Video game developers have long held a fascination with virtual tennis. All the way back in 1958, a game called Tennis for Two became one of the first documented video game prototypes. Fourteen years later, a similar game called Tennis debuted on the Magnavox Odyssey and made its way to American living rooms.
This unlikely relationship between electronic entertainment and digital sportsmanship culminated in the 1975 home version of Pong, one of the first commercially successful home video games.
More recent hits in the ball-meets-paddle genre range from big-budget forays like 2006’s Rockstar Games Presents Table Tennis to more eccentric indie titles like last year’s Toasterball. But a new game out on Steam, called qomp, might be the first to consider that playing as the table tennis ball rather than the paddle could make for a novel gameplay experience.
The developer of qomp is best known online as Stuffed Wombat. He describes the project as a “small game about freedom.” Although qomp uses aesthetics and iconography that will be familiar to Pong players, it’s actually more of a platforming game. Starting at the moment the table tennis ball races past the paddle, this short game takes anywhere from one to three hours to finish, but fills every second with clever design ideas.
Movement is all handled with one button. Clicking the mouse button reverts the direction of the ball, turning the simple act of movement into a brain-contorting, puzzle-solving exercise.
Early on, the challenge comes mostly from figuring how to fit your cube, which bounces off walls and corners upon contact, into small holes and crevices. Before long, you’re dodging spinning blades and other hazards.
Qomp cleverly subverts its key mechanic several times. Once your cube plunges into a body of water—suddenly becoming a dense, heavy object and completely changing the way you move within the world—the brilliance and sheer possibility of the game become obvious. However bare its aesthetics, qomp channels the design panache of something like Super Mario 64 or any other great Nintendo game through its simple but always-evolving gameplay mechanic that’s constantly surprising the player.
The game has been a minor hit and currently holds a “very positive” review score on Steam. Writers at Polygon declared the game one of their favorites of 2021 so far. When compared against other big-budget titles on that list, qomp sticks out. The title’s minimalist aesthetic and design flies in the face of other acclaimed games, offering a respite from the ever-expanding open worlds and inflated run times that mark many AAA releases.
In an era where video games are defined by excess and content glut, the streamlined ethos of qomp is especially memorable. Earlier versions of the game were closer to six hours long, but players got bored by having to use the same mechanic over and over. “When you have to do that mechanic 200 times, you’re kind of growing tired of it,” Stuffed Wombat said.
The result was addition by subtraction. “It was a lot of cutting stuff,” he said. “You have 2,000 ideas, and you try them out, and then you remove 90 percent of them.”
For many gamers, keeping up with the latest AAA games—never mind finishing them—has become an exercise in tedium. Popular franchises like Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed or Activision’s Call of Duty have turned once singular properties into regular products stuffed with hours of unmemorable content. “If you work a job or, like, have stuff to do in our life, the next one is going to come out before you’re fucking done,” says Stuffed Wombat.