A brief look at one gun, two games, and what they say about the transition from the old school to the new school of shooters
In most shooters, the first few guns you get are bog standard. A pistol here, an machine gun there, maybe a shotgun. They're the basic tools of an effective arsenal, but they're uninteresting, and usually get outclassed in a few hours. But Resistance: Fall of Man did things differently. Because twenty minutes in, you get the Bullseye, a gun with more character than most shooters' entire arsenal.
And it looks good, too
The Bullseye is the kind of submachine gun Rambo would design. With a huge 70-round clip that disappears in about three seconds, surprisingly high damage per round, and pretty terrible accuracy, it's made for spray-and-pray, a beast of a weapon that begs you to get in the Chimeras' faces and rip them to shreds. It's the kind of weapon that encourages rash decisions and aggressive movement, right down to the jerky, unhinged firing animation.
Just look at that thing go (5:30 for the good stuff)
And it's a perfect fit for Fall of Man's combat. At a time when military shooters were encouraging measured tactics and progressively more conservative play, Resistance was more Starship Troopers than Navy Seals. Always outnumbered, outgunned, and hounded by relentlessly aggressive enemies, the only way to survive in Resistance was by constantly pushing forward, safety and security be damned. Try to cower behind cover, and you'll find yourself surrounded…and that never ends well. It was the Andrew WK of console shooters, a desperation-and-adrenaline-soaked binge that didn't worry about making you feel smart as much as it did making you feel like a reckless, destructive badass.
Fast forward two and a half years, and Resistance 2 emerges with a very different set of priorities. It was smarter, more sensible, and more "tactical"; health regenerated, Chimeran aggression was dialed down, and measured, "stop and pop" shooting was the name of the game. And the new Bullseye fit right in. It eschewed the constant inaccuracy of the Bullseye v1 for a variable spread that encouraged controlled bursts. Clip size and fire rate were down, as was damage. What had previously been an uncontrollable monster felt trained and obedient, better at placing shots and picking off targets, but at the expense of most of its past fearsomeness.
And that's without even mentioning the tags. In Bullseye v1, the tags were essential to hit anything at long range…but more often, they were just used to focus fire and switch from killing a Chimera fast to killing it really fast. The Bullseye v2 didn't need the tags in open combat…it was accurate enough without them, and there were more viable alternates for long-range combat than the first game had had. So they became circumstantial, most useful when you wanted to run away or duck behind cover and still do damage. In the Bullseye v1, the tags supported its recklessness…in v2, the tags supported caution.
Objectively, neither type of game is better or worse. I'd argue that the original game was exhilarating while the sequel was boring, but plenty of others I'm sure would say the former was mindless and one-note while the latter was smart and tactical. But a transition it was, and it's undeniably true that these games, and these guns, show how just a few subtle changes can completely change how a shooter feels and plays.
As a final note, everything above applies entirely to the single-player campaigns. With the balance changes made for multiplayer, the differences between the Bullseye in Resistance 1 and 2 are far less significant.
Horror fans have had a great couple months. In film, The Conjuring has been a bigger box office success than any traditional horror movie in nearly a decade, and You're Next has been dragged from production purgatory to heaps of critical praise. We've had two viable entrants into the "Scariest Game Ever" debate with the asylum-bound Outlast and the reality-unbound Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs. And while the recent de-fanging of the FEAR and Dead Space franchises was all but a death knell for AAA horror, and well-marketed sequels still outperform smarter flicks at the box office, there's plenty of reason for a horror buff to be happy.
If there's one thing we've learned from the "Adventure games" revival spurred on by David Cage and the indie scene, it's that games and movies are separate beasts and need to do different things to succeed. If there's an exception, it's probably horror. Whether on a silver screen or a backlit one, horror is designed, first and foremost, to scare the viewer. Good horror scares us, and bad horror doesn't. The methods, imagery, and tropes games use to send chills down our spines pull from the same pool of influences as cinematic horror--namely, books and other movies. Silent Hill wouldn't exist without Jacob's Ladder, Dead Space owes a debt to Event Horizon and The Thing, Outlast pulls from Session 9 and Rec, and parts of Amnesia would fit right in with Lovecraft's works. It's fantastic source material, something that's been proven time and again, and it's led to a genre that has scared us for years and keeps finding new ways to do so. But an important and ever-growing slice of the horror movie pie remains conspicuously absent.
A lot of us probably still think of horror as it was in its heyday in the mid-70's through early 90's. These were the days of John Carpenter's early works, when slasher flicks and trippy brain-benders reigned supreme and every movie was about some kind of supernatural, nigh-invulnerable baddie gruesomely killing off a group, person by person. After a decade-long doldrum, legitimate horror re-emerged in the early 2000s with a different flavor, one heavily influenced by the blockbuster success of The Blair Witch Project. Old horror's focus on "things that go bump in the night" was replaced by more realistic threats that turned out to be far scarier. Poltergeist and Amityville's ghosts loved to throw chairs and make faces in curtains, but The Others and later Sinister and The Conjuring showed that the mere suggestion of paranormal activity could be far more effective. Rec and 28 Days Later were zombie flicks that focused on the human drama--the zombies were part of the story, but far from all of it. Wolf Creek and Inside both proved that real human insanity is far more affecting than Freddy or Jason's apathetic sadism.
Old school horror
It's evidence of a shift in what it means to be scary. The goal is no longer to make the audience cringe or recoil. Instead, writers and directors have sought out the roots of fear, feelings like claustrophobia, entrapment, and impending harm, and they have found that these same feelings of terror can be replicated in much more believable settings and conflicts. The scares are just as potent as they ever were, but everything else from the characters to the setting to the ways the conflict plays out are much more believable and much more interesting than anything seen in their schlockier cousins.
But horror games remain obsessed with the horrific. Dead Space, Resident Evil, and Silent Hill revel in blood and gore, filling every minute of game time with crimson walls and severed limbs. Amnesia, while relatively bloodless, instead deals in the surreal, stretching reality like taffy. Even those games that show restraint at first like Outlast and Condemned quickly give way to entrails and ghosts. We've gotten used to this and see it as the way things are, but when you take a step back, you realize the average Dead Space baddie is more monstrous than anything seen in cinema in years, and Alma's presence in FEAR was like a megaphone compared to Samara's subtle place in The Ring.
There's nothing wrong with big, gory horror, because it obviously works. Dead Space and Amnesia are objectively terrifying, and the setting and enemies deserve a share of the credit. But shocks like these only continue to work when they escalate. And when you're starting things off at the level of Barker or Lovecraft, there's not much room to make things worse. The feeling of being trapped or hunted, or the sensation that I'm running out of time…that never gets old. And it doesn't matter if the reason I'm under duress is a monster with three heads and twelve tentacles or a fat guy who thinks I killed his daughter. The horror is there either way. Beyond the first few times, all this gruesomeness and reality-bending is just window dressing.
We've seen a couple examples of more realistic horror, but they're rare and tend to fall outside the horror genre. Manhunt would've been an excellent dose of purified hunter-hunted tension were it not for immersion-breaking AI, and The Last of Us showed us that humans with nothing to live for can scare us more than monsters when they're portrayed well. Even the Bioshock series has, at times, served as a tremendous demonstration of how utterly horrific other people can be if their motivations push them to do the wrong thing. And when you ask people about horror games, it's the more human parts that stick with them, like Bioshock's iconic pistol reveal or Dead Space's suicidal engineer banging his head against a wall. Seeing ourselves in an environment with realistic people that we can believe affects us in ways that a complete fantasy can't.
Artists will always find ways to make things bigger, badder, and bloodier, and crafty scripters will always find new ways to get the jump on us. But this will never truly resonate with us in the same way as seeing people fight for their lives against something we could believe really exists. Horror is fine the way it is; there's no need for a revolution. But the next time horror developers are sketching out the influences on their games, it'd be great to see this list reflect what modern horror has become.
On June 7th, I created my Destructoid account. Over the next 6 weeks, I wrote three posts. Not one of them was good. In fact, they were so far below my expectations that I stopped writing for over a month. And then last Saturday, I wrote my first article that didn't suck.
Objectively, it was nothing special. Five likes (the sixth was my own sleepiness-induced misclick) and thirteen comments is a far cry from setting the community on fire. But last Saturday's piece is the first time I've been proud of an article a week later. It was the first time I'd created something that had resonated with somebody else.
It feels fantastic. And I want more. And I know I can't be the only one on here who thinks this way.
Any of you who run in particularly artsy circles or have a lot of hipster friends are probably familiar with Ira Glass's bit on how he built his creative talent. For those of you who haven't, I've posted a video of it below. Watch it--there are few better ways to spend two minutes.
This concept is the fundamental basis of the group.
I'd like to, with this post, propose the foundation of the Destructoid Writers Group. With the support of the community, I hope it will evolve over time, but right now, I want to keep it simple. Right now, all I'm looking for is a group of people willing to make a single commitment:
Every person in the group pledges to produce one quality article every week.
It's that simple.
Well, not quite. Because sometimes a rule or two can help us keep ourselves honest.
First off, this isn't an average of one article every week…it means that every week, you write at least one article. Even if you're working on a huge expose on Jet Force Gemini to rival The Gameslinger's Bullet Witch piece, you'd better pump out some content on the side. And you don't get weeks off...every week, something has to get produced. If you want to be treated like a professional, and think like a professional, and act like a professional, you need to work like a professional.
Second, each article should be something you're proud of. Optimally, you'd hope that each of these articles would be front-page quality. But at the very least, they'd better be the best you can do. Think of these weekly articles like training sessions for a sport…half-assing them won't get you results. Consistent, focused effort will.
The topic doesn't matter. The kind of post doesn't matter. All that matters is that you're challenged by the writing process, and that you're pushing yourself hard enough that it's helping you learn and grow.
How to Join
Even if I don't get a single reply to this, I'm strapping myself in for the next 52 weeks. And I'm fine with that. But this idea only gets stronger with more people behind it--it's harder to cop out when you know there are others out there holding you to a high standard. If you want in, drop a comment below saying you're down. If you'd like, pick the day you're planning to publish each week, and I'll pester you if you miss a deadline. The only thing I ask if that you truly commit...it's all on an honor system, so dedicated people will push others to be better, but slackers will pull others down to their level.
I'd love for this to eventually grow into something truly collaborative, where we can discuss topics, get feedback, and treat each other like editors. But I also want to let that transition happen organically. For now, I want to take one step at a time.
In just four articles, I've already learned an enormous amount about the writing process. When I think about where I'll be a year from now, with 52 more articles under my belt, I'm almost giddy with excitement.
My goal is to eventually be more than somebody with a space on the web. I want to be an authority, a thinker, a writer that people care about. The only way I'm gonna get there is by building my skills. And the only way that will happen is by forcing myself to produce and grow.
It's difficult to think of a recent E3 reveal that went more poorly than XboxOne launch title Ryse. This wasn't like us laughing at the technical follies of Wonderbook or cringing at the awkwardness of Wii Music. This wasn't just incompetence. Ryse was offensive, a manifestation of everything we'd been dreading to see happen in mainstream gaming. It had huge, dumb set pieces, and a huge, dumb protagonist, but worst of all, it had a combat system that relied so heavily on quick time events that some described it as Simon Says in a different skin.
The now-infamous original E3 demo
Earlier this week, Design Director PJ Esteves was interviewed by Eurogamer, and the interview was cited by Destructoid in an article on Wednesday. Esteves was emphatic that the team had listened to these complaints, and had made significant changes. The previously passive enemies now aggressively attempted to surround the player; an increased focus on basic combat shifted QTEs from a combat mainstay to a form of punctuation; the visual cues were made much more subtle, trading big, blaring button prompts for thin colored outlines or, on the hardest difficulty, nothing at all.
As of this writing, the Eurogamer interview and the Destructoid article have gathered, in total, nearly 300 comments, and a quick glance at them shows that Esteves hasn't changed many minds. In fact, he seems to have had the opposite effect, with many commenters arguing that the unwanted core elements remain unchanged, and that they're furious that Crytek would try to pull the wool over their eyes like this. After all, changing some visual cues and slowing down the pace doesn't do anything to solve the problem…right?
The more recent Gamescom demo
Let's look at the tape. Every change Esteves mentions can be seen in the recent Gamescom footage--the enemies are more threatening, most of the damage is done by conventional attacks, and the quick-time cues are indeed much more subtle. In fact, the combat in this video bears more than a passing resemblance to arguably the most widely praised combat system of the previous generation--Rocksteady's Arkham games. Back when it burst onto the scene in 2009, Arkham Asylum's combat was nothing less than revolutionary. While games before it had always mapped attacks and animations to a specific string of inputs, AA's combat was highly contextual, and a single press of the melee button could give a stiff elbow to a guy 3 feet away just as easily as it could flying-punch a guy 20 feet away. You didn't direct Batman's moves as much as you conducted them, guiding Batman throughout the combat zone and letting him worry about the details.
The fundamentals of Arkham's combat have remained unchanged even in the upcoming Arkham Origins
What resulted was an entirely different flow and feel from a traditional action game. With the intricate details taken out of the player's hands, success and failure relied mostly on identifying and reacting to visual cues. Some are simple--if you see a guy punch, you know you need to counter or dodge. Some are more complex--if you see a guy with a riot shield, you know you need to dodge over his head then attack. Some are even situational--when a thug picks up a gun, you know you'd better deal with him with a quick fist or a batclaw .
So what you're really doing is scanning the battlefield for these visual cues, then reacting in response. If you identify the right cue, and react the right way, your attack succeeds, or a thug's attack misses. If you mess up, you get punished for it, either with a failed attack or a blow to the face. And when you strip everything down to this level, the system fundamentally sounds like a whole bunch of QTEs.
Now obviously, this complaint was never raised with the Arkham games, so there must be something different going on here. For one, the cues are, compared to a button prompt, are very subtle, and they're learned rather than given. You know you need to capestun that huge mutant because you figured that out in an earlier encounter, not because there's a big red circle over his head. This makes it feel like you're applying tactics you've discovered on your own rather than just following a script.
But more importantly, the cues govern combat without restricting it. Reactive moments are a critical component of an Arkham fight, but they're strung together by periods of freedom, where you can do whatever you want. If you want to bounce around between enemies, you can, as long as you dodge every time they take a swing. If you want to pound away at the big guys before chipping away at their minions, or vice versa, you have the freedom to do so. Even if success and failure often hinges on identifying and reacting to very specific cues, the big-picture tactics remain flexible enough that you can craft your own personal style.
But then, when you look at Ryse's combat as it stands now, it's hard to argue that these things aren't already in place. Most of the combat seems to demand the same core competencies that Arkham did--enemy awareness, positioning, and fight management. Most of the time, you're fighting your way…occasionally, you have to react to something, and you're rewarded or punished accordingly. The maligned quick time events, if anything, seem to be an extension of Arkham's takedowns, a move used to finish an enemy only after they've been broken down by more traditional means. If the game is pulling the strings, it's never enough to take control out of the player's hands.
Arkham's combat system succeeded because it married the unique, badass moves that only scripting can create with the sense of risk and reward of a more traditional combat system. While Ryse's first demo may have focused on the former to the detriment of the latter, recent changes have brought the system back into balance. It'll still be a few months before we know if Ryse is a good game--the Arkham games, after all, were good for dozens of reasons beyond their combat--but I think we have enough evidence now to say that the fights are no longer the train wreck they once were. Ripping Ryse apart merely because of its association with the three most hated letters in gaming isn't just foolish--it's the kind of counterproductive argument that makes developers' lives hell.
We often complain that games should be judged on their execution and their merits rather than their back of the box features. At least when it comes to Ryse, we need to start listening to our own advice.
The MOBA is here to stay. Its appeal to gamers is obvious--you don't get to 12 million players a day on a single game without doing something right--as is its appeal to developers, rooted in its perfect framework for stealing from players time and their wallets. Its presence was welcomed at first, when games like Demigod were still fresh to most, then annoyed as we saw squabbles between a number of very similar games.
But now, we've started to see games defect from interesting ideas toward MOBAs, and we're seeing developers try to cash in on the genre like never before. It seems like MOBAs are taking over, and a lot of us aren't happy about it.
But there's no point in getting too steamed, because we've been here before. Not only have we been here before, but it didn't even go so badly in the long run. Think back to late 2004 to early 2005. In late 2004, a blockbuster game brought unforeseen attention to a genre that had been doing well, but lacked the mainstream relevancy it desired. In its wake came a scourge of imitators that shamelessly aped its concepts while adding little of their own. It took nearly three years for the genre to turn around, and all the while the majority of the gaming press railed against the genre's stagnancy while claiming that we "already had enough of them."
These three years tracked the rise, fall, and rebirth of the console shooter. The parallels to what we see right now in MOBAs are compelling enough to notice, and maybe even compelling enough to be instructive. So I figured that, by looking at what happened in the wake of these three years and how they came about, we might gain some insight into what could happen with MOBAs in the future, and determine whether we really need to be worried about them taking over.
The chart above tracks the 88 non-shovelware shooters released on Sony and Microsoft systems between January 1st 2004 and December 31st 2009. (There's also three SOCOMs in there because I'm an idiot and forgot they weren't FPSes, and I excluded any games like Doom 3 that were released on consoles long after their PC releases) On the top is the Metacritic score of each, with a line for each year showing the average score weighed by sales--in other words, demonstrating the approximate quality of the games people actually played in that year. The bottom half displays the total PS2/XBOX/PS3/360 sales of each game in millions. I've also marked any games that sold over 2.5 million or had a Metacritic above 85 along the central x-axis.
Going back to the analogy with MOBAs, we're currently somewhere in the 2005 period--the smash hit (Halo 2 for shooters, LoL, or even DOTA 2 for MOBAs) wasn't all that long ago, and we're in the midst of a seemingly unending deluge of mediocre-or-worse titles. With that out of the way, let's see what happened from this point with console shooters.
1. It took a while for things to get better.
Halo 2 was a really good game, and a lot of people played it. Meanwhile, Battlefield on the PC and Battlefront on consoles were bringing popularity to "open battlefield" shooters, while the tail end of the military shooter binge shuffled us down corridors and espoused the virtues of scripted, linear levels. These three games set up a strong template for success, and almost every single shooter released all the way until the middle of 2006 blatantly cribbed one of these templates. The few that didn't--games like Brothers in Arms, Urban Chaos: Riot Response, and Star Wars: Republic Commando--quickly became cult classics, but had virtually no effect on the scene as a whole.
The breakout success of these few titles seemed to force a set of blinders onto developers, who became content to distinguish their games on the merit of simple gimmicks. And while some of these gimmicks were relatively ambitious, like Prey's dimension-bending environments and Black's destructive excess, their core gameplay played the same tired tropes over and over again. This lasted well into the shooter doldrum of 2007--note that the stinker that was Hour of Victory, despite being only the 4th shooter released in 07, came out all the way in late June.
2. The revolution happened quickly and somewhat unexpectedly.
In retrospect, the success of the 2007 holiday season seems obvious. Hindsight is 20/20, and it seems like we should've known before Bioshock, The Orange Box, Halo 3, and Call of Duty 4 came out that we were in for something special. But at the time, that wasn't the case. The former two were kept under tight wraps before release, and represented concepts so new that many were wary of them before release. And the latter pair were new releases in standby franchises, and while we knew they were going to be good, the glut of uninspired sequels and "me too" shooters didn't exactly breed enthusiasm. And who can forget the rage of Call of Duty adherents who were aghast at the betrayal of the series' WWII roots. When you factor in that, within just the past year, Prey, Resistance: Fall of Man, Shadowrun, and The Darkness had all failed to meet their enormous critical and commercial expectations to varying degrees.
Of course, all this skepticism was then rewarded with the two greatest months in console shooter history. But even among this, note that the exact kind of games that made us so jaded kept coming; in fact, late 2007 and early 2008 marked the absolute nadir, with a stream of titles so hopelessly generic and mediocre that I'd find it hard to believe most gamers these days even remember any of them existed.
3. The cycle repeats.
Throughout this graph, it's easy to see a constant cycle of peaks and valleys; the 2007 bonanza was followed by a relatively dull 2008, with another surge in quality in 2009. You see it in sports, movies, markets, everywhere--something works, everybody jumps on a bandwagon to follow it, and a lack of innovation and an abundance of "me-too"ness drags down quality, until a rare combination of talent and arrogance either makes something different or does the same thing so exceptionally well that people take notice. But this doesn't discount the forgotten masses, either--Shadowrun emphasized the player choice and distinctive character shapes that Team Fortress 2 would perfect, and the satisfying scale of games like the Battlefronts may have contributed to Halo 3's more epic scope.
So we can all agree that where we are right now, MOBAs kinda suck. But they don't really suck any more or less than shooters seemed to suck in 2005. A lot of failures will be thrown our way, a number of good franchises will senselessly defect toward conformity, and a lot of games will be released that utterly fail to make a lasting impression.
But if console shooters can teach us anything, there may be a light coming. Somewhere out there, maybe in a year, maybe in two, maybe in more, developers will look at the corpses of these dozens of failed projects, and start thinking. They'll start tinkering and pulling things apart and bringing things together and thinking about the genre in a different way. And out of all this machinated chaos will come a glorious reinvention of the genre, a game that elevates what we thought was already perfect or that shifts the playing field entirely. We will cheer, we will celebrate, we will call it a classic. And a few years later, when the next genre gets hot--and oh, how I hope it's a light gun game renaissance--we will grumble once again.
Even if everybody on the ice wore the exact same jerseys, any hockey fan could pick out Sidney Crosby in an instant. NHL players are obviously all a talented lot--that's why they get paid to do something millions of Canadians do for fun. But even by this standard, Crosby's movements seem unusually effortless. He skates with his head up, scanning all across the ice for open teammates, gaps between defenders, and shooting lanes. His rarely seems to focus on the puck, and yet he regularly performs mind-blowing feats of agility that few can match. If we didn't know better, it would seem like magic, or at the very least, some untouchable innate talent that made him a “born hockey player.”
Now if we watch a bit of this match from a recent Black Ops 2 World Championship, it doesn't take long to see this same sort of “magic.” While aiming and shooting is just about the only thing an average player ever thinks about, these guys make it look trivial--threats are spotted when so much as a leg sticks out, crosshairs snap instantly to their targets, and a few quick bursts almost always does the job. They seem to know where their opponents are before they see them, and over and over again, they pull off kills that us mere mortals could only do with an immense dose of luck. To do it this consistently is incomprehensible.
Science has given us an explanation for the skill of both Crosby and the Call of Duty champs. One of the modern understandings of talent, popularized by the likes of Malcolm Gladwell and Daniel Coyle, argues that the reason these experts make things look so effortless is because they are, for them, effortless. These actions are governed by what psychologists would call implicit thought, or what laypeople would call, instinct. To put it simply, Crosby has put so many thousands of hours of practice into puck control that his brain can handle these actions on autopilot. A Black Ops player has aimed at so many thousands of foes that it has become entirely automatic. And the result is that, with their brain freed from these menial tasks, these experts can focus on observation, judgment, and analysis, even when in situations that would overwhelm those of lesser skill.
We see this ease, this ability to perform at a level that is literally unbelievable, in nearly any complex skill, from the soccer player who can juggle a ball in ways that defy physics to the pianist who can play a flurry of 32nd notes with poise and subtlety. In almost every case, the road to gain this skill is long and arduous; in most cases, it's physically and mentally painful. But I believe that doesn't have to be the case. I believe that a tool has been developed that can teach high-level skill quickly, effectively, and painlessly. In fact, I hope to demonstrate why an indie game from two ex-Newgrounds developers is one of the best teachers of skill I've ever encountered.
The Meat of the Argument
Saying that Super Meat Boy requires precise input is like saying that Ronnie Coleman is a large man. It's technically true, but it's so much of an understatement that it completely misses the point. Super Meat Boy is a game of millisecond timing and millimeter inputs. Hold jump for two hundredths of a second too long, and your poor meat cube's contents are spewed across the level. Swivel the analog stick a couple degrees too far to the right or left, and your fate is sealed. To pass even the simplest levels requires robotic accuracy, and the more complex tests would be impossible without practice.
And yet progress is constant. The first attempt at an obstacle is often laughably bad. And the next attempt may not be much better. But eventually, you get a bit closer to success. And closer. And closer. Until, in a glorious moment of triumph, you succeed.
This first success is when the real magic starts to happen. Whether it took a dozen tries, fifty tries, or three hundred tries, the obstacle seems just a little bit easier after it's been beaten. And each time you pass it, it gets even easier. And easier. Until eventually, it becomes effortless. This obstacle that caused so much grief, this jump with error bounds that would make NASA break into a sweat, just sort of happens. Your brain and fingers go on autopilot, and performing the movement perfectly becomes as trivial as tying your shoes.
You can watch this happen on an SMB replay after success on a particularly tough level. The first runs at a difficult obstacle, whether a giant sawblade or a tiny platform, spawn a huge cloud of red squares that throw themselves at it from every direction. In the middle of this cloud, however, is a thin stream of runs that flow right around the danger. This stream represents effortless perfection, dozens of successful runs, each nearly identical to the one that preceded them. You couldn't be this precise if you tried--in fact, this can only happen because you no longer need to try. Your brain has been wired to do the work for you.
The parallels to the high-level skills mentioned above are obvious. A series of inputs or movements that seemed almost impossible at first gradually, with practice, becomes possible, then easy, then entirely effortless. By the end, a skill has been developed, and repeating it requires nary an ounce of effort. But there's a big difference between SMB and process required to gain most other skills--time. For a hockey player to perfect a wrist shot takes years, and for a guitarist to learn to even fret a single note consistently can take hours. But SMB drives a drastic evolution of skill in just a few minutes. Something incredible is happening.
Super Meat Boy is perfectly constructed to teach a complex skill. This comes down to 5 key characteristics:
- Rules A standardized and unchanging set of rules that allows the player to learn and adapt
- Feedback Direct, instructive, and clear feedback on not just if the player failed, but why
- Repetition A design allowing dozens of repetitions in the span of a few minutes
- Challenge A design that demands the most out of its players, while keeping success within reach
- Flow Through a combination of the above, a style of gameplay that keeps players intrinsically motivated to keep playing
If any of these are missing, the game becomes a much less effective learning tool. It is only the presence of all five of these in one game that generates its impressive effect.
Super Meat Boy levels are dynamic. While the first world might have a few levels with nothing more than stationary platforms and sawblades, by the time you reach the fourth and fifth areas, you'll be weaving between balls of lava, dancing circles around monsters and rockets, and squeezing past slow-moving slugs. But despite all this movement, the way things move never changes. Meat Boy always runs the same speed and jumps the same height; a platform always crumbles after the same amount of time; a rocket always has the same turning radius. Even more importantly, the levels are, by design, not randomized...every single run starts with the entire level in an identical state.
The result of all this is that the world is governed by a strict set of rules that foster learning and adaptation. Take the screenshot below from a level named “Flood” in the fifth world. This was taken an instant after the start of the level, and I can already tell you which of these replays survived and which ones failed. That slug on the right starts at the same place every time, and slowly creeps to the right side of the screen. He's been placed precisely so that if you run as fast as possible to the right and jump as far as possible the instant the level starts, you can make it past him. The slowpokes in the back of the chain here are probably not going to make it.
This is, of course, just a single obstacle...learning to get past this slug doesn't say much about my “skill” in the game. But over time, it's easy to pick up on consistent properties of these obstacles that can be exploited. I can learn that, when I see a rocket launcher, I can climb a wall for a bit then bounce off to dodge it; I can learn that I've got long enough to do a small hop on a dissolving platform before I find myself without anything to stand on. I can learn how quickly a slug moves with enough accuracy that I can confidently judge in an instant where it will be half a second later.
If these obstacles were variable, progress would be possible, but much slower. Anybody who player soccer growing up probably remembers the difficult transition between playing with a size 3 soccer ball and a size 5...shooting a ball is still shooting a ball, but the complex muscle memory that had been honed through dozens or hundreds of hours of practice didn't quite work in this new environment. This change in the environment caused a temporary regression, and forces players to re-learn some of the skills they thought they had already mastered. It's not an impossible hurdle to overcome, but it does slow things down.
By standardizing the way the player interacts with the game and the obstacles they face throughout their playtime, SMB ensures that every minor skill learned has an application that stretches beyond a single obstacle on a single level.
The real world sucks at feedback. We can usually tell whether we've succeeded or failed, but the information is binary, a simple “yes” or “no”, with no insight into why things turned out the way they did. More importantly, there is a dearth of information about what could be done next time to change the outcome. When I drive a golf ball, I can gain a little information about what I did from the way the ball flies. But even this feedback system, which is more nuanced than most, does little more than narrow the cause down to a set of possible explanations. If, for example, I hit a steep slice, it could be because my hips weren't square, I hit the ball with the toe of my club, the shaft of my club is too flexible, my wrists aren't snapping enough, or that I put too much spin on the ball. If all I have to go on is the way my ball flies, it's impossible for me to figure out how to straighten out my next drive. While I can try to fix one of these many options on the next attempt, it's difficult to change just one aspect of my swing without unintentionally changing many others. The result is that even if I hit my next shot perfectly, it will be hard to tell why that shot went well and the previous shot went poorly. This makes progressive learning difficult.
In Super Meat Boy, feedback is precise and easy to understand, which gives it direct instructive power. Take the jump shown in the screenshot below, also from “Flood.” At least 19 attempts are shown here, and I'd estimate about half of them make it. But each one of those failures occurs for a very obvious reason. The guy circled in yellow, for example, will bounce off the wall he's on and end up too high on the left-hand wall to make it over the grub pile. This was an early attempt, and upon seeing this, I learned to skip the right wall entirely and go straight to the wall on the left. The one who just died in the screenshot tried to cut the jump short--a couple failures later, I'd managed to gauge exactly how long “jump” had to be held down to clear the pile. And so it goes, with each failed run meeting its demise due to a glaring and obvious player error. The game is saying more than “you failed”; it tells the player, “go harder on the jump button” or “take it a bit slower next time.” So next time I take it a bit slower or jump a little further, and get instant feedback on that as well...I either see myself get closer to passing the obstacle, or I don't, and I know I'm either improving in the right ways or I'm not.
Super Meat Boy is helped in this regard by its two-dimensional simplicity, which makes it easy to pick out precise causes and respond with constructive changes. But fancy golf swing coaches have managed to apply this feedback principle to a more complex sport as well. And the Australian olympic team famously designed complex feedback systems to help train their athletes before the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, and walked away with a truckload of medals as a result. Feedback is essential for progress; with it, each failure is a step toward the next success, and without it, searching for success is like playing darts blindfolded--you might hit a bullseye, but it'd be hard to argue it was anything more than luck that caused it.
If you're trying to gain skill at something, there's two ways to make progress. One way is to use brute force--in other words, tee up 300 golf balls, start hacking away at them, and keep hitting until it “feels right”. Alternately, you can do what Coyle and Gladwell call “intensive practice.” Intensive practice trades speed and instinct for thought and contemplation; you perform a small movement, as small as a single dribble of a soccer ball, reflect on what went wrong or right, and then apply this knowledge to the next attempt. Sometimes this process happens naturally, like the way a Brazilian fusbal player slowly learns to feel the ball on their feet and understand the way it moves. Other times it's more formal; UFC super-coach Greg Jackson has become known for using precise movement analysis to optimize every aspect of his fighters' performance.
In intensive practice, each repetition is an opportunity to learn. More repetitions, then, means more opportunities for skill growth.
Let's say you want to spend a day at the driving range, and start with an ambitious bucket of 100 golf balls. In theory, you could go through these balls in less than 15 minutes if you were really trying. But assuming you want to practice intensively, and intend to take some time to reflect on each shot and improve your technique, it'll be difficult to go through more than two balls per minute. You'd be hard-pressed to finish your bucket in under an hour with any semblance of thought or control.
How about shooting a soccer ball? If you're lucky enough to bring ten balls to the field, and have a generous goalie who will feed shots back to you, you can get in a focused shot every ten seconds for a little while. But sometime before the 100th shot, you're going to start to tire, and your pace will slow. If you're dedicated, you'll get done within a half hour.
Compare this to Super Meat Boy. A single attempt rarely takes more than ten seconds, and both the reasons for failure and the means to improve are instantly recognizable. More importantly, there's no “reset” time whatsoever...less than a second after a failure, the next attempt can begin, without a need to set your feet or place a ball on a tee. Every instant in the game world is spent doing one of two things--attempting to pass a level or reflecting on what needs to be done to reach the goal. The result is that it's perfectly feasible to get in 5, 6, or even more attempts in the span of a minute, each deliberate and instructive. With no fatigue to speak of, 100 cracks at an SMB level can be done in ten minutes.
More practice means more opportunities to grow. More opportunities to grow will, over time, lead to faster growth. By presenting an environment that assaults the player with both opportunities to try their skill and feedback on those attempts, SMB fosters a growth potential that few others can touch.
Challenge and progress
While we enjoy the end products of learning, and like knowing a skill that we can show off to others or that improves our lives, the actual process of learning sucks. To learn a skill, we're forced to fail dozens or hundreds of times at the most menial and uninteresting tasks with no certainty of progress. Skill-building is not like putting experience points on a level bar, where each action and each attempt brings you visibly closer to a greater level of skill. It's more like following a trail through the woods with an bad compass...you know you're doing something, and you think you might be getting closer to what you're looking for, but there's no way to be sure.
This makes learning very difficult and very disheartening, especially for those without external motivators to force them to stick with it. I vividly remember spending summer afternoons bouncing a soccer ball off my knee and watching it fly away from me over and over again. Eventually I just gave up, convinced I would never learn to juggle. I still haven't.
Super Meat Boy has motivation built right into its design. Progress, however menial, is very easy to see. Even on the toughest obstacles, slight improvements in technique bring you inches closer to success, constantly feeding a desire to improve while emphasizing that the challenge can be bested. And bigger goals are never far away--you always know a good run could have you 30 seconds away from complete victory. Since the goals never seems out of reach, it's easy to keep working through dozens of failures--after all, the next attempt could be the one that does it. As an exception that proves the rule, some of the few times SMB becomes disheartening are on the longer levels, where a usually manageable challenge suddenly seems much more difficult to overcome.
So while most practice in the real world is forced, and treated as a means to an end, SMB uses constant rewards and careful use of “carrots and sticks” to bring means and ends closer together.
Few academic theories have struck me like Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's (Me-hall-ee Tsik-sent-me-high) concept of flow. Very roughly, it can be summed up in one sentence: The human brain is wired to love working at its limits. Most people, when asked about their greatest experiences, cite times they forgot about the outside world and were pushed to the limits of their skill set, yet felt in charge of whether they succeeded or failed. Surfers love the way the waves transport them to an elevated mental state, where everything irrelevant disappears, and every action becomes a precise and deliberate part of the battle to stay upright. Surgeons are addicted their jobs because it demands the most of them every day, and brings them into an environment where their actions have a direct and unassailable effect on their future.
Super Meat Boy is an exquisite producer of flow. It starts with the level of challenge. An easier game would be, by definition, less mentally demanding. While the upside is that you might be able to play it with beer-in-hand, the downside is that it would no longer generate the sense of stress and growth our brains relish. A much harder game, on the other hand, would do nothing more than frustrate. But the slowly-building challenge and simple core mechanics ensure that only rarely is a level much harder or easier than what the player is ready for. The skills almost always match the challenge.
The other part of flow, a sense of control over the outcome, comes from the well-established rules and lack of randomness described above. It's very obvious that success or failure in SMB is entirely the result of player skill, with nothing else to blame or credit for the way things turn out.
So Super Meat Boy sucks you in and demands that you forget about everything else while you play. It then constantly reminds you that skill alone will determine whether you succeed or fail. When you fail, you're driven to improve, since success always seems tantalizingly close. And when you succeed, you can celebrate a job well done, the significance of which is only magnified by the narrowed focus. This is flow incarnate.
Flow, in other words, is the glue that binds everything together. Your brain becomes engrossed in the game and is continuously supplied with interesting challenges and visible rewards. Every failure brings you closer to these rewards, and the rapid pace of progress keeps you in the action and focused. With all these pieces together, SMB is a deliriously enticing and powerful concoction...if any one disappeared, the entire system would fall apart.
I've used up about ten minutes of your time going through why I believe that Super Meat Boy is educational perfection. I've hopefully convinced you that this characteristic is nothing more than a few simple traits with a significance beyond the sum of their parts. A few of you may have thought this was pretty cool. More of you are probably wondering what the point is.
The skill that Super Meat Boy teaches is simple--it's nothing more than the ability to move a tiny little red square with legs and eyes around a series of obstacles. It's certainly a skill; while it's learned through mastery of specific levels, these any processes build a comprehensive, instinctual understanding of the game mechanics that can be applied to levels new and old. But with 4 buttons and a 2D world, the complexity of other video games puts it to shame, let alone the nuance of hitting a golf ball or swinging a tennis racket.
But the reason Super Meat Boy succeeds as a teacher is not because it is simple--it's because the skill-building tools it offers can match the complexity of the system that is being learned. In other words, despite its simplicity, if you take away any of the critical elements described above, Super Meat Boy fails.
What this means is that successful skill teaching depends not on simplicity, but on a learning environment that matches the demands of the system. In any realm, from a racing game to parkour to painting, utilization of these five key tools, in a way that's consistent with the environment, will lead to faster skill growth and greater enjoyment of the skill-building process. SMB is important not because of the fact that it teaches a skill well; it is important because it shows us how to teach skill well, and gives us a basic blueprint that we can apply to any other skill imaginable.
To wrap things up, I'll point to one example where ignorance of these principles backfired. Ninja Gaiden 1 and 2 would sit right next to Super Meat Boy on the pantheon of flow-inducing games, with an incredibly demanding, but highly predictable and rules-based combat system that always made it obvious why you screwed up. When Ninja Gaiden 3 came out last year, the rave reviews turned sour. On paper, nothing had changed...combat was still fast and fluid, generic enemies still came in droves, and Ryu still bounced around like a hypercaffeinated flea. But the devil here was in the details. The difficulty was lower, Ninpo magic was boosted to room-clearing potency, quick-time executions replaced much of the standard swordfighting, and the complexity of Ryu's abilities was slashed. The result was a loss of challenge, a loss of the incentive to build skill, and a loss of that critical feeling of player control; the game was allegedly so simple that rooms could be cleared without even looking at the screen. The first two games had demanded and rewarded a high level of player skill, and as a result cultivated the growth and generation of experts. The third title ignored the key characteristics that allowed this to happen, and failed miserably as a result. Not every game needs to be skill-based to succeed, but when it's the lifeblood of a series, developers would be wise to pay attention to this example.