I downloaded Super Meat Boy
last night. It's a good game. It's really hard.
It also uncritically uses the "you're the boy! the girl was kidnapped!
save her!" trope, which isn't a capital crime but is pissing me off more
and more. It got me thinking, though.
One of the best known-games, in the micro-genre of incredibly hard
platform-hoppers, is I Wanna Be
The Guy. I quit playing it in disgust when I discovered that, if you
set it on the easiest difficulty level, your protagonist (The Kid) appears
with a bow in his hair. Because girls are bad at things! Ha ha. Fuck that.
on the other hand, is the ultra-hard game I've probably spent the most
time with. It, too, aligns succeeding at the game with cultural privilege,
just less maliciously-- you play Reginald Q. Moneyseize, who is in search
of gold coins to fund building a huge manument to himself.
Money and masculinity are both, famously, goals that attract huge cults of
people who can't be satisfied-- who would say, if asked, that there's such
a thing as 'enough', but who strangely can never reach 'enough'
And that's interesting! If you give up halfway through Super Mario
Brothers, I think you feel-- I felt, anyway-- as though Mario 'really'
does meet his Princess in the end; you just didn't get to see it. Do
people who quit halfway through Moneyseize feel as though it's the story
of a man who indeed builds the world's tallest tower? Or is the received
story about a quixotic project that's destined to fail on its own terms
(even if Reginald and/or the player find it a satisfying way to spend
time, and if some minuscule fraction of players get a version of the story
where he succeeds)?
The grandparent of this sub-genre, N, doesn't take the privilege
angle*, but it does focus on the inevitability of death. And what about
Super Meat Boy?
Meat Boy leaves a trail of blood behind him when he runs, and the blood
doesn't go away when you die; far from being morbid, this made the level
strangely homey to me. "Hey, there's the spot where I always grab that
wall! There's the ledge I step back and forth on trying to find the right
angle through the meat grinder! There's the-- oops." Best of all, when you
do finish a level, the game shows a simultaneous replay of all your
attempts, like this. A whole flock
of Meat Boys, surging forward to victory! You've crowdsourced the rescue
mission, only you (the player) get to be the winning member of the crowd
no matter what. Eventually.
The game is also strangely encouraging. There's a time limit for each
level, but you can go as far over it as you want-- it's just that if you
beat it, you get a big "RANK: A+!" (and, well, unlock an even harder
version of the level). And the load screen is a big grinning Meat
Boy face with a black eye and missing tooth, apparently thrilled to still
be going regardless of the difficulty; meanwhile, the villain Dr. Fetus
(don't get me started) always looks frustrated during his constant
re-stealing of your companion.
The internet also tells me now that Bandage Girl herself is an unlockable
character, though I don't know whether you get to rescue Meat Boy, or how
she differs from him as a player. (There's no game-mechanical way to make
her weaker than Meat Boy, and Meat Boy's superpower is already to be
really really fast, so the two most stereotypical ways to distinguish her
are out. Yay.)
* Well, in N your ninja is collecting gold coins, but there's no
suggestion that you will ever enjoy any interpersonal power from them:
"You are a ninja. Your God-like speed, dexterity, jumping power, and
reflexes are all the result of an amazingly fast metabolism; sadly, so is
your natural lifetime of 1.5 minutes." Pieces of gold make you happy,
extending your life by 2 seconds each. If you're disappointed about this
footnote ending here, ask me when I'm actually going to write that essay
about video game diegesis.