Anything But Unfairness: Super Meat Boy and Zen Masocore

There are lots of ways to make a game hard, and fiendish level design is only one of them. Mega Man 2 was hard largely because the levels were so long, and because being killed by a robot master meant replaying an entire level; Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts was hard primarily because the controls sucked, and once you jumped, you had no control whatsoever over where you might land or what might have spawned beneath you while you were in the air. To get through these games, one needs a considerable measure of masochism. They’re punishing by design. But they’re not explicitly or intentionally messing with you.

Super Meat Boy, on the other hand, is explicitly and intentionally messing with you. I’ve died more than 8,500 times in Super Meat Boy, and I fully expect that number to exceed 10,000 by the time I collect every stray bandage and conquer every last warp zone. But while I will probably never finish Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, I have every intention of reaching that elusive 100% mark in Super Meat Boy, because frankly, it’s much more fun to tangle with a ridiculously demanding game mechanic than to wrestle with an essentially broken one.

Super Meat Boy belongs to the sub-genre sometimes called masocore, or else “frustration platformers.” These games subvert the player’s expectations, bend the rules without breaking them. Think of Super Mario Bros. 2 (the Japanese one, which is called The Lost Levels on this side of the Pacific), and the way it takes the Mario you know and makes it evil–transforming the Mushroom Kingdom into a waking nightmare wherein warp zones lead to barren hellscapes and mushrooms fucking kill you.

A level from the first Chapter of Super Mea Boy.
Believe it or not, this is one of the game's easier levels.

Many frustration platformers–like I Wanna Be The Guy, or the constellation of masocore Mario hacks, from Super Mario Forever to Kaizo Super Mario–take pride in their overt cruelty, allowing the player to see deadly obstacles far too late to avoid them, and demanding memorization, trial and error, and the sheer endurance of a seasoned marathon runner.

But Super Meat Boy might more accurately be filed under a sort of sub-sub-genre that does not yet have a name, to which Terry Cavanagh’s VVVVVV also belongs. You could call it zen masocore. As Kieron Gillen explains, VVVVVV “does everything it can to make the game as easy as possible. Except the game. Which, if you’re going to make a grotesquely difficult game like this, is the way to do it,” because “Humanity can endure anything but unfairness.”

The levels are short, and the action is constant. You restart almost instantly upon death. The controls are unassailably tight, and your goal is constantly clear, and when you die, you always know exactly why you’ve died, and how to avoid it next time. A frustration platformer, then, without all that unnecessary frustration.

The game is still messing with you, but the point is no longer to make you angry. The point is to make you accept that you’re going to fail again and again and again, but that with attention, practice, and a sort of “Sisyphean stoicism,” you can succeed. The point is to make the game’s challenges seem utterly impossible, and yet at the same time, absolutely fair. When you succeed, you’re on top of the world, because you’ve done the impossible, as you somehow always knew you could.

When you first start playing video games, that feeling of accomplishment is nearly constant. But as you get get older, and as you get better, such moments become ever fewer and farther between. Super Meat Boy guarantees that incomparable feeling to all of those who are willing put in the requisite time and effort. No one will breeze through this game, and so everyone who beats it will feel that peculiar rush that can only come from achieving the impossible.

Here difficulty isn’t a niche feature, intended as the exclusive province of extreme masochists. Here, difficulty is the great equalizer. I won’t say that it’s for everyone, but there is something about it that could only be called universal.

8 comments

  1. Good day I was fortunate to search your Topics in yahoo
    your subject is outstanding
    I obtain a lot in your Topics really thanks very much
    btw the theme of you site is really outstanding
    where can find it

    • True enough. I should have said “losing your last life to a robot master meant replaying an entire level.” Assuming you got to the boss with some spare lives, you got a few cracks at that boss.

      But what with Mega Man’s trial-and-error approach to which weapon works on which enemy, it was pretty easy to burn through those spare lives without feeling like you’d learned much or gotten any better, and at that point, trying again meant playing through the whoooooooole level a second (or twentieth) time.

      Getting rid of that outmoded lives system is a big part of what makes Super Meat Boy fair, was my point.

  2. Two comments. (i) I don’t consider Super Meat Boy masocore in the commonly cited senses of subverting expectations, having hidden traps, or requiring the player to use game glitches. It’s usually clear what one should do on a level, and the challenge is to develop enough dexterity and muscle memory to pull it off.

    You are right that a distinct classification is needed that acknowledges the ultimately fair and straightforward character of Meat Boy or VVVVVV. Zen might be an apt designation, but I’m not sure about the masocore part. It’s only masochistic if you let yourself get frustrated and angry! I mean lots of skills require repetition to develop, but are not considered masochistic. There’s just this background presumption in video-gaming that attention spans are short and failure is bad and painful. That’s what these games are trying to challenge.

    All these games have short challenges and infinite lives, so they have a different sort of challenge to the more slow-burn of NES era games, with less acute hard spots but more requirement of sustained skillful play across a long level. There is a Zen in this craft that is not as strong in the modern era of platformers. McMillen himself explains his choice of the short, hard levels, infinite lives format pretty well here: http://supermeatboy.com/13/Why_am_I_so____hard_/

    (ii) I think Meat Boy’s main spiritual predecessor in the modern era is really Matt Thorson’s Jumper, rather than say IWBTG (the classic get-angry masocore).

    (iii) Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts has pretty precise controls IMO. The character is simply much more feeble in his movement abilities than say Meat Boy (whose midair abilities are ridiculous). The SGnG double jump is quite powerful though when you develop a feel for it (holding in reserve for defensive maneuvers, since you are not able to otherwise change direction).

    I played through both games (haven’t beaten the SGnG final boss on the second run-thru, but got to his doorstep). I would say that SGnG is more challenging and harder to develop basic competence, but it was very satisfying to eventually get good. The first level of SGnG is already a crucible, but beating it contains the essence of what you need to progress.

    Ghouls ‘n Ghosts (Genesis) is a wee bit easier and also fun.

    • Fair points all! I linked to that same blog post you did, as a matter of fact, because I think the contrast between Super Meat Boy and VVVVVV on the one hand, and I Wanna Be The Guy on the other, is a sharp one. Fairness is key.

      I’d defend my use of the word masocore to describe Super Meat Boy, though, if only because once you bring Anna Anthropy into the mix, that means taking the idea of games-as-sadomasochism seriously. As Leigh Alexander said in Clipping Through, games like Mighty Jill Off really do top the player (and as such, there’s no way to get deeper into these ideas without talking about BDSM).

      And the interesting thing there is that there’s frequently a zen aspect to actual masochism. If you watch Nick Broomfield’s documentary Fetishes (as one example), you’ll see masochists who, after or even during their masochistic activities, are overwhelmed by a sense of calm. It’s a weirdly peaceful thing. So it makes sense to think about a flavor of masocore that makes the player feel contentment rather than frustration.

      As for Ghouls ‘n Ghosts—all of the Ghoulses and Ghostes, really—I should really revisit. I recall monsters spawning under me while I was already in the air and other similar bullshit, but maybe I simply wasn’t paying enough attention to notice the patterns. Would you recommend starting with the Genesis version, or hammering my head against the wall that is SGnG?

  3. Thanks! I haven’t read Clipping Through, maybe I should. Nor am I versed in BDSM theory/culture, sadly, although I liked Anna Anthropy’s analysis. I would say though that on my “reading” of Mighty Jill Off, any distinctive “topping” of player by game occurs on the narrative and atmospheric level. (with the one exception of the jumping room.) The gameplay mechanics I found delightful and liberating (love the Bomb Jack style high jumping + gliding), and the levels are not so hard, and the ‘punishments’ (i.e. save-point setbacks) pretty mild.

    I do think this kind of separation of gameplay and narrative is usually possible/valid. And, I’m of a mind to classify games primarily by gameplay style—not because it’s The Right Way, but simply because my own gameplay tastes are more particular. I appreciate the themes in the game, but I would’ve played even if Jill was just a nameless jumping square. (And, I would have played if it had the same heroics and grandiose empowerment of Meat Boy’s or Mario’s questing.)

    Calm may be a feature of some submissives’ experience, but I would think that intense pain is a big part as well, as is an uncertainty that comes from handing over control. In Meat Boy you’re often in complete control, at least in the more pure platform-jumping levels. And the object is to perfect that control and shape it into victory. Does one ‘win’ in BDSM?

    As for Zen, thinking more, I would say that I’d hesitate to ‘claim Zen’ for my own gaming–also because of a lack of knowledge/experience, but also because, while I feel a certain serene focused calm, even some absorption, while practicing a Meat Boy level, I am also engaged in a very compulsive behavior pattern. My mind is racing, I don’t want to stop, I will attempt a level 200 times in a row without pause. I’m no master meditator, but I don’t think Zen is supposed to feel that way. :) I do consider SMB time well spent, I just am not sure it fits into these categories of experience. Maybe the label is not so important though, and both comparisons in your proposed label are certainly thought-provoking and interesting to consider.

    Re: Ghouls ‘n Ghosts—I think SGnG is a little harder, and a little better and more polished. I played the Genesis version second so I already had a good feel though, so didn’t re-experience the trauma of playing for the first time. With SGnG I used freeze states to train on maybe the first two levels, then felt bad that I wasn’t getting the authentic NES experience (how’s that for masochism…) Without that initial training though, I might have given up.

    They’re frickin’ hard, but the one thing I’ll say is that the bosses are surprisingly easy. Which was a glad tiding since I never felt good at bosses and resented the huge difficulty spike at a level’s end. That was, I feel, perhaps the most masochistic part of the NES format—the way, e.g. in Megaman titles, you have to continually replay overly familiar levels just to get enough glimpses of a boss to have a hope of developing a decent strategy.

    Your blog is really nice, BTW—found it looking for more masocore-type games, but now I’m reading about all sorts of good stuff…

    • Thanks for the kind words on the blog! Glad you’re finding it worth your while.

      And again, totally fair critique. I’m definitely using an informal admixture of concepts when I talk about zen masocore, since BDSM isn’t generally considered a form of meditation and zen philosophy isn’t generally that interested in sadomasochism. The tension of the term is what I kind of like. Heart-racing meditation, or physical pain producing a sense of peace—to me, those seem like provocative contradictions right out of a zen koan.

      But if you’re saying I’m making it up as I’m going and that it’s still pretty messy, then guilty as charged. :P

      Mighty Jill Off is an interesting case, because just as you say, it doesn’t top the player through gameplay any more than a Mario game (or certain particularly hard Mario games, anyway) would. But I think that’s the game’s point, to a certain degree. It just puts a narrative frame around the idea of level designer as sadist, player as masochist.

      That’s useful because it describes gameplay as a (kinky, maybe-perverse) dialogue between the designer and the player. As you point out, nobody wins BDSM—or more precisely, the only win condition in BDSM is a mutual (but asymmetrical) win condition. That’s one way to think about a satisfying videogame level. A designer who creates a genuinely impossible level hasn’t won, or even really succeeded at anything, after all.

      Mario games are about empowerment, absolutely, but they’re also about running an thoroughly ridiculous gamut on your way to that moment of glory. Kinky stuff.

      (By the way, if you’re interested in that “mutual win condition” idea, and in how it relates to BDSM, then merritt kopas’ game Consensual Torture Simulator is worth checking out).

      By the way, I grabbed Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts from the Wii U eShop on your recommendation, and I’m planning to give it a proper chance. As you’ve probably guessed from my Dark Souls fixation on this here blog, I’m up for a challenge.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s