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Super Meat Boy doesn’t hate you, but it doesn’t mind hurting you.

The Xbox Live Arcade release delivers on the promise of the pre-release version that was shown at PAX Prime 2010, where it was my own personal Game of the Show. Here are my initial thoughts after spending a few days (and a few thousand deaths) with SMB:

There is an immediacy to the play experience that goes beyond the fact that many of your deaths will come within the opening two seconds of a given level. This immediacy is a product of the extremely tight and responsive controls. It’s rare to feel like you’re not firmly in the driver’s seat. You’ll die a lot, but most of those deaths will help you gain an incrementally deeper understanding of how to use the control that the game gives you.

Meat Boy is light, strong, agile, and remarkably tacky. He isn’t sticky; that is, he doesn’t stick to surfaces, but he is frictional, and much of the game is spent learning how this friction interacts with Meat Boy’s weight and the game’s implementation of gravity.

You will also spend a good deal of time learning how to hop. Pressing the jump button will only get you so far: SMB insists that you learn to tap it. Then it shows you that there is something between a ‘press’ and a ‘tap’. Then it explains that there are actually several degrees of jump (what the French theorists call degrés de saut1) that can be executed somewhere between a ‘press’ and a ‘tap’. It demands that you execute all of these degrés de saut while fully understanding how they interact with Meat Boy’s weight and friction.

You learn by doing, and the price for failure is death. But in SMB, death is reimagined as an immediate do-over. Upon dying, Meat Boy will reappear at the start of the level in time to see the pieces of his just-dead (Other?) body still airborne. You run, jump, die, and repeat, incredibly quickly. In many levels the first few jumps are key, and must be executed immediately and with precision. Let’s suppose those jumps are difficult, and the player dies ten times before getting them right for the first time. In the language of modern video games, ten deaths is a significant commitment of player time. In Super Meat Boy, it might take 30 seconds.

Keith Oatley, summarizing Karl Popper’s Conjectures and Refutations, wrote:

We only really learn by our mistakes (refutations). As we apply our schemata to the world by living, they fail in various ways and we can learn, change and develop by modifying our schemata or theories accordingly. Popper quotes J. A. Wheeler at the beginning of his book as saying “The whole problem is to make the mistakes as fast as possible.”2

Super Meat Boy wholeheartedly embraces this model of learning. You will make lots of mistakes, you will make them quickly, and you will immediately have the opportunity to make them again. The only way to break this cycle is to learn. The cycle moves fast, so the player tends to learn a lot in a relatively small amount of time.

If “Easy to learn, difficult to master” is a cliché, Super Meat Boy is, to borrow Bonnie Nardi’s term, its visual-performative3 embodiment. The learning curve isn’t particularly steep, but it is relentlessly high. The successful player will continue to learn, level after level after level.

The best thing about SMB as a learning environment is that the dialog between game and player remains congenial. The game makes demands, to be sure, but eventually the player learns that she has a lot of freedom to determine how those demands are met. Once the player has a certain understanding of the game’s conception of gravity, friction, and degrés de saut, there are numerous ways in which a level might be successfully completed. You don’t have the freedom necessary to call this a sandbox game, but I’m going to call it a playground game4. At a certain point each level becomes a playground, and the player’s only task is to get in there and make something awesome happen.

Super Meat Boy takes its button mapping straight out of Super Mario Brothers: hold one button to run, press another button to jump, move with the thumbstick / d-pad. However, the complexity of the actions that the player can input with these controls has more in common with modern fighting games than the platformers of the 80s. High-level fighting game techniques such as frame counting, canceling, buffering, hit checking, and more are all highly relevant to playing Super Meat Boy. Once I started to understand the game on that level I switched from the standard 360 controller to my Hori Fighting Stick EX2, and I haven’t looked back.5

This is really the tip of the iceberg: there is a lot to analyze. I am particularly interested in applying theories of postmodern subjectivity to the replay that occurs when the player finishes a level, which shows every attempt to complete the level simultaneously. This simultaneity both expands and compresses the fractured subjectivity and ontological crisis that is inherent to modern video games (a topic I have previously touched on). But that is a whole other can of worms, and deserves a post of its own.

Notes:

1. No they don’t. I made that up.

2. Ok, this reference is a mess but let’s go with it. Keith Oatley, Perceptions and Representations: The Theoretical Basis of Brain Research and Psychology (London: Metheun, 1978), 241-42. But that quote is taken from: Ellen Spolsky, “The Uses of Adversity: The Literary Text and the Audience That Doesn’t Understand”, in The Uses of Adversity: Failure and Accommodation in Reader Response, ed. Ellen Spolsky (Cranbury, New Jersey: Associated University Presses, 1990), 31. So it’s a quote of a quote of a summary of something that Karl Popper wrote in 1963. And that summary ends with a quote from someone else entirely! The fact that Spolsky’s essay is in a book that she also edited is just icing on the (layered) cake.

3. Bonnie Nardi, My Life as a Night Elf Priest: An Anthropological Account of World of Warcraft (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2010).

4. Please allow me to show my disdain for genre boundaries by articulating another (meaningless) genre.

5. The only complaint I have regarding the game’s controls is the inability to remap the buttons. I write this not just because I think that a different button layout would be a little more comfortable on the EX2, but also because it’s an important step toward making games accessible to players of all abilities. Understand that this criticism isn’t directed only at SMB: alterable button mapping needs to be understood as a basic feature that should be offered in all games. Accessibility is always worth it. Alterable button mapping is a drop in the bucket, but each drop counts.

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I’m back from PAX: exhausted, a bit overwhelmed, and very happy with how it went.

I’m not much for consumer conventions: the crowds, the hype, the expense; it’s tough to escape the feeling of walking inside a giant hamster wheel of marketing ploys, helping it turn by the simple fact of your attendance. Despite this uneasiness, I attended PAX Prime this year because Carol Stabile, a colleague and frequent collaborator at the University of Oregon, invited me to speak on a panel. I accepted her invitation, and I’m very glad I did so.

Our panel was titled, “Women Own: A Conversation with Researchers, Professionals, and Gamers.” My co-panelists included Marlo Huang, VP and Media Director at Liquid Advertising; Staci Tucker, a Masters candidate at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication; Brittany Aubert, producer at 5th Cell; and Mara Williams, a Ph. D. candidate at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication. Carol, who is the head of the Center for the Study of Women in Society at UO, served as moderator.

This was just about the finest panel one could hope for. I spoke first, specifically about the lack of diversity in the game industry, particularly along gender lines, that is apparent in the 2005 IGDA survey. My co-panelists turned these (let me be frank:) depressing numbers into an honest, nuanced discussion of political fantasies and hard realities. Our audience asked thoughtful questions, and (hopefully) we all got rid of the post-feminist taste that the “Myth of the Girl Gamer” panel left in our mouths.

The show was, on the whole, totally overwhelming. Let me put it this way: there was an Ewok in the Back to the Future DeLorean. Just let that sink in for a moment. At least I didn’t hear it say, “GREAT SCOTT!”

Basically, I think I survived because of the amazing people at The Triple Door, who gave us the full-on rock star treatment for three consecutive evenings. A doorman at our hotel (the excellent Olympic Fairmont) pointed us in the direction of The Triple Door when I asked where a thirsty group of socially exhausted introverts might purchase a tasty beverage. A few blocks later, we spotted the place. It had a sign in the window that said, “We [heart] PAX; ask us how!” So when we were seated, I showed the waitress my PAX badge, and much to our surprise and delight she informed us that we would enjoy the benefits of happy hour whenever we so desired. (On-demand happy hour meant the difference between paying $3 vs. $9 per cocktail, which is, y’know, significant.) On a return trip later in the weekend, our group included a minor, yet we were too many to fit into the minor-friendly booth seating. The solution should be obvious: they gave us a private suite for as long as we wanted. So yeah, I love The Triple Door forever.

We enjoyed Khaira Arby & Her Band on Thursday night, who were so stunningly good that I don’t have much to say other than, “Give them a listen.”

Oh yeah, and there were a few games at PAX.

I don’t have a lot to say about the big names that showed on the expo floor. Many of them are probably very good games, but that doesn’t make them interesting. Epic Mickey, for instance, has a lot of the industry excited, and may be coming along very well, but I can’t understand why anyone would brave lines and crowds to play it. The bottom line is that an expo floor is a very difficult place to show a game: it’s loud, it’s distracting, the player is exhausted, the handler is exhausted, etc. etc.

In this situation, being good isn’t enough: a game has got to be interesting. So here’s a short list of the games that I found interesting:

  • Super Meat Boy: This is my game of the show. It hits you hard, it hits you fast, and it lets you hit back. The constant crowd can attest to the fact that it is fun to watch, and I’m happy to report that actually playing is fun on a whole different level. Its visceral simplicity helps you jump right into the nuanced complexity of ultra-tuned control and dead-aim design. Simply put: SMB has sticky friction, and that puts it in elite company.
  • Shibuya: A falling block puzzler for Apple’s iDevices. This isn’t a genre that I care to play, but the design here is tight. Gaming on touchscreen devices presents particular design challenges. Most iDevice games don’t do a good job solving those problems. Shibuya does, and that’s enough to make it special.
  • Battleblock Theater: The Behemoth’s platformer divides players into teams, and the teams compete. Customization keeps the experience dynamic, while shifting win conditions allow different skill sets to shine. It’s got a way to go, so I don’t want to draw too many conclusions other than: it was fun from several different angles.
  • Solace: From the game’s website: “Solace is an interactive aesthetic experience utilizing dynamic audio and bullet hell overtones to provide a unique perspective on the five stages of grief.” Visually, it immediately reminded me of Ikaruga, which is a good thing; but it quickly distinguished itself as unique in the bullet-hell world. That Solace manages to innovate on the bullet-hell model is an astounding achievement. Indeed, the last time anyone breathed fresh air into a top-down shooter was when Treasure gave us Ikaruga in 2001. My hat is off to the fine people at One Man Down. To top it off: this game is a free download.

Good show, PAX. Let’s do it again next year.

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