It was after maybe the 14th or 15th time I'd seen "Game Over" flash across my iPhone screen in the last maybe seven minutes that I decided that the app Flappy Bird -- an experience so simultaneously simple and maddening that I could already picture it haunting my dreams -- was perhaps the worst smartphone game ever created.
I had hit a high score of 12 on my fourth or fifth attempt, finding myself secretly elated at the speedy proficiency of my mindless tapping timing. And then I proceeded to lose after earning a single point -- literally just one successful obstacle cleared -- about 10 times in a row. Before I knew it, I was sitting there at my desk, heat crawling up the back of my neck, ready to shake my phone in frustration like a '90s kid ready to dismantle his NES controller during the "Turbo Tunnel" level of Battletoads.
"Delete it" were the words that echoed in my head as my thumb hovered over the Start button, ready to try once again to achieve absolutely nothing at all but the continuation of a feedback loop so blatant and manipulative that it's frankly insulting, only you yourself are the one hurling the criticism.
Now, when I say "worst smartphone game," I don't mean objectively bad, lacking in quality, or all around worthless. I mean "worst" in the way that Netflix is the worst thing that happened to your reading habits, or Seamless the worst thing that happened to your diet. Flappy Bird is simply just the worst -- the worst thing to happen to everything and anything you're doing at any given moment.
In other words, it's a beautifully manipulative game that sells advertising against your base-level tendencies to keep trying at something that seems within grasp, but rather is designed to mask its clear and utter propensity to grind you into failure. It's a work of a genius, and the free app currently holds a solid 4.0 rating on both iOS and Android, with more than 300,000 customer ratings on the App Store after mysteriously skyrocketing to popularity just this past week despite having been uploaded in May of 2013 by Vietnamese developer Dong Nguyen of DotGears Studios.
Like most endless runners, Flappy Bird is a game with no conclusion that subsists solely on your hunger for a higher score and your dumb, completely illogical belief that you will in fact get any value out of playing, let alone feel like you're getting better at the task at all.
From a mechanics perspective, you simply tap to keep your bird afloat and alter your frequency of taps to maneuver the bird through different size obstacles that, if touched, end your game immediately. It's basically a combination of the art style of popular smartphone game Tiny Wings -- with a pixelated Super Mario twist thanks to some rather unoriginal green pipes -- and an experience akin to slamming your head on a desk in an effort to see what's on the other side.
And it's not as if we're being hoodwinked here. Among the first 20 five-star reviews on the App Store include these fantastic headers: "The death of me"; "The apocalypse"; "Save yourselves"; "Life destroying"; "my life is spiraling out of control"; and my all-time favorite, "Hello Darkness My Old Friend."
Therein lies the worst part: We know the game is preying on us, and we let it. There is little else as substantive and convincing as Flappy Bird that the smartphone era has driven us to the cliff of insanity when it comes to compulsive behavior, contracting attention spans, and a desire to succeed at something arbitrary and meaningless.
Because ultimately there is absolutely nothing admirable about dusting yourself off from a Game Over and trying again when there's literally no goal in sight but a higher number and a larger expenditure of your time. You can get a score presumably in the triple-digits, spending a half hour on the verge of an aneurysm, and then find yourself failing in the first few seconds of your next five attempts. There is no puzzle to solve, no mental trick to master. Flappy Bird is infinitely random, and no amount of mental and thumb conditioning save a scary and social-life-threatening amount of practice could push your skills beyond the level at which they pretty much start at off the bat.
And unlike other addictive banes of humanity in the smartphone game space -- now-classic titles like Temple Run and CandyCrush -- there is no way to go about pretending you're getting any better or the game any easier. Whereas those other titles have coins and in-game stores to buy power-ups that fool you into thinking that your high score was hard-earned, and not simply manufactured by the amount of time you've sunk into it to earn artificial prowess, Flappy Bird just chugs along, awarding you a medal if you manage to beat your high score.
Flappy Bird could have been designed to trick us, to give us a bit of faith in our quest toward nonexistent relief from our compulsion, but the point clearly isn't to milk players money like other successful mobile games. That makes it all the more sinister, like the fury-inducing QWOP that's meant to poke fun at the idea of trying to overcome something superficially difficult. We've reached out to DotGears Studios to find out if the game's design has such a hidden purpose -- or if Flappy Bird really is as innocent as its pixelated namesake -- and will update this post with their response.
And despite all that, I can't help but keep trying it, every few minutes even as I write this. So as they say in five-star App Store reviews, hello darkness my old friend.