Twelve million, five hundred fifty thousand, eight hundred twenty-one blocks away, if you want to get technical about it. The name comes from the distance a player must travel in Minecraft to reach ‘The Farlands.’ This is a place where the mathematical rules that control the rendering of the land break down, resulting in spontaneous, foreign, alien features. On top of that, movement becomes aligned to a grid, meaning that the algorithms that smooth out player movement also collapse. Everything feels laggy, although it isn’t. At roughly thirty-two million blocks from the starting point, the variables storing the player’s position overflow. If the game didn’t freeze and crash long before then, the player would likely cease to exist. Such is the ominous nature of the Farlands.

I adopted this name for two reasons. Firstly, the Farlands represent a point at which a game is no longer a game. Defining characteristics are erased, strange and spontaneous problems arise, and things fall apart. In the case of the Farlands, this is caused by events outside of the player’s perception, i.e. the programming and fine-tuning of aesthetics. I adopt this name because, in this blog, I will not simply be reviewing games. I will be picking them apart, defining what about each game makes it a game, and what parts of it fail to meet its own criteria (When it is no longer a game, so to speak.). I will pull apart the inner workings of, not only the aesthetics of the game, but also the psychological effects it has on the player (These would be the ‘events outside of the player’s perception.’). In my reviews, I seek to find the ‘Farlands’ of every game, as well as the reasons behind them.

This is not a video game review blog. This is an insight into the psychological connection and philosophical implication between gaming and the human mind.

For those who are curious, the second reason I chose this name is because Minecraft is pretty fantastic. And I like obscure references to things.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Super Meat Boy

The premise of this game is, simply put, weird. The protagonist is a blob of meat, on a quest to save his girlfriend, who happens to be a clump of bandages, from the clutches of a human fetus in a jar. This isn’t a game that is played for the storyline. A bit of appeal may come from the complete insanity of the character interactions, but this is a game that is designed, almost entirely, for the gameplay.

Before I start detailing everything that makes this game good, I must state that this is a maso-core game. What this means is that it is difficult. Ungodly difficult. You will die at least a thousand times. Progress in games such as these is made, not because of skill, but because of tedious repetition, failure after failure, and slowly learning from the mistakes that are made every ten seconds. These games don’t simply require patience; they require a very calm mentality. Maso-core games are notorious for making people want to break things, and Super Meat Boy is no exception. The reason it is so completely difficult to create a good maso-core game is because the genre itself goes against the traditional definition of what is “good.” The learning curve is too steep, the punishment for failure is usually too harsh, and the environment is usually too unforgiving. All of these points are true with Super Meat Boy, but something in it makes it incredibly addicting, which is hard to accomplish when you’re failing every ten seconds.

The graphics are bright; friendly. There are no jagged edges, no harsh outlines. Everything flows together, and it is very pleasing to look at. There are just the right amount of cutscenes. Not so many that it feels more like a movie than a game, but not too few that the gameplay grows monotonous and dry. The humor is dark and cruel. Never before has a game killed off key characters, so nonchalantly, with a happy smile. The game is unique, even within its genre, yet still contains the key components of a maso-core game. It is a mesh of all the things we love in games, and all the things we despise.

Of the things we like, the control reigns supreme. The character moves very smoothly, and, despite this incredibly smooth movement, is still capable of stopping on a dime. It looks and feels like it’ll be difficult to control, as the character tends to slide around, yet a bit of practice makes perfect. After a bit of time, the controls feel great, and the player will feel in complete control of the character.

The beauty of Super Meat Boy is that the things we enjoy tend to shroud the things we don’t. For example, the character leaves a trail of blood everywhere he goes. Dying and restarting the level is bothersome, but painting the entire map is strangely entertaining. If you aren’t fond of the blood, there’s always the replay. Upon completing a level, your efforts, all of your failed ones and your single success, are replayed at the same time. What starts as a massive mob of meat boys dwindles down to the one that successfully makes it. And this is another fun thing to watch; to be able to say “despite all those deaths, I still made it. I still won.” It lifts you up. The knowledge that you are capable of starting at nothing and conquering every obstacle is very encouraging. So you beat one level, and it felt great. Now beat another. And another. And another. Before you know it, you’re lost in the game. A death is just “another way not to make a light bulb,” so to speak. And you learn this.

That being said, the game will still anger players. Everyone has a breaking point, especially in a game such as this. You’ll put the game down, you’ll swear it’s all crap, you’ll claim you’re done with it. And yet, you’ll go back. You’ll beat the level that caused you all that anger, and you’ll keep playing.

This is muscle memory. This is evidence of the effectiveness of practice. While playing through a particularly difficult level, you will find yourself getting farther and farther with each try. Not much, but eventually, you’ll be at the end. Everything that you’ve gotten past so far, you haven’t done so because you consciously think about it more. It isn’t more focus, or even that you’re getting better. If anything, you’ll be less focused on the parts you are eventually able to pass. This is muscle memory. At this point, you instinctively know how to get around obstacles.

When you leave, come back, tear through a level that tore through you a day ago, it is because of practice. With practice, everyone reaches a breaking point. They won’t get any better, and they usually start doing worse. After a good night’s sleep and another try, they find that they are better now than they were at all the day before. This is how practicing works, and it is made very evident in Super Meat Boy.

It is still a maso-core game, yes, but success in the game, while still based on repetition and frustration, is made exponentially easier by muscle memory and practice. Other games in the genre don’t achieve this. They are either too hard, and the cycle of memory and practice is too slow for the player to feel rewarded, or they are too easy, and fall short of the “maso-core” title, ending up only as hard, irritating games.

Super Meat Boy found the equilibrium between ‘challenging’ and ‘impossible.’ It is this equilibrium that expresses, quite successfully, the power of practice. After enough repetition, any level in the game can be completed. It’s fast enough for players to notice it happening, but slow enough that it still poses a challenge. The game is also dynamic enough that, if there isn’t enough challenge, there are still 100+ levels outside of the main storyline that are mind-numbingly difficult. Regardless of the player, this game will be a challenge. There will still be a flawless example of the power of perseverance.

With practice, anything can be achieved. Any obstacle can be overcome. Those with natural talent may have a head start, but no one is limited on how much they can grow. Anyone can become incredible at anything; all it takes is perseverance and practice. When it comes down to it, the only obstacle is determination. Anyone can do anything they want to, and in a roundabout way, Super Meat Boy is a testament to that.

Thursday, September 1, 2011


Before we get started here, I’d like to state that the majority of this analysis will be my interpretation on the events of the game. To get the most out of this, it would be best if you had played the game first. If not, then reading this could either A) Completely spoil the game for you, or B) Give you more of a drive to play the game. I don’t know which it will be, because susceptibility to spoilers changers per person, and I don’t know how much of a giveaway this analysis will be of the events in the game.

You could just play it safe and play this incredible, time-manipulation-oriented game prior to reading this. It’s an experience unlike anything I’ve ever seen in gaming. Others have attempted it, yes, but Braid was the first to actually succeed, and what an overwhelming success it was.

This game doesn’t just allow you to rewind time on a whim. It allows you to rewind specific objects through time, freeze time in localized areas, match the movement of time with your forward or backward motions. Braid gives you an incredible variety of control over the flow of time, and this plays a very important role in the understanding of the game’s events. Similar to The Company of Myself, this game immerses the player in the character’s story by forcing them to take part in the character’s actions.

The ingenuity of it all comes from the various ways the player must manipulate time to reach the goal of each level. As soon as you have learned one method, feel like you have mastered it, another, completely different mode of manipulation is thrown your way. As soon as the player is comfortable with reversing the flow of time, they have to deal with objects that don’t obey the manipulations. After that are the character’s shadows, or “ghosts,” which are essentially time-space duplicates.

After each component is mastered, a new way of thinking must be learned. At the peak of each new method of manipulation, the player is able to logically deduce how to solve every problem. They feel intelligent in a new way, and they feel on top of their game. It’s a good feeling, but the very next level breaks that down. Back to the basics. The player must relearn everything they thought they knew. As frustrating as it can be, it builds a kind of self-confidence; an ability to start from nothing and reach any goal that needs to be achieved. It formulates the concept, however faint, that nothing is impossible, that tasks can always be accomplished. This is the psychological reward of a game such as Braid.

The storyline, if properly deciphered, or even realized, is something that can be much more rewarding. Now, if you have not played Braid yet, and do not want anything spoiled, I would stop here. Otherwise, carry on.

Most people will understand the fact that Tim left someone he loved to pursue someone or something else, some will see that the princess is a metaphor for the atomic bomb, but few will see that there are two storylines: A metaphorical one, played forwards, and a romantic one, played backwards. I’ll start with the metaphorical, as it will be easier to see, therefore, easier to understand.

Note how Tim leaves the girl to pursue the Princess. All throughout the game, he is trying to find her, yet cannot come up with an easy way to do so. He begins relying on his feelings and thoughts, believing that they will eventually lead him to the Princess. In this regard, his pursuit of her is very similar to the scientific method. He strolls around various areas, taking notes of how he feels, just as one would do a variety of experiments, taking note of the results. Tim’s pursuit of the Princess is a scientific one, eventually leading to an incredible breakthrough.

The entire game is Tim’s discovery of the atomic bomb, and, as expressed in the epilogue, it was a success. It details all of the finer points, connecting Braid to the Manhattan Project even more so. It even discusses the methods Tim used, and the end of the epilogue states that it “feels like an acceptable start:” The start of the arms race. Aside from that, the beginning scene is a bombed city.

There is another point in all of this, though. If the story is of the discovery of the atomic bomb, then where does time manipulation fit in? Well, shouldn’t we all feel guilty of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Shouldn’t we wish that such a tremendous demonstration of the barbarity of humanity never occurred? Shouldn’t we desire to reverse time, and prevent this discovery? Therein lies the connection to time manipulation.

The other storyline is something that astounded me when I discovered it. In World One (The last world you unlock), Tim tells of how he lives opposite everyone else. Where he is pursuing a spark that will later grow into a “palace where we can exist in peace,” everyone else is leaving this “palace,” forgetting of its existence, and forgetting what they once had. At least, this is true from Tim’s perspective. But, keep in mind, that Tim is living his life in reverse.

As he left the one he loved to pursue this Princess, he states that he didn’t need to say anything. She already knew. It implies a fading, dying love, ending with Tim walking out on her to find the girl that has always been on his mind. Now play this in reverse. There is a girl, a princess, that Tim can’t stop thinking about. He meets this girl, and a love is born. It is weak at first, filled with distrust, yet it grows. As Tim states, “he thought he had been cultivating the perfect relationship.” Played in reverse, this is true, and their love continues to grow.

As you play through the game (and progress backwards through this storyline), you will reach the final scene, where the backwards nature of their romantic tale is revealed. What appears to be a kidnapper becomes the “Princess’s” “knight in shining armor,” And together, they are happy. This Knight is the original “Tim.”

In the final scene, the current Tim must come to terms with his past (Which is, coincidentally, her future). He sees that he has been living backwards, and effectively chases the Princess away from his current self in the act, pushing her into the arms of his past self.

Tim was blinded by what he believed. He wasn’t moving towards some great palace, but away from it. It is everyone else who actively pursue what they desire, while Tim left that which he loved the most. This is the initial mistake that Tim made, as referenced in the very first book you open. By the end, he sees that, once upon a time, they were happy together. It is time for him to start living forward.

The multi-layered, interlacing storylines are what completely blew my mind with Braid. It is the kind of hook that keeps players interested, long after playing the game. There will always be a desire to figure out meaning, and this game gives plenty of meanings to decipher. For intellectuals, this game is brilliant. The incredible variety in time manipulation was what got me hooked into the game, but the two storylines, running in opposite directions, are what makes this game truly memorable. And yet, the connections do not stop there. A “braid” is a series of connected things, such as two storylines, crisscrossing each other. It is multiple meanings, such as the braid of stories, or the Princess’s “braid.” The title of the game itself references both the storylines and the Princess, making it an autonym (A word that defines itself).

The multiple layers of this game make it truly unique. The play style, although not necessarily new, is something that no other game has fully succeeded in doing. Braid is beautiful for these reasons.