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.

9 comments:

  1. You do a good job of articulating the boundary between your evaluation and your preference. I'm certainly not going to critique your preference, so for most of what you've written I just have to say, "Thanks for sharing!" :)

    You do raise a point that I think is very fertile theoretical ground: right at the end, you use the word 'rehash', and invoke the 'old vs. new' debate.

    My reaction to Super Meat Boy is that it is New by virtue of its modern reimagining of the Old. Reading your post made me wonder: how much New is even possible in a field as involuted and recursive as game design? Isn't the New necessarily just a new understanding of the Old?

    Now that's NOT an argument, just a fragmentary thought. Just wanted to say Thanks for making me think about it.

    Re: old-school face-punching of women as signal to the Boys Only treehouse: I think you're spot-on. It's interesting to compare it to Braid, which diegetically injected some emotional intelligence into the 'save the princess' trope. Despite that intelligence, Braid was in the Boys Only treehouse. What I can't get my brain around is: why? Must think more on it.

    And again, thanks for making me think.

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  2. anytime david. and thanks for the consistent feedback and encouragement - sometimes when i am trying to put my brain on paper i doubt my abilities, you help keep me going :)
    =-=-=-
    on re: new vs. old - you used the word "post-modern" several times when talking about SMB on twitter and your own blog. And I agree that SMB is part of the architectual (not literary) post-modern movement in that it takes several elements from games (mostly aesthetic ones) and mashes them together in the context of the new "masocore" movement.

    but what strikes me about SMB is how firmly rooted it is solely in the past. Besides the characters (who mostly hail from retro-style games, as in beat.trip and minecraft, or notable indie figures who work mostly in retro stylings like jill from mighty jill off, or derek yu's spluenky), you won't find a single reference from anything past, say, 1995 in this game. Which is weird, because certainly a lot has happened since then: physics, time manipulation, RPG elements, mixing 2d and 3d. And full disclosure, I am exactly 11% through the game right now and probably won't see the end, but I'm willing to bet none of those notable, significant elements show up. So my problem is really that the game is an homage to the past and not much else (except for its excellent, completely modern design i mentioned in the original post).
    =-=-=-
    dunno if you read Game Informer, but Braid made the list of "top 10 overrated games of all time" solely because of its story. i lol'd a bit. game informer is not bad for what it is, but it can definitely be a bit reactionary at times (See last month's "help I'm a girl gamer" "SHUT UP AND TAKE IT LIKE THE REST OF US" letters section)

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  3. well, its inevitable that braid gets a little splashback from the mountains of hype that surrounded it!

    i think the same thing is true with meat boy - there's been a creative, constant and smart ad campaign for game going for what seems like years! a lot of people look at that and say "what's the big deal?" like the author states, its a "rehash" (a loaded term if i've ever heard one!) of basic platforming concepts.

    its a platformer WITHOUT a twist (what a twist!) i don't think you're unique for not appreciating that, though. i actually don't think the game is doing very well at all, is it?

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  4. my problem with the Braid comment made by GI was that it focused on its (admittedly nonsensical) plot, but ignored the other leaps and bounds made - the music design, the creation of a new subgenre of platformers (Check out Kongregate and see how many "time manipulation" platformers exist now), the use of symbolism - honest to god SYMBOLISM, in a videogame! You don't have to like or even understand the overarching "plot" to appreciate the use of a literary device never actually seen before in a videogame.

    =-=-=-
    I don't think Team Meat has shared any sales statistics, but certainly the critical reception has been over-the-top. "Best platformer ever", "the citizen kane of videogames", several perfect scores, and a built-in fanbase that loves to freak out about how its the perfect perfect of perfection. Maybe within the broader sphere of gamers I'm not that unique, but specifically as a hardcore gamer it's one of those times I feel a bit outside the groupthink (Like whenever there's a Halo release). noise for the PC and even wiiware releases (loooooool) has been monumental, so I don't think they'll have trouble covering costs (especially since this started as a Flash game with assets and engine more or less intact)

    And again, I have no fundamental problem with rehashes. And to some extent i am enjoying the game. It's just the aesthetic mode of the game - "the twist is there is no twist" - has an almost religious quality to it that makes me a bit uneasy. Like you can get away with a kind of mediocre concept just by dressing it up in blood and guts and woman-punching if the technical quality is superb - and the critical press will lap it up as a return to "better times" which really were never that good.

    really I'm making an aesthetic argument here, not a "game is good for being good" argument. which is kind of tricky ground to tread :)

    thanks for reading & commenting~!

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  5. thanks for responding!

    "really I'm making an aesthetic argument here, not a "game is good for being good" argument"

    yeah, understood. without question the game is unappealing in almost every way, apart from the (IMO) remarkably finely tuned level design and mechanics.

    its a shame that the rest of the game is so stupid, ugly and tacky.

    anyway, there IS something appealing about a well-designed straight-up action platformer, though, and if that means i'm part of some nostalgic old-school club, then so be it!

    for what its worth, I think I felt similarly about Braid as you do about SMB.. I found Braid goofy and overwrought, but I did appreciate the well-implemented time-reverse mechanic. Like you said, a quick glance at Kongregate shows that time manipulation is a fertile mechanic.

    However, its noteworthy to see - in comparison - how few games ape Braid's mechanics/message model, or awkward poetry, or SYMBOLISM.

    Anyway, while we've seen lots of "physics, time manipulation, RPG elements, mixing 2d and 3d" recently, there is a part of me that views most of the games that (I think) you're talking about as overly reliant on tricks, gimmicks and puzzles... or maybe I just like action games!

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  6. well one of the reasons i chose this blog title was because I didn't really expect anyone to agree 100% with my idiosyncratic taste in games, politics or music :)

    I don't mind "old-school" or "pure, unadulterated action" as an aesthetic/gameplay mechanic - I just have a problem when it is the sole means to the end. There's more to "old-school" than chunky art and sawtooth-wave music. A lot of "old-school" titles we love, like Super Mario World or Metroid or Chrono Trigger, tried to forge new territories never before explored. That's why we love them - it's how we first experienced those feelings of flying over an entire level and hitting a secret exit, or being alone on an alien planet, or time travelling to stop the world from ending in 1999 from an ancient evil that wiped out the dinosaurs. To say you're old-school, but never forge any territory except what others have done before you, does not capture that feeling for me. It's inwards-looking, not outwards-looking. It has nothing to say about what is possible (like Braid did) - it can only say what has already been done.

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  7. Well said! I think that's a much clearer argument than the one made in your original post.

    From where I'm standing, the execution is such that I'm able to overlook the fact that the game is hideous and not especially forward-thinking (although I think the structure of SMB is actually a little more modern than you give it credit for).

    Again though, I'm the kind of guy who prefers fighting games and shmups over Bioshock and Braid, so execution and craft are obviously more to my taste than attempts to forge new territories.

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  8. haha after i posted that I was like 'wait, shit, that was way too broad' but got too distracted to change it. maybe i should stop trying to walk a fine line and start issuing way more bombastic opinions and waiting until the comments to defend and refine it XD

    one reason i wasn't comfortable with drawing such a strict line was because yeah, SMB does have VERY modern design, and I really respect that. and i do obsessively love some stuff like Pinball FX 2 which is just as old-school as it gets.

    so it goes~

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  9. You do a good job of articulating the boundary between your evaluation and your preference. I'm certainly not going to critique your preference, so for most of what you've written I just have to say, "Thanks for sharing!" :)

    You do raise a point that I think is very fertile theoretical ground: right at the end, you use the word 'rehash', and invoke the 'old vs. new' debate.

    My reaction to Super Meat Boy is that it is New by virtue of its modern reimagining of the Old. Reading your post made me wonder: how much New is even possible in a field as involuted and recursive as game design? Isn't the New necessarily just a new understanding of the Old?

    Now that's NOT an argument, just a fragmentary thought. Just wanted to say Thanks for making me think about it.

    Re: old-school face-punching of women as signal to the Boys Only treehouse: I think you're spot-on. It's interesting to compare it to Braid, which diegetically injected some emotional intelligence into the 'save the princess' trope. Despite that intelligence, Braid was in the Boys Only treehouse. What I can't get my brain around is: why? Must think more on it.

    And again, thanks for making me think.

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