super Meat Boy, Trials and others have followed similar patterns while not being as extreme and committed to these themes as IWBTG. I think how well IWBTG is executed is worthy of analysis, understanding and ultimately of deep respect.

There’s a ton I want to cover about why this game is awesome and I’ve quickly realized it’s going to take more than one post. I think I know what I want to cover first.

Failure

The player dies whenever he touches an object that can kill him. Typically spikes, but more on the fact that “anything in the game can kill you” in a later post. The important thing for now is to realize that in this game you are going to die a lot. This is because of a lot of things but the most relevant and simple way to describe it here is because the game has a fairly high execution barrier. This is debated somewhat by those who suggest that the frequent evil trickery of the game, unexpected traps and having knowledge of the level design takes precedence over developing game skill; but it is quite clear that timing and reflexes are of great importance well beyond merely understanding what it is you have to do/where you have to get to/what you must avoid. Without these difficulty elements players would only ever die once to each new ‘thing’ that was presented to kill them, whereas the average player has a death count well into the thousands before finishing the game.

The thing that makes IWBTG unique is that death was designed in a very specific way. In a way that feeds into absolutely everything this game is about. A few simple things happen when you hit a spike or cherry or giant green zangief in this game but their significance (and especially the significance of their very simplicity) can’t be understated.

When you die your character explodes into a giant stream of red pixels and sprite limbs that fly all over the screen. This happens every time you die, regardless of your speed or the conditions of your death. The words “GAME OVER” are printed in obnoxiously huge capital letters that completely cover the screen with the instruction underneath “Press R to restart”. Also immediately and possibly most importantly; a 9 second piece of heavy rock guitar plays to accompany your death.

IWBTG Death Music

While other games mourn your failure, IWBTG celebrates it. Loudly. The game wants you to laugh with it at how ridiculous and over the top the situation is. This makes your first death a surprisingly fun experience.

But won’t all this fanfare wear thin pretty much straight away and be a reason to despise the game? Not really because you can can skip this entire process by simply pressing R. This respawns you instantly at the last checkpoint you touched. Instantly. No loading screen, no cutscene, no explanations, no obnoxious gameplay tips, no reassurance. The game just sticks you straight back in control so you can have another go. You can hit R at any time, even when alive to respawn. This turns your 500th death into a literal blink of an eye. Whereas a death in World of Warcraft can be a ten minute walk. A death in Final Fantasy can be sad music, the title screen, the save file select screen and potentially hours of gameplay lost. A death in Assassin’s Creed 2 is a vibration, some red lights, negative feedback followed by a fade out cutscene and a slow loading sequence that takes you back to the last checkpoint.

Death is the thing other games try and avoid having to present to you, whereas this game can’t wait to show you what it does with your death and at the same time makes sure that it never gets in the way of you playing the game. Having to try again is the only punishment, the rest is all just you and the game opting to have a laugh together at your little avatar blowing up on a spike.

Death in IWBTG is such a key and fantastic part of the experience, and yet everything that is negative about it is mitigated and controlled to the point where the only consequence of death is you having to try that tricky series of jumps again. Super Meat Boy takes this approach and executes it just as well. As do the Trials games by Red Lynx This approach to player failure and death is one of the defining aspects of IWBTG that shows it was built with much more care and precision than it is ever given credit for.

This was mostly an introduction. I have a lot to say about this game both good, bad and genius. Much more to come.