Roughly forty minutes into playing Super Meat Boy, I was yelling things from our office to my husband in the living room like, “WE’RE GOING TO DRESS UP AS MEAT BOY AND BANDAGE GIRL FOR HALLOWEEN!” and “HONEY! HONEY! LOOK UP SUPER MEATBOY T-SHIRTS!! SERIOUSLY, THIS GAME IS AMAZING!! WHAT ARE YOU DOING IN THERE? COME WATCH THIS!” Then finally, because I wasn’t going to get up, which, as we all know, is the greatest compliment you can give a video game, “HEY, CAN YOU GET ME MORE KIMCHI? I’M HUNGRY.” In between levels, I was eating homemade cabbage kimchi a friend was nice enough to give us. It was a great evening all around.
Super Meat Boy is an independent platforming video game designed and created by Tommy Refenes and Edmund McMillen, a.k.a. Team Meat. For those who may not know, a platform game or ‘platformer’ is traditionally a two-dimensional video game that involves jumping or climbing on solid objects or over obstacles. Originally, a platformer was a single-screen shot. As technology advanced, platformers became a scrolling screen and then became a 3D scrolling screen.
Many of my readers will remember these types of games from their childhood, which includes but is not even remotely limited to, Q*bert, the Super Mario Bros series, Castlevania, Ducktales, and one of my all-time favorites, the Mega Man series. I still want to punch some of those Mega Man jumps in their stupid faces.
The premise or story line of Super Meat Boy is simple. You play as Meat Boy, who has no skin; his blood gloops and splashes over all the surfaces he touches. In the wonderful documentary Indie Game: The Movie, Edmund McMillen explains the meaning behind this choice: “He’s a boy without skin so that’s why they call him Meat Boy. So he’s exposed to the elements. Maybe he’s always in pain, but he just deals with it. But he has to be very careful with everything because anything could kill him. The smallest thing like salt or whatever could totally destroy him.”
His girlfriend is Bandage Girl, and he is attempting to save her from the evil Dr. Fetus. In order to save Bandage Girl, Meat Boy is required to jump over sawblades and valleys and salt piles and up walls, among other impediments. As the game progresses, the levels become increasingly difficult–or more precisely, insanely, crazily, intricately difficult. Beating an advanced level of Super Meat Boy is the very definition of hard-won.
If the game were just that—a simple, fun, well-constructed platformer full of loving callbacks to old video games—it would have been a successful game that people would love and play and replay with their friends. However, McMillen and Refenes have created a new feature in Super Meat Boy that makes it an exceptional game.
The new trick Team Meat has devised for the game is in the replay of a level after you have beaten it. Instead of just seeing the winning round (i.e., the replay of the Meat Boy you played during the final time that allowed you to beat the level) it replays all your turns on the level. You could have five or ten, fifteen, thirty, or even fifty Meat Boys all following their failing paths, blood splattering off of saws; Meat Boys plunging to their deaths off cliffs; Meat Boys dancing and bouncing up walls, creating a kinetic arch of gore.
It is a seemingly effortless design choice that feels like the next logical progression. It’s the kind of thing that makes people say, “I can’t believe nobody thought of this before.”
Ultimately, through this design, Refenes and McMillen have captured the joy of failure. Beating a level the first time you play is rewarding—as are all things you get right the first time. However, when you finally beat the level that you couldn’t beat the first five, ten, thirty, or fifty times, it feels not only more rewarding, but powerfully satisfying.
So many times in our life we fail at things, whether it’s a personal project, interpersonal relationship, or standards we have for ourselves. However, we are told that success after a long struggle is sweeter, that it has more depth. Refenes and McMillen have captured this phenomenon visually.
Nearly every day in my Facebook feed, someone shares a list, a meme, or an article about how to find peace and harmony in your life. We are a culture obsessed with finding the linear pinpoints to success; the secret activity or life-choice that will allow us to be consistently happy.
Yet, none of us can find it. Why else would there be so much written about it? The truth is, happiness can never be a constant. If you are challenging yourself or being self-reflective, you will ultimately go through moments of doubt and frustration or even depression. I find a long walk is my favorite remedy for these moments.
But sometimes that doesn’t work, so this post is my offering to the ‘tricks for finding happiness’ movement. If you’ve tried yoga, a juice cleanse, or a stiff drink, and nothings’s working, I recommend you spend an evening playing Super Meat Boy. Enjoy the catharsis of low-stakes failure. Even if you are perfectly happy or haven’t tried any of those things, give the game a go.
If you get disparaging remarks about how you are wasting time playing that video game, answer with a confident No, I’m not. I’m enjoying some psychological relief. I’m having fun while facing a hard truth: failure is inevitable when you are doing something difficult. And instead of having it feel unbearable, I want to see it through the contained framing of escapism. We all need a break. Screw you, I’m going to stop after I beat this level. I’m not giving up. Team Meat has shown us why we shouldn’t.