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.

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