Mechanic's Report: Super Meat Boy (XBox)

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At first glance, Super Meat Boy is pretty simple: run, jump, and don't hit anything that isn't a wall or floor, because it'll kill you.  And, honestly, that's all quite relevant.  But after you've played a few of the very short levels, a lot of nuance begins to emerge within those simple mechanics.  Peel the onion back:
  • Run
    • It takes you a very little space to get going, and a little space to stop.
    • When you're touching a wall, it takes you just a little longer to get going.
  • Jump
    • You can stick to walls
    • and slide down them
      • but you accelerate as you do
      • If you jump immediately after hitting a wall, you'll jump a bit faster and a bit further
      • Hit them fast enough, and you can even slide up
    • You will jump with better control if you leave the ground doing what you want to be doing.
    • You can change direction in mid-air
      • and you can switch between 'walking' and 'running' speed
... and you'll need each and every one of those abilities, in exacting sequence, to complete most of the levels of the game. 

In other words, those two simple mechanics --running and jumping-- are so finely tuned that the play resulting from them can rise to performance.  It doesn't matter whether you jump in the right spot any more than it matters that you played the right string on your violin at the right time.  That is, it matters as the basis for the art.  The art is in the performance, the way that you switched from run to walk in midair to drop between the blades, or you pushed just a little harder on the horsehair as your bow reached the end of the stroke.  Try it again, and you won't do exactly that again, just something like it and hopefully with as much feeling.

As with musical performance, practice makes perfect, and an audience helps.  Because of all this complexity, and the nuance that the mechanics enable for me when I play, a play session at my house gets an audience.  I'll bring up a new level, and my wife and roommate and I will have a good laugh at the idea that completing it could be a thing that can be done.  They'll hold their breaths as my 45th attempt goes horribly awry and they wait to see whether I can hold out long enough to get back on track.  When my 3rd attempt on another level inexplicably succeeds, we'll all flop back on the sofa, aware that we've witnessed something of a miracle.

Super Meat Boy could be incredibly frustrating, and I honestly expected it to be.  In this game, you will fail a level (die) dozens of times in each level.  But the game has another feature that creates a fun mechanic.  Each play is recorded, and when you finally complete a level, you get to see a re-play where every try plays simultaneously.  A wave of doomed Meat Boys sweep and bounce around the level, until finally just one makes it to the end.  Coming into the game, I thought the feature would seem hokey and perhaps taunting or depressing.  But in the giddy aftermath of attempt no. 57's success, the replay seems somehow respectful of my effort.  When I go into the next level, each brief attempt is clearly building toward something larger, that will eventually succeed.  The minor-seeming feature recasts the rest of the play of the game just a little.

I'm aware that I'm being a bit dramatic about Super Meat Boy.  I just honestly didn't expect much from the game, and have been amazed at the nuance of game design, and the skillful guidance of play, that hides behind all the blood and Jhonen Vasquez stylings.

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This page contains a single entry by Scott Price published on August 25, 2011 10:19 PM.

On Reading Raph Koster's A Theory of Fun was the previous entry in this blog.

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