The genius of IWBTG Part 2: Teaching by not teaching

Posted: July 29, 2012

Continuing in my fairly lengthy rebuttal of the notion that IWBTG is the “worst game ever”, (part one available here) I wanted to talk about an aspect of the game often raised as its biggest failing and a classic design failure by its detractors. The game doesn’t teach you anything about its rules! How is it fair that when a new player walks under that cherry* tree for the first time, the cherry falls from the sky and kills him? Even more pertinent: how is it fair that when the player tries to jump over another tree, this time the cherry flies upwards instead and kills him? They had no reason to expect that would happen, and the cherry flies far too fast to be reacted to without anticipation. Isn’t this just being malicious for the sake of being malicious? If anything can kill you in this game, isn’t playing it just a pointless and repetitive exercise in trial and error?

The situation I described with the cherry trees is actually the very first challenge presented by the game. Well actually it’s the second challenge, but I’ll come to that. The cherry tree screen looks like this:

A pleasant scene where absolutely nothing will kill you as you are gently welcomed into the game world.

A very clear path is laid ahead of you; walk down the grassy path to the right so you can climb on to the platforms above, and jump across to the left. Easy right? The fruit in the trees would disagree. The whole scene is inanimate other than the player, and the cherries which wobble in the trees. This alone already implies an interactivity; this also often tricks players into trying to collect them as though they were items or points. Either way, a new player who has never played or seen this screen before is going to get killed by a cherry. A cherry will kill you on touch, and are completely stationary until you enter a trigger area directly below them that causes them to fall straight down at an alarming speed. Meaning to pass them you generally have to trigger each one, then move quickly out of the way. Some of them you can pass under by just moving at full speed.

So what is going on here? I just said a new player is more or less destined to die on this screen. Isn’t this a flaw in the game design? Since the mechanics of the fruit are never taught to the player? Not only is this not flawed design, it’s actually an incredibly strong introduction to the game.

Say that walking under the first cherry gets you killed, which (by design) for a new player, is almost guaranteed. This might well be your first death in the game, exposing you to all the wonderful fanfare described in part one. This leaves you somewhat surprised, shocked, and hopefully entertained by the comically simple and unexpected way in which you were killed; especially by something that appears so harmless. Now you instantly expect (correctly) that every cherry on the screen is lethal, and probably behave and ‘trigger’ in similar ways to the first. This is simply because they are all visually identical. If all of these fruit were different colours or sizes you might be left exasperated, not knowing which were lethal or how they would behave. But here the knowledge attained from your first death provides you with all the knowledge you need to pass the first five to ten cherries. Some are positioned in certain heights or trigger in slightly different places forcing you to adjust and learn as you go along, but the most part the first cherry teaches you everything. This object will kill you, and will move at this speed along a straight path when you enter a certain space aligned with it. You must find this space by moving cautiously and then quickly react to the cherry falling. This lesson is not just relevant for this screen, this one death to a cherry – which I say yet again, is almost guaranteed – teaches you all the fundamentals of the entire game:

It isn’t just the rules of the game you’ve been taught, but also its feel, sense of humour and atmosphere. More and more of this is reinforced as you play through the rest of the screen. when you reach the ramp the more observant player will notice not all of the cherries have fallen. Those cherries actually fall upwards at you when you enter any space vertically above them. This again just plays to the humour and reinforces the theme of misdirection and learning to expect the unexpected.

The first time you encounter a tree with a big hole in the middle, if you walk straight under it an arm reaches out of the tree and kills you. You’ll see more of these trees and part of the game is simply remembering that they are a threat.  Mechanics like this are frequently re-used after a controlled and isolated experience with them earlier in the level design, and if used a lot will usually be expanded on in a few interesting ways that make them slightly different or harder to deal with.

The more you play, the more you’ll find yourself in a battle of wits with the game. Attempting to predict what will and will not be deadly, and in what ways it will behave. By the middle of the game, something like a cherry flying upwards out of a tree to kill you will seem obvious and will be expected. Anything that looks too easy can be easily predicted as being full of traps. Of course, the game knows very well the lessons it has taught you and will use them to its advantage to kill you. It does a great job of pacing its trickery, and abusing its understanding of the player. There are save points very late in the game that are marked “EVIL” instead of “SAVE”; using these to try and save will reveal the save point is fake and it will fly at the player and try to kill them. The player is tricked by making something they have grown used to visually as a beacon of safety into an enemy. You might think this is just an unfair trick which will quickly grow old, but there’s nothing unfair about it. The ‘save point’ is very clearly marked as being ‘evil’. And if the player actually notices that, they can make a very well informed guess as to what they can expect if they try to save there. Once you understand the mindset of the game, you start to realize that almost all of its tricks can be seen coming. If you can think of two routes or solutions to a problem, and one seems much easier than the other; the easy one will probably get you killed. Once you understand simple rules like this, nothing is really unfair anymore. It’s just trickery, and it can be seen through. While trial and error definitely can play a strong part, your death is always ultimately your own fault.  (I will expand more on why the areas of trial and error game play do in fact add to, not detract from the game in a later part.)

You get to know the game’s style very intimately at a surprisingly fast pace. The only reason this is possible is because while the design is full of wacky surprises, the style and theme of those surprises is always consistent. This is at the core of what makes the design so strong. It establishes a very clear theme right from the beginning, and sticks to exploring that theme throughout the whole of the game. Each unexpected death begins to carry with it a cry of “I should have known!” as something that an hour ago seemed confusing or random, now feels as if it should have been predictable. This game is always trying to outsmart you, rather than simply asking you to outsmart it. It does this by playing on your expectations, so you simply must learn new expectations.

So ultimately, the game does teach you about its rules. In fact, it teaches its rules faster and more effectively than most other games. It teaches them uniquely, through failure and through observation. It teaches you its wit and its style, and you learn to expect from it things that you would never expect from other games. If every cherry, tree arm and sofa death trap in the game was explained beforehand by tutorial or any other method, this game would be just be another hard platformer with some retro gaming references. It would lose everything that makes it unique. Instead, what we have is a devious, witty, hard and thoroughly evil platformer. And it’s fantastic.

Next time I’ll probably be covering why people find ‘stupidly hard’ games so satisfying, along with why I feel the trial and error aspects of the game enhances the reward and value of the game, and does not worsen it.

*There is often much debate as to whether these things are meant to be cherries or red apples. Officially, the game credits them only as ‘Delicious Fruit’. For the sake of simplicity I’m just going to call them cherries.

** Unless it doesn’t. Sometimes this game creates rules only to subvert them later, but it does this to create interesting and specific moments rather than just continuously frustrate the player.