Spikes are everywhere, and everyone knows that spikes mean death. They line walls, ceilings, floors and sometimes they just float around for the hell of it. In this particular room, they cover every surface of a passage between two choke-points, a corridor of pain in which a single platform floats back and forth. After what seems like an eternity of futile struggle, the tiny avatar of the Kid manages to land on the platform as half the objects in the room fly at him, narrowly skimming past. A finely timed jump gets the Kid out of the maw of death and onto safe ground.
Then a reaching hand drops out of a tree sitting in the background and The Kid explodes in a mass of red pixels for the 20th time in the last two minutes. Rock chords ring out, and “GAME OVER” looms over the top half of the screen, with the words “PRESS ‘R’ TO TRY AGAIN” spread out underneath them. The player, “OMGEEZY,” screams and cries, but records it for the world to see. [NSFW, outburst at 6:30.]
I Wanna Be The Guy creator Mike O’Reilly, better known as Kayin Nasaki, would most likely just laugh at the player’s outrageous frustration. O’Reilly says that for him, the game is purely about humor. For others, it is torture. Yet for most diehard fans of the game, it is a weird mixture of both; a rare digital pleasure that manages to entertain with its absurd and often ridiculous cruelty.
The creation of intentionally frustrating platforming adventures is nothing new. Indeed, there is an entire genre of similar games, called “masocore,” whose sole purpose is to drive players mad with frustration. But IWBTG has secured a place in players’ minds separate from the Mario ROM hacks and Japanese parody games that inspired it.
IWBTG was O’Reilly’s pet project after returning to making games around 2007. The initial inspiration came after playing the ASCII flash game Owata. He decided that while Owata was hilariously difficult, it was too short and not as refined as it could have been, so he set out to make something “like that, but better.” But the motivation to expand his early experiments into a full game didn’t come until he found a test audience, whose reactions were beyond his expectations.
“I gave it to one of my friends to mess with, and he got really angry, but in a funny way, and no matter how angry he got he kept playing,” O’Reilly says. “Then it became a game of ‘how much can I piss my friend off, and have him still play the game?'”
The answer turned out to be “a lot.” IWBTG is huge, consisting of multiple branching paths and a total of eight unbelievably hard bosses. To top things off, every screen is a tangle of death-traps that usually fire off either constantly or at moments when the player is most vulnerable. Still, some people can’t be deterred. After Dracula smashes them with a wine glass; after Mike Tyson punches them out; and even after the game, prone to glitching, pretends to encounter a game-breaking error, people keep playing.
“I was so used to it crashing that I’d already pushed control-alt-delete to stop it [when the fake error message popped up],” says Tristan Trabilsie, a member of IWBTG‘s forums. “I played through a second time and it happened again, and I was like, ‘What? What is this?’ And then I was like, ‘Ooooh man!'”
Trabilsie followed his love of IWBTG all the way to its unhinged conclusion: He was the first person to report beating the game on “Impossible” mode on the official IWBTG forums, to mingled skepticism, hatred and astonishment. (In Impossible mode, the player has only one life to complete the entire game.) Moderator “SilentLoner” posted, “You, sir, are insane,” to which Trabilsie simply replied, “Yes.”
After learning about IWBTG on a game development forum he frequented, Trabilsie discovered the intricate traps laid out by O’Reilly and fell in love. “I think [when I really got into the game] was when I hit the Tetris round, because … it’s one of the most well designed things in the entire game,” he said. “The whole thing’s just awesome.”
In the Tetris area, players drop in from the top of a Tetris board just a little bit faster than an incoming L-block. Each Tetrad is about four times bigger than the Kid, and they fall hard and fast. There’s no way to beat the level other than sheer memorization; if you try to just wait out the game without making your way to the high-up escape route, a pill from Dr. Mario drops and destroys everything on the screen.
“I think it’s really impressive that people love the game so much that … there was enough people to really sit down and break it down like they would an old NES game,” O’Reilly says. “It also makes me wonder, because … the game is very, um, ‘mind-f**k oriented,’ so when you take that out on your 10th, 20th, 30th time through the game, I really don’t know how the platforming challenges remain interesting.”
To O’Reilly, “the real value of the game is just how it messes with your head. … [It’s about] really getting into someone’s head, and making everything that they do an act of paranoia.”
Fans seem to agree. “There was kind of a sick humor to it, the fact that he was using things like fruit to kill you,” says Corey Farris, who was the 111th person to officially report beating the game. “There’s one part where you’re just going along and then the moon just falls from the sky and attempts to crush you.” Other likely murder weapons are rocket-propelled spikes, badly drawn mosquitoes and lightning bolts. Everything in the game is instantly fatal to the Kid.
There’s also an element of nostalgia to players’ enjoyment of IWBTG. For Farris, the appearance of spin-kicking Ryu and even the dragon boss from Mega Man 2 were great incentives to keep playing. “In one of the paths, the Mecha Birdo path, the music and the zombies and everything reminded me of Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, which is one of the games I played a lot of as a kid,” Farris said. “It’s always fun to have a nostalgic throwback like that.”
The throwbacks were partly inspired by Owata, which featured an ASCII Guile from Street Fighter and the sound effects from 8-bit Mega Man, among other things. In IWBTG, they’re apparent right from the game’s intro, which mimics the sounds and sights of Mega Man 2. Bosses are all parodies (or duplications) of classic characters like Kraid or Mother Brain from Super Metroid, and many levels serve as tributes to games like Castlevania, where the series-trademark Medusa Heads float by as incessantly as ever. Still, every trope and trap, borrowed or new, is designed to test the player’s patience and platforming skills.
“Having people sit down and just try to go through the first couple screens, and watching them fail over and over and over again was really funny,” Farris says. “People will just give up and start yelling.”
Players’ reactions have proven to be one of the most endearing features of the game. Dozens of “Let’s Play”-style videos and walkthroughs populate YouTube. Players and non-players alike can delight in the horrible frustrations suffered by legions of people who just want to see that next screen or reach that next save point.
“I know one of the first LPers [“Let’s Play” makers] punched a hole in his wall over the game,” O’Reilly says, chuckling evilly. “I was talking to him at the time over IM, ‘cuz I thought his ‘Let’s Play’ was really funny and we became friends, and then he just IM’s me and it’s like, ‘I just punched a hole in my wall because of you. I don’t hold it against you but I just want you to know this.'”
O’Reilly seems to have found the perfect balance of absurdity and playability with IWBTG. The official tally of people who have beaten the game is 450 as of Nov. 21, 2009, and that number continues to climb more than two years after O’Reilly unleashed his creation upon the world. Its comedy and difficulty have earned it a place in gaming history – quite a feat for an independent, freely distributed title.
“It’s a pretty unique game not only [in that] it seems like a mash up of a bunch of other things, but the difficulty and the humor in it,” Farris says. “There’s really nothing else like it.”
Richard Poskozim is a freelance contributor to The Escapist. Although he enjoys watching people suffer at the hands of digital entertainment, he has not and will not ever conquer IWBTG on anything harder than Medium.