Super Meat Boy is a hard-as-nails 2d platformer. This much you already know. But in addition to the excellent, infuriatingly difficult levels, responsive controls and delightful art direction that make it a fantastic platform game, it’s got a powerful message about success and failure.
In Super Meat Boy, you fail all the time. The game is brutally hard, and you will die a lot. We’re a long way from the old days of platforming. Back in the ’90s, you’d carefully work through successive levels, with every death costing you dearly. If you ran out of lives (and you’d have around 4 of them; 4 permitted deaths in the entire course of the game), your game ended. If you were unable to get past a certain challenge on your first handful of attempts, you had to replay the whole of the rest of the game to get permission to attempt it again. This was hardly the most streamlined way of connecting gamer and challenge. Something needed to change.
The sublime Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time was one of the first to shake things up. By allowing the player to rewind time, mistakes could be undone. This meant that the difficulty of each challenge could be increased. The player was right there at the coal face, engaging directly with the trial at hand, rather than wasting time, energy and attention on anything else.
Braid continued this thinking, but turned it to puzzling (and artistic) ends. Super Meat Boy uses the ability to instantly restart a challenge after death to ramp up the difficulty, making serious demands of the player. Most levels only take around fifteen seconds to complete, but you can guarantee that you have to work for your success. You’ve got to get everything right for the entirety of those fifteen seconds.
Of course, this doesn’t happen. You fail; again and again. Meat Boy gets sliced to pieces, or falls into acid, or gets skewered by a stream of used needles. In letting you quickly have another go, Super Meat Boy continues with the developments that have seen gaming shed its old-school inaccessibility (which it achieved through its obnoxious habit of keeping the player away from the challenges that really tested them), whilst allowing it to ramp up the difficulty. Games like VVVVVV have also done this, letting the player focus on getting to grips with the difficult task in front of them. (VVVVVV does this by having checkpoints after every unit of action.) This isn’t gaming made easier, it’s gaming made more concentrated, and more potent. And, as Super Meat Boy shows, it’s gaming that can now afford to be a lot tougher.
But in all these other games, failure is still a taboo. When you die in VVVVVV or Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, you can have another go. The game quietly looks the other way while you correct your failure. You tidy up the mess you made, dry your tears, compose yourself, and you and the game continue to progress happily together, pretending that it never really happened. You never look your failure straight in the face because you can ignore its consequences.
Super Meat Boy is different. Super Meat Boy realises that success comes through failure and graft, and so doesn’t just sweep your shortcomings under the carpet. While you’re trying to succeed at each level, it doesn’t intrude. But when you’ve completed a level, you are treated to a replay showing all your attempts. You’re shown a scene of utter carnage, with tens of Super Meat Boys running and jumping furiously, with all but one of them facing a horrible demise.
When you save a replay of the level, you don’t just get a record of your eventual success, you get a record of every single death. Because none of these deaths are irrelevant – your learning and improvement is what brought about your success. You slowly get better. You re-wire your brain and improve yourself through failure. You try a jump over and over again. You start to master this hurdle, only to fall at the next one. So you train up on that, learning how best to approach it. All the time your instincts are improving, your reflexes, your affinity with the controls, the game’s physics and paths to success. Your failure is the vehicle for your success, bringing incremental improvement. Super Meat Boy completes each level on a pile of corpses.
So what does this all teach us? When surveying a replay of a level, from a position of triumph, there’s no point in looking back with guilt or shame. You have to accept that you just weren’t as competent back then. Go easy on yourself – you were trying your best – and laugh at your failings. You start the game as a beaten-up piece of meat who’s lost his girlfriend. Every step you take is trying to improve the situation. So don’t focus on what you were when you started, what limited you in the beginning. Focus on how you can move beyond it, and on how you can change. Super Meat Boy is a hard-as-nails 2d platformer, but it also gives us some excellent advice on how to live, how to improve ourselves, and how to work with failure.
Of course, it doens’t always work out like this. We don’t always reflect on our failures from a position of eventual success. Sometimes they play over and over in our heads as we keep on losing. Sometimes the bar’s been set too high. Super Meat Boy has filled me with despair, apathy and shame at my inability to be a better person on more occasions than I can count (and I’ve been playing it for less than a week). But tackling the problem of perpetual failure is another game’s challenge. So I’ll pick myself up, have another go, and, I trust, eventually improve enough to savour another dose of success. The game’s not going to let me have it any other way.
Comments and ideas on this post are, as always, greatly appreciated.