Sisyphus was sentenced by the Greek gods to roll a boulder up a hill, endlessly, for all of eternity. When he reached the top—gasping for breath, hands numb, pouring sweat— the giant stone rolled back down, and our damned hero returned to the valley below to resume his toil.
We don’t know why Sisyphus received this particular punishment, although scholars speculate. However, we do know that players accept a similar fate when they download Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy.
In the climbing sim developed by the titular New York Game Center professor, players are not tasked with pushing a boulder up a hill. The setup here is far more absurd: you are a naked bald man trapped inside a pot, attempting to summit a mountain of found objects—umbrellas, plastic pool slides, loose oranges—using only a sledgehammer.
That may sound funny. But, make no mistake, Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy is a horror game. Not the kind that will keep you lying awake in bed at night; rather the kind that will keep you lying awake in bed in the cold light of the morning, gathering all the courage you can muster to face the day. Getting Over It is an existential horror game; its terror is the cold sweat of knowing your life has been empty; the goosebumps of knowing you have accomplished nothing of merit, and never will; the clammy hands of knowing that even if you did manage to achieve something of note, it would have no meaning in the context of a cold and unfeeling universe where your life’s work will amount to little more than a dash in granite between the years which mark your birth and death.
Games have always offered escapism. They’re good for plenty besides—telling meaningful stories, bonding with friends, hand-eye coordination, etc.—but by virtue of the fact that games are entirely created (meaning they don’t borrow people or places from the real world, like film), and that they require the player assume the role of a character, the medium has always been especially well-suited for providing virtual worlds where players can escape the shittiness of our own.
But, more significantly, games also offer progress. In life, we may realize that we have grown after the passage of time. We may suddenly realize that we are more comfortable in our own skin than we used to be; more skilled at a hobby. We may encounter people from our past who make us say with Anny, the ex-lover of Antoine Roquentin, the protagonist of Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist novel, Nausea, “I change, you naturally stay motionless and I measure my changes in relation to you.” Growth, in life, we notice irregularly and tangentially.
But progress, in video games, is measurable. When Sonic collects 100 rings, he gains an extra life. When Samus unlocks the High Jump Boots, she can reach new areas. When Link defeats a boss, he can move onto the next dungeon. In RPGs, progress is not just measurable, but numerical. Attacks deal numerical damage. Experience is awarded after fights in lower or high numbers depending on how impressive the feat. Rare armor reduces the numbers on the damage a character takes. We play games for fun, sure, but RPGs provide the illusion that our play is also productive. It’s not a coincidence that every genre has morphed to include elements of RPGs; leveling up allows us to feel as though we’ve accomplished something without actually requiring that we make any changes or improvements to our lives.
These numbers, then, are a bulwark against the abyss. Every stat bump, every level gained, every rare piece of loot found is a reminder from the benevolent rulers of our virtual universes that we exist and that our existence has a purpose. We are the hero of our story. The challenging things that happen to us make us stronger. See! The numbers are going up! Bennett Foddy strips all of that away and makes us peer into the emptiness.
There are no checkpoints on our journey to the top of the mountain. One wrong move as we approach the summit may send us plummeting back to the foothills. There are no collectibles to discover. The closest thing Getting Over It offers are brief moments when Foddy will talk to the player, ruminating on and reading quotes about failure. These don’t help us climb any better. And, anyway, for long stretches of the journey, he is silent. We don’t find chests with better hammers that help us climb faster. We may gain skill, but that is all. And, with these comforts stripped away, we realize, if we’re paying attention, that they were illusions all along.
Getting Over It is unlike the story of Sisyphus in this: it has an endpoint. Success is possible for the naked bald man in the pot. The game doesn’t conclude with players tumbling back down the hill to start again. Success is genuine.
But, it’s a long time coming and much of our journey will be spent in the valley below. As we struggle in the foothills, we must find the meaning in the struggle for ourselves. Foddy has not provided it for us. Maybe it isn’t there at all.