The Unflappable Brilliance of "Flappy Bird"

The number one mobile app will probably make you want to punch its creator in the face.

Feb 1 2014, 2:35pm
Image: screenshot, Gears Studio

I've had an overwhelming urge to hurl my iPad at the wall for the past week. As someone who plays a lot of video games, this is a feeling I know all too well. But I haven't felt it this strongly since the afternoons in middle school spent clutching the PlayStation controller and clenching my teeth over a fiendish level of Spyro the Dragon. Now, it's because I finally caved in to the internet and decided to download Flappy Bird.

For those who have been spared the exquisite agony of Flappy Bird so far, it's the latest mobile gaming craze that's been dominating the iOS and Google Play app stores. Even by the standards of smartphone games, it's simple. Primitive, even. You play as the eponymous bird as it flies through the gaps between vertical green pipes copied and pasted from Super Mario. Really, the entire backdrop of the game looks like it was scraped from Nintendo, while the bird character bears an uncanny resemblance to an 8-bit version of the creature from Tiny Wings, another mobile gaming classic. It doesn't even have any sound save the hollow flutter of the bird's wings and the cruel thwack sound it makes when it hits the ground.

Where the game gets interesting is in its difficulty. If you touch anything, you die immediately and have to start from the beginning. That's normal for these kinds of games. But unlike another endless runner like Temple Run or Jetpack Joyride, Flappy Bird isn't something you can play by idly swiping your finger to the left or right every time you approach an obstacle. The only way to maintain a proper altitude is by tapping the screen feverishly to make the bird flap its wings. If you let your guard down for even a second, the critter plummets precariously to its death. It took me 15 tries just to get past the first pipe. As of this writing, I have a high score of eight.

If getting eight points is such a crushing experience, why am I even playing Flappy Bird still? I don't really know, but I am. And I'm not the only one. Far from it, in fact. Cursing the game out on Twitter has become a pastime in its own right. Dong Nguyen, the game's creator, spends most of his time on the social network either thanking people for their praise or defending himself against bird-addled players who say he's ruined their lives.

An independent game developer based in Vietnam, Nguyen was an obscure presence until recently. He liked it that way. When I managed to get in touch with him earlier this week, all he would tell me over email was that he was so taken aback by his newfound celebrity that he didn't want to participate in any stories about the game.

I was disappointed to be turned down, because the allure of Flappy Bird remains a mystery to me. The game seems devoid of any real personality. By borrowing the aesthetic of better known games and filling itself with annoying pop up ads, it seems to flaunt this fact even. And tiny as they may be, the modern smartphones and tablets that run this game can support much meatier work than this. But Jesper Juul, a video game theorist and author of two books that broach exactly this subject—The Art of Failure: An Essay on the Pain of Playing Video Games and A Casual Revolution: Reinventing Video Games and Their Players—told me that the supposed simplicity of the game is what's drawing so many players to it.

"There's something ironic about Flappy Bird—perhaps not in Flappy Bird as a game, but in playing it," Juul said. "In a way, it seems too simple for you to possibly enjoy it. You expect it to have more stuff in it; the game just flies in the face of all the things you'd want to see in a modern video game."

"But that's a kind of gesture to players," he added. "You see all those things that are missing. And yet at the same time, it still has the basic heart of video games: it's very challenging, and you're trying to take it as far as you can."

That's where the insanity sets in. As video games become increasingly complex, the concept of failure therein becomes more nuanced to the point where it often becomes impossible to identify a single point in a game like Call of Duty or Skyrim where you made the one mistake that lead to your death. Even Candy Crush, with its fierce economy of turns given to clear the jelly or move some object to the bottom of the screen, is hard to parse in this way. Because the immense difficult is all there really is in Flappy Bird, all you have to focus on is why you messed up trying to clear that last pipe.

"You always think if you had just flapped one more time, you would have made it," Juul said. "And that's a big deal! The game is so punishing that you're forced to think about its mechanics in this incredibly minute way."

That might sound obsessive. And, well, it is. But once you get used to Flappy Bird, there's something almost calming about playing it. It's so hard that you can't help but laugh at it. Juul told me that's an important part of what's built a de facto community around the game online—the "shared sense of facing an unreasonable death" that become "much more tolerable because you realize you're not the only one."

Juul has been tracking casual games like Flappy Bird for too long to have any illusions about its staying power. Like Draw Something or FarmVille before it, Flappy Bird will inevitably be surpassed by something that's even more crushingly difficult or shamefully addictive. But for the time being, I'm gonna keep struggling through Flappy Bird as best I can. I still need to make it to ten points, after all.