Sunday, October 24, 2010

super meat boy & signalling

if we're going to talk about games as software then yeah, super meat boy is exceptional. it's very obvious the team had a clear vision about what they wanted to do. It's designed from the bottom up to be a platformer. Not a platformer-RPG,  not a puzzle-platformer, not a monochrome-with-sad-piano-music-platformer. Just a platformer.

The team also had a wonderful idea of how to do it. The controls lend themselves well to muscle-memory, so once you figure out a tricky bit you can blow past it next time. When you die, you respawn before you can even think about throwing your controller across the room. When you finally beat a level, the tiny parade of failed attempts lets you laugh at your failures and celebrate your eventual success. Wonderful design! Brilliant design! 

You can’t play Super Meat Boy without the knowledge that this is supposed to be a “true” platformer, a “hardcore” title. Ten or fifteen years ago, there was no “hardcore vs. casual”. There was “RPG vs FPS”, there was “PC vs Console”, and maybe there was “I beat it on easy with cheats vs I beat it on HARD”, but there were no Facebook games to rage against. There weren’t Bejeweled clones to sniff at.

No pandering here.

Super Meat Boy is an homage to a different time, sure. A natural extension of that homage is the signaling contained within the game. The game itself, as a response to “casual” games, seems to be a shot across the bow – true gamers are still here. We are still a force in the marketplace.  This isn’t a game for Halo or Call of Duty meatheads / bros. This is a game for people who grew up in the SNES era – demonstrated by the warp worlds which gave you everything from Atari 8-bit to Genesis 16-bit callbacks. And this is definitely not a game for the Farmville crowd, demonstrated by the fact that your character is a disgusting ball of meat that leaves a blood trail, navigating piles of needles and rivers of – you guessed it! – blood.

I mean the game starts off with the female character getting punched, in the face, repeatedly, by her kidnapper. Even if you ignore the "it's humorous to depict women getting beaten and aren't you the real sexist for even bringing it up" element (Up next: T-shirts saying "Robotic fetus abuse survivor"?), there’s a pretty clear underlying signal here: This game is By Us, For Us. This game is Part Of The Club of True Hardcore Gamers. The unlockable characters are probably shit you’ve never even heard of, unless you happen to know Mighty Jill-Off, Gish, and Bit.Trip. At minimum.

There’s nothing wrong with a little in-crowd nudging. There’s nothing wrong with calling out other authors who you have respect for. And, to be clear, there’s not anything wrong with making a platformer designed to be difficult. But when you make a game that calls back to 1996 in 2010, I can’t help but think of what’s changed in that time. This is a personal preference, not a reflection on the quality of the game – but I’ve played platformers from 1996 quite extensively. I look forward to something new, not a rehash of the old. Apparently that makes me quite unique in the hardcore gaming sphere.