(some early ideas about gaming)
What is Super Meat Boy? A computer game, independently made, the sequel to a hugely popular online flash game, released through internet gaming portals. A game that dominated the indie games press for weeks before – and after – its release. The Game of the 2010 for many bloggers, magazines and games sites – and where it wasn’t top, it was pretty high up, sweeping 9+/10 from every major reviewer and aggregator. A phenomenon, then – but one you probably won’t have heard of unless you subscribe to a particular identity: gamer. No casual game this, but one for the committed, socially isolated and intensely inter-connected: for the gamers.
What is Super Meat Boy? An elitist, alienating, alienated experience. A meditation on Zen. A node in a wild, electric network of cultural connections. A sick extended joke. A text as scatological as it is eschatological. A parade of barely sublimated desire. A game.
What is Super Meat Boy? What does it mean to play this game? What does it feel like, and what is the game telling me, and what am I telling the game? Why am I playing this, and why has it been so successful? What is the phenomenology of this phenomenon? Is it even possible to take this all too seriously? It’s certainly possible not to take it seriously enough.
In Super Meat Boy, we play a skinless cube of red meat with a few black, hollow features. Meat Boy jumps rapidly across platforms and over hideous, lethal traps, making wet splats wherever he hits and leaving showers of blood wherever he dies. Meat Boy is on a quest to rescue Bandage Girl: a pink, feminine cube made entirely of plasters, who wears a flower. Bandage Girl waits, crying, at the end of every level, surrounded by buzzsaws. Bandage Girl has been kidnapped – and will be kidnapped again at the end of every level, because I’m sorry, Meat Boy, but Bandage Girl is in another level – by the hideous Dr Fetus, a fetus in a glass helmet, wearing black evening dress. And a hat.
We are in the role of – in control of – playing and played by – a fast, powerful, bloody lump of undeniably male meat. A lump of male meat trapped in an endless quest to rescue an undeniably female construct, the very essence of vulnerability and protection, from an enemy who doubles as the twin threats to masculinity of intellect and motherhood. Meat Boy is defined entirely as the rescuer; Bandage Girl is defined entirely as the rescued. Meat Boy must overcome a series of lethal obstacles in pursuiot of Bandage Girl, who is removed or removes herself at the point of success: she is Meat Boy’s permanent purpose, perpetually denied. There is nothing new here: this symbology is as old and relentless as the platformer genre. But in Super Meat Boy the meaning is laid bare: to platform is to enact the great masculinist hero myth, the proving of worth to the female through the overcoming of obstacles, the impossible pursuit of wife and mother. Edmund McMillen, one of SMB’s authors, has done this before in Cunt – a game which makes entirely clear the phallic myth of the space shooter, a genre which predominantly features pointy, spurting vessels attempting to destroy a mothership. Super Meat Boy strips all the pretence from platformer semiotics: an act that simultaneously acknowledges, parodies and accepts platforming’s inevitable meaning. Irony’s double effect of distancing and justification has never been clearer: the game’s very barefacedness, as skinless as Meat Boy himself, acts as a kind of cover. Super Meat Boy doesn’t even wear a trenchcoat: it’s just striding proudly through the world of games, wondering why everyone is wearing frilly underwear.
Scattered throughout Super Meat Boy‘s levels are partially-concealed bandages. Collecting bandages unlocks content, mainly new characters or levels to play. On collecting 20 bandages a message appeared on my screen: “You have unlocked a locked thing.” This dull, desperate irony, so pointedly pointing out the task’s own pointlessness, is equalled in gamer tragedy only by this John Campbell comic. “You have chosen to spend your only life this way.” And yet we do it. Knowing its worthlessness only makes us do it harder. We do it.
The gameplay is punishingly tough and frighteningly addictive: success requires precise judgement, minute timing and control, excellent reflexes, patience and persistence, and above all commitment. It is a masocore game: a term credited to Auntie Pixelante for games which are masochistically difficult, and in which repeated and brutally unfair failure is required for eventual success (if success can be had at all), a process from which, astonishingly, players like myself derive pleasure. Auntie Pixelante‘s Mighty Jill Off is not only a recent classic of this genre and clear influence on Super Meat Boy, but also itself a game which lays bare the sexual meaning of its mechanism: the protagonist is a Sub in a BDSM relationship, and her platforming is a masochistic struggle in an effort to please her Queen.
This is a genre for gamers. My partner, who likes several computer games but is not a gamer, watches me play masocore games in perplexed horror, unable to understand why they are fun. And so Super Meat Boy remains largely inaccessible to a wider demographic of potential players. At a time when the explosion of casual games (designed to be easily accessible, quickly rewarding, and playable in short sessions: designed for the uncommitted) has revolutionised the gaming market, with developers storming the portals in a gold rush, Super Meat Boy is a declaration of independence. At a time when art games (which see gaming as an artistic medium, and which seek to exploit the experiences and aesthetics of gaming for artistic purposes) are slowly gaining popularity and credibility, Super Meat Boy is a declaration of fun, denying its own deep seriousness. At a time when hardcore gamers’ identity has simultaneously never been stronger (reinforced through online communities and the ease of game proliferation which the internet facilitates) and never been more threatened (by dilettante casual gamers, too often the hardcore gamer’s own mother and her friends, and by art gamers, with their intellectual earnestness and patronising airs), Super Meat Boy is a rallying call.
You must understand that Super Meat Boy is beautifully made: its visual art is detailed, clever, effective and stylishly presented; its specially-composed music is rich, deep, witty and appropriate; its mechanics are as smooth and finely-tuned as a Swiss watch. It could not be the effective rallying call it is if it were not, at heart, an exceptionally good game – perhaps the best yet of the masocore genre. It is triumphant.
A game that is excellent, and excellently difficult, provides the perfect excuse to keep playing, even as the game itself chastises you for doing so. This is the beauty of masocore.
Super Meat Boy is a compilation of Zen koan in platformer form. Each level depicts an absurd, impossible struggle – a question to which there seems to be no answer. They are a catalogue of meaningless suffering. On failure – messy, bloody, embarrassing – the level resets itself almost immediately; on completion, one is forced to watch a repeat of every awful death superimposed on every other; and there is always another level to complete; and besides, no level is ever completed, because there is always another bandage to collect, or another Warp Zone to find, or, if not that, a faster time to strive for. Playing these levels is to be trapped in Samsara: the endless cycle of suffering. And the harder the player struggles against the game, the more impossible the game becomes. Analysing the geography of the level and planning your moves is to plan for failure. Thinking and striving is not the way to win.
In fact these puzzles do have an answer, and the method is transcendent. Mastering a level may take twenty or fifty tries, each barely more successful than the last, if that. Progress is made through muscle memory: unconscious split-second responses, button-presses made by the hands before the brain even knows why. Clearing obstacles is a matter of clearing the mind, and preventing thought from interfering with the knowledge of fingers. To play like this, mind focussed on the screen and body wholly present in the game, is to meditate. Completing a level, I rarely let out a masculine whoop – and when I have, it is because I have won by chance more than by skill. Mostly, I have completed the level so utterly through being at one with the game that I barely acknowledge my own success. I keep breathing, regularly, and play on.
When I say I am at one with the game, I mean that my mental and physical processes are embedded within it, and its are embedded within me. I press a button and its processes respond; it provides a stimulus and my processes respond; but in the white heat of the game we are a closed system of self-regulating feedback cycles, a cyborg unity.
Nagarjuna said, “There is nothing of Samsara that distinguishes it from Nirvana”.
The game is so stupid! It is filled with feces, monsters, erotic demise, nonsense. It is an adolescent nightmare, or wet dream. And its themes are death and perfection.
Computer gaming is historically and currently rooted in a Japan that aspires to Westernness and a West that aspires to Japanification. (Gamers are their own Other.) Indie gaming in particular now exists in the uncertain geographty of the internet: a space ostensibly transnational but clearly dominated by certain cultures, certain influences. (Super Meat Boy will not be widely played in Botswana or U.A.E, despite the internet’s supposed ubiquity.)
Indie gamer culture in particular, though not homogenous, is characterised by more specifically culturally rooted attitudes, styles and presentations. Its genealogy is traceable. Gaming is still young enough, only one or two generations old, for us to understand its major influences, for us to see the source of each neurosis, each bizarre presentation. Its histories are still present, like those of films and comics are, almost – though there are no doubt in those histories traceries rendered invisible, elided by the structures of power, the narratives written by the winners.
Every moment of indie gaming – from ironic deflection to a riotous parody, from self-undermining depression to celebratory triumph, is still readily understandable, and as a player and occasional author monitoring closely the development of gaming and the ambitions of gamers, it is tremendously exciting to see these discourses develop.
In that story, Super Meat Boy is an excellent, near-complete summation of where we have come from and where we might be going.
Super Meat Boy is enmeshed in a fractral web of cultural connections, an intertextuality so dense it is hard to believe that any one player will pick up on every reference, quotation, parody and theft. From the unlockable characters to the chip-tune soundtrack, from the animated cutscenes to the Warp Zone level designs, each moment of the game is a sign that points to other games, other moments of gamer culture – a culture now so densely and exclusively self-referential, that many of the symbols to which Super Meat Boy‘s signs point are themselves signs that point to signs that point to signs . . .
But perhaps this is less Derridan différance and more akin to the shout-outs of hip-hop culture: an acknowledgement of cultural and historical debt. The artists and artisans of marginalised cultures must announce and support each other, even as they must complete with each other – and hardcore gaming, though the effluent of the most affluent parts of affluent societies, is still semiotically and socially marginalised. Like rap, gaming has its own argots, which are the visual, textual and intertextual languages of Super Meat Boy
This enmeshing may not be an indicator of meaninglessness or of the emptiness of meaning: it may be the giver of gaming’s significance. That is to say, perhaps the key to understanding the culture of gaming and the meanings of games lies precisely in studying the social processes which have given rise to this impermeable network of references – lies precisely in the phenomenology of any given gaming moment.
When I play a game, I think: “Where has this instant come from?” “Why am I enjoying myself?” “Why do I keep playing?” “Who is playing with me?” “Why do we all keep playing?” I am largely unable to detach the act of analysis from the act of playing. To play is to analyse.
But the only time I am truly playing Super Meat Boy is when I am no longer thinking about it.