Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Super Meat Boy and the Days

Super Meat Boy
System: Xbox 360
Developer: Team Meat
NA Release: October 2010

And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?

  And how should I presume?
--T. S. Eliot "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" 

Super Meat Boy is a crash course in balls-to-the-wall berzerkerism and trying again in spite of the odds. Dying feels somewhere between 99-99.9% of this game; something it lovingly reminds you of by playing all of your attempts on a stage at once when you finally beat it. Scores of little, hopping, optimistic meat beings are put through the grinders, exploding in a mix tape of squishy demises until your one success remains at the end.

Are these ballets of carnage a cheap shot at your lack of skills or a badge honoring your perseverance? It probably depends on what kind of player you are, but thinking about it recently made me surprisingly philosophical for such a corporeal game.

Imagine every day of your life plays out at the same time, just like a replay of Super Meat Boy. What would we see? Now certainly we won't start in the same spot every time, depending on moving to new places, waking up with no clue where you are and the name “Chris” ambiguously scrawled on a napkin in your underwear, etc., but odds are there will be a lot of overlap. Some events, like your morning commute, might look like a blur of yous. The various beds of your night might look like a deranged Tetris block of yous for 7-8 hours of each period, if you're lucky.

Is that depressing to think about? Again, it might depend on what kind of player you are. Personally, it's bittersweet. For each representation of us on these replays, there's a near infinite number of routes he or she could have gone, mostly depending on our desire to break routine and break from our imposed obligations. Some of those choices could have brought us incredible gains. Others, who knows? They could've put us in the path of a drunk driver, or put many of our next days out on the street.

Because when that one “you” of each of us blinks out, it's all over. Maybe it will be in a bed at a nursing home. Maybe it will be on that same blurred line we took successfully to work so many days. You can play the statistics but it's never possible to know for sure.

We're the opposite of Meat Boy and many other video game characters. While they expend their lives endlessly for the pursuit of that one time at the goal, we nurse ourselves along in hope of reaching the goal as many times as we can. Each new day we receive, in essence, is an extra life—our reward for surviving yesterday's level. But if we don't live with that Meat Boy berzerkerism sometimes, are we truly winning? 

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Stacking and the Constructive Sandbox

System: Xbox 360
Developer: Double Fine Productions
NA Release: February 2011

The most memorable puzzlers allow players to take familiar concepts and accomplish goals well outside the realm of real-world familiarity. For me, however, the true joy comes in knowing that while I gain a great sense of accomplishment in mastering the physics of Portal, I can feel just as much of a genius by farting into a ventilation shaft in Stacking.

Let's try to keep it as classy as possible in here.
You never quite know what to expect next out of Tim Schafer's Double Fine studio, and Stacking plays much like a cross between Ghost Trick and Scribblenauts. As the smallest in a world of living Matryoshka dolls, you are able to climb into—and essentially possess—progressively larger dolls, using their individual talents to solve the various puzzles in your way. Each problem has several different ways to approach it and, like Scribblenauts, you are encouraged to wrack your imagination and find them all.

It is games like these that make me a bit sad to think the term “sandbox game” is largely commandeered by titles that emphasize speed and violence more than anything else. Not that there is anything wrong with those games. It's just that when I think of a sandbox, I see the greatest freedom in the minds of those using it; not the sand. Stacking fires the synapses by setting its toys in the box and asking the player to use them for more than their original purposes. The fact it's designed like a goulash- and Little Rascals-fueled fever dream adds just the right whimsical element that goads you to be a little more “child-like” in your cleverness.

The Fine Art of Seduction in the world of wooden dolls.
Perhaps one of the concerns we first had as gamers was feeling too childish in the shiny new sandboxes developers made for us, so we started off happier to run about kicking and smashing cities in an ironic showing of "maturity." And really, who doesn't want to have fun and blow off steam that way at times? But we've also come to learn that it feels better sometimes to sit down, take some time and actually be more like a child in heart; imagining, building, and feeling free to play in more fabricated worlds. Thankfully, games like Stacking, Scribblenauts and Minecraft are giving us chances to do that as well.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

To the Moon and Chasing Catharsis

To the Moon
System: PC
Developer: Freebird Games
NA Release: November 2011

Something about sad stories tends to draw us in. Perhaps by empathizing with the tragedies and mistakes of others, we allow ourselves an oft-needed rendezvous with our own mortality and humanity. We often consider grief a negative emotion, but its release can have a healing or edifying effect after we experience it. At least that's a better theory than us all being a bunch of emotional masochists.

How deep our connection to a sad tale goes relies greatly on how deeply we know (or feel we know) those involved, and this element is where To the Moon by Freebird Games most brilliantly shines.

Graphics are relatively simple, but offer a fitting Chrono Trigger vibe.
The mere premise of the game can be enough to make your heart twinge: two scientists explore the memories of a dying man, Johnny, with the goal of producing a new set of fake memories in which he is able to do the one thing he has requested, but was unable to accomplish, in life: go to the moon. That alone is enough to let many people begin to relate to the man, but the masterfully woven story of To The Moon adds layer upon layer to Johnny and his loved ones as the scientists travel backward from old age to his early years. What at first was a story about the fulfillment of a dying wish becomes much more complex as reasons beget reasons and others' lives intertwine with Johnny's. We feel we eventually come to the core of Johnny and his desire, and the ending explodes outward like a cathartic megaton bomb, consuming each layer of the story back to the beginning.

Oddly enough, I believe it is fiction that gives us this best chance to explore this way. The stories we come across as spectators in reality are often just beginning to scrape the surface, like the beginning of the game. We know when something is poignant, of course—that there is some emotional or spiritual significance—but we can't delve into all the memories and souls that led up to it. We can't see the layers as the scientists in the game come to see them. And yet sometimes we seem to crave that deep, tragic connection. Look at all the people who come out when a popular figure dies because they feel “connected” to a person they thought they knew intimately, even if much of what they felt they knew was a facade.

A happier memory, but how does it fit in?
In reality, we just don't try looking into others' lives that far. When I covered a tragic story as a news reporter, I could tell you what the mother of an Iraq soldier who lost his legs told me on the day their family learned, but I couldn't tell you everything that was behind her exhausted, wavering voice; why she was trying so hard to be stoic that I had to go cry in the bathroom after talking with her. Really, I would not have wanted to, nor would I have had the right to out of simple respect and dignity. Even Johnny asks about his privacy in the game, but fiction gives us that key to tread freely. We must know for the experience to be as powerful as it is and we are more comfortable doing so in fabrications. In essence, we build our own experiences to reach a goal much like the false memory tracks of the scientists' design.

To the Moon reminds us that we are inherently complex creatures built of simple needs and desires. When we look into others to find meaning and significance we can relate to, we are often like the scientists, starting at one point and only able to see a couple clues just beneath the surface. The ways in which the game demonstrates the true depth of life are amazing, and I have not dared share any here in hope of not spoiling this experience for anyone. Highly recommended.