Celeste Contrasted to Super Meat Boy

Celeste, by Matt Thorson and Noel Berry, keeps drawing comparisons to Super Meat Boy. They’re both hard-as-nails platformers that expect you to die a lot, and create most of their difficulty through environment rather than enemies. But they couldn’t be more different in tone. SMB, like most of Edmund McMillen’s works, is gleefully gross and grotesque, and draws humor from its slapstick cruelty to the player. Celeste, for all its difficulty, comes off as kind and gentle.

Much has been made of Celeste‘s “assist mode”, a suite of gameplay tweaks that make the game easier in various ways, from slowing it down to granting immunity to spikes. These can be enabled and disabled from the pause menu at any time, so you can turn on an assist for just long enough to get past an obstacle that’s giving you trouble, if you like. The important thing about assists for the feel of the game, though, is that the game doesn’t try to shame you out of using them. They’re not presented as cheats. The game recommends starting off without any assists to get a feel for things, then enabling whatever assists you need to get the most out of the experience. It’s curious how effective this “Don’t worry, we’ve got your back” framing is in setting the mood, considering that the game designers who give you this kindness are the same ones that created the brutally difficult world that makes such kindness necessary.

But then, even the difficulty of the world has a gentle character. Let’s compare it to Super Meat Boy again. SMB is driven by an antagonist, Dr. Fetus, who kidnaps the hero’s helpless girlfriend just to be mean. Every single level sees Meat Boy going to heroic efforts to rescue her, only for Dr. Fetus to appear out of nowhere the moment you reach her and snatch her away. (In this, it’s basically taking elements of ur-platformer Donkey Kong and turning them up to eleven.) So, the game is effectively taunting you into progress, and part of the player’s presumed motivation is a desire to finally pay back the bad guy for all he’s put you through. Celeste is driven by the protagonist, Madeline, who simply sets out to climb Mount Celeste as a voluntary challenge — which is exactly what it is for the player. She’s here to sort out some emotional baggage, and her mantra is “I have to believe I can do this”. Part of your motivation is wanting to prove her right, because you identify with her.

When I imagine a SMB level, the main thing I think of is circular saws on swing-arms: obstacles that were clearly created by a hostile god just to be obstacles, having no purpose other than making Meat Boy’s path more dangerous. That is what SMB challenges are made of. Celeste‘s basic challenges are made of emptiness. Difficult areas are made difficult by the lack of solid ground to stand on. You see a distant scrap of rock, and even if it looks impossible to reach, you hang your hopes on somehow flying through the air to it. You most powerful tool for this is the air-dash, which, barring assists, you can only use once per jump — unless you touch something that recharges it, usually a floating crystal. In the more advanced levels, Madeline hardly ever touches the ground, instead dancing from crystal to crystal like some kind of air elemental.

These crystals are just as artificial an intrusion on the world as SMB‘s buzzsaws, but helpful instead of harmful. And that’s crucial to the feel of the thing. Celeste Mountain isn’t fundamentally hostile to you, but it’s dangerous because of its indifference. But you can win, because you have help.

Super Meat Boy: Omega

Popping back one stack frame, I got some more Super Meat Boy in yesterday. Can I just mention how catchy the music is in this game? Half the reason I came back to it just now is that it kept going through my head even as I was playing Machinarium. The game has three versions of most tunes: a clear-toned and bouncy one for the light world, a variation with more crunchy distortion for the dark world, and a chiptune version for the retro warp zones.

But I haven’t been hearing much of those in my latest sessions. I’ve been spending nearly all of my time in the world called The End, where the light-world music is less bouncy and more mock-epic, the dark world is extremely hard to access, and there don’t seem to be any warp zones. Possibly there are some lurking somewhere, but I suspect not, simply because this is the section that strips away all the distractions and just leaves pure challenge. There are no bandages to collect. You can’t even use any of your unlocked characters; apparently confronting Doctor Fetus is something Meat Boy has to do for himself. And, perhaps unintuitively, that’s what’s driven me to play only in The End. From the standpoint of making progress, the chief reason to go back to earlier levels (including dark world levels) is to unlock additional characters who can help you along. If they can’t help me any more, I might as well keep banging my head on level 6-5.

That’s where I am now, level 6-5. It’s the last level before the boss fight, and the only one I need to complete to unlock it. Its name is Omega, and I have just spent a great deal of time on it. It consists of five loosely-defined floating rectangular structures, bristling with buzzsaws, mostly navigable only by long-distance wall-jumps executed in specific places with split-second precision. Just getting into the first enclosed structure seemed impossibly hard when I started. By now, I’ve actually got to where I can see the level’s end a couple of times, but it’s clear that I’ll have to play for hours more before I can actually finish.

The thing is, I’m reluctant to stop playing again now. I’ve made a lot of progress on completing Omega, but it’s not permanent, tangible progress. It’s progress in the form of knowledge and muscle memory — “controller kata”, as an acquaintance of mine described it — and if I spend a week playing something else, there’s a good chance I’ll lose it. This is not stuff you can write down, for the most part. It’s about getting the right rhythm, and applying it without visual confirmation, like Tommy playing pinball. Dustin Hoffman’s character in Little Big Man, during his gunslinger phase, spoke of “firing a gun without touching it”, by which he seemed to mean performing the action so automatically that you aren’t aware of the weight of the gun in your hand until afterward. That’s more or less how I now feel about the earlier actions in this level. The repetition becomes a kind of meditation.

Except that, even in this state, I’m not executing perfectly — in fact, I’m executing so imperfectly that I only occasionally reach the point near the end that I don’t actually know how to execute. Oh, I manage each particular bit on most attempts at it, but the probabilities multiply out to majority failure. It makes me wonder to what degree meditation exercises of the purely mental sort are subject to error and variation that the meditator doesn’t notice because there’s no machine judging correctness and making you start over.

Super Meat Boy: Beyond Death

I recently saw a couple of writeups from different sources about a Flash-based game called Hollow, a short, difficult platformer that really made me think that its author admires Edmud McMillen: the player character reminded me a lot of the bobble-headed monsters from Gish, and the whole style of extremely difficult platforming with minimal downtime on death owes a lot to Super Meat Boy. And, once Super Meat Boy was in my mind, I had the urge to give it another whirl.

I said before that world 4, the “Hell” world, seemed to be beyond my abilities, but now, I’ve not only got through it, I’ve passed the world after it as well. Perhaps Hollow helped to get me into the right mindset. The thing about these levels is that, however impossible they look at first, they do yield to persistence and practice. After trying and failing enough, the trickiest jump sequence becomes temporarily easy, the necessary moves burned into short-term muscle memory. The one real challenge, then, is convincing yourself to spend enough time replaying a given level to beat it — and it’s much easier for me to do this in a shorter game.

It seems like the boss levels are getting easier at this point. The first three worlds all had some kind of time pressure in their boss fights — in particular, world 3 ended in a race against time instead of a conventional boss. But there doesn’t seem to be any time factor at all in world 5, and in Hell, time is actually on your side: the boss fight is a survival challenge, where all you have to do is stay alive long enough for the massive but idiotic opponent to brain himself via repeated failed attempts at head-butting.

The boss fight in Hell is worth special note because it’s one of the few places where a platformer acknowledges the hideousness consequent on taking the action literally. The boss, apparently named “Little Horn”, is a colossal Meat Boy formed from hundreds of Meat Boy’s former lives. In the cutscene that introduces the fight, we see dead Meat Boys raining down into Hell, visibly disturbing the living Meat Boy as he grasps what they are and just as quickly suppresses this knowledge. Now, usually in platformers there’s an unspoken assumption that, when you die, everything since the last checkpoint unhappens. But this isn’t the first suggestion that this isn’t the case here. Meat Boy leaves red stains on everything he touches, and those remain in place from life to life. (Sometimes I even use the stains as guides to help me repeat actions precisely.) When there’s an explosive hazard, sometimes one life’s spatter of blood is still airborne when the next life starts. But such things fade from the attention, until the game feeds us a cutscene that reminds us of them.

Thinking about it mythically, journeys through Hell are all about conquering death. Thus, it’s fitting for Meat Boy to encounter and defeat here a creature literally formed from his own numerous deaths. The symbolism gets a little weird when you consider that meat is, by definition, something that’s already dead, but this can be taken as showing how complete his mastery of his own mortality is — an interpretation made stronger by the self-destructive behavior the game provokes, accidentally leaping headlong into circular saws and not caring much. Meanwhile, the chief antagonist is Dr. Fetus, someone who hasn’t even been born yet. So far from mastering death, he hasn’t even gotten started at mastering life. No wonder he resents Meat Boy so much.

If I read the art correctly, dead Meat Boys continue to be a menace in the next world, where zombie versions of yourself pursue you. World 5 is actually unusually dense with active enemies of various kinds (counting guided missiles), considering that the world is titled “Rapture” and it’s set in the aftermath of a nuclear detonation. All this seems to go away in world 6, “The End”, which goes back to basics: just player versus environment, with circular saws on tracks or swing-arms as the only moving elements other than the player character. The End has only five levels before the boss fight, but they’re so preposterously difficult that I haven’t got through them yet. Furthermore, it should be noted that The End is actually the second-to-last level, and also that there’s a whole mechanic concerning “light” and “dark” versions of every level, where the light version is what you get by default, and the dark version has to be unlocked by beating a certain time to get an “A+” rating on the light version. (There are no other ratings. You get an A+ or nothing.) Steam has two separate Achievements: “The End”, for beating the light world, and “The Real End” for beating the dark world. I think I’ll probably only be going for the fake end, but we’ll see how I feel after I’ve reached it.

Super Meat Boy: Following Trails

I played a little more SMB. I’m still stuck in Hell, but I managed to unlock another character: Ogmo, from the Jumper series. I recall trying one of the Jumper sequels a while back, probably Jumper 3 when it was featured on Play This Thing. It seemed a decent platformer, but I wasn’t in the mood for it at the time. But hey, if there’s one thing I can use SMB for, it’s as a framework for recommendations. Seems to me I should at least try out the games that McMillen liked enough to invite to the party.

So, I looked at the unlockable character roster. So far, I’ve got Ogmo, the Headcrab, Commander Video, and Jill. Ogmo I’ve mentioned; I’ve downloaded the original Jumper and played it a bit, but it gets very difficult very quickly. The Headcrab is from Half-Life. Half-Life isn’t a platformer, and the headcrab isn’t its player character, but I suppose someone wanted a Steam-exclusive unlockable, and this is the only thing in Valve’s library that’s known for jumping. At any rate, I’ve played the heck out of Half-Life (although I need to go through Half-Life 2 again at some point, now that they’ve added Achievements). Commander Video is from Bit.Trip Runner, which is a Wii game, not available on any system I own. One of its predecessors, Bit.Trip Beat, is out for PC, but it looks like a fundamentally different game; if further Bit.Trips are ported, I may get them as a package, but for now, I’ll give it a miss.

Looking at unlockable characters I don’t have yet, I noticed one from a game that had garnered praise but which I hadn’t tried: Runman: Race Around the World, which can be described as Sonic the Hedgehog with everything that isn’t directly related to running fast taken out, including death. Downloading that, I see it’s done in a crudely-doodled style. No surprise there — I could tell that much from the screenshots and demo video. But somehow, seeing it in-game made me look at it better, and it looked very familiar — the drawing style reminded me a lot of An Untitled Story, a Metroidvania-style platformer I had played but not finished a few months ago, concerning an egg that falls from a nest and, after fighting a few bosses, hatches into a bird that fights more bosses. It had art that was clearly drawn with magic marker.

Googling, I discover that, indeed, one of the co-authors of Runman is Matt Thorson, author of An Untitled Story. Furthermore, he wrote the Jumper series, as well as a couple of other platformers I know: Give Up Robot and Moneysieze. I had played Moneysieze quite a lot last year, and meant to write it up here, but never got around to it. It struck me as fairly ingenious in its unconventional use of famliar platformer mechanics. For example, the double-jump. In many platformers, you can hit the jump button a second time at the top of your arc to gain additional height. In Moneysieze, you could perform the second jump at any point in your trajectory — which means you can use it to pass under obstacles that extend below your starting point. I thought this was clever, but now I see that the same author had already pulled tricks like this in Jumper. SMB treats the double-jump as Ogmo’s defining trait, and the warp zone where you acquire Ogmo for general use requires executing trick jumps of exactly this sort.

I’m a little shocked to discover how much of Thorson’s work I’ve experienced without being aware of him. I notice now that the Play This Thing writeup of Jumper 3 actually mentions that Thorson is half of the Runman team, but apparently that fact made no impression on me at the time. Well, if part of SMB‘s mission is increased awareness of indie platformers, mission accomplished. I considered myself pretty aware already, but it looks like I wasn’t aware of my lack of awareness. I’ll be watching for Thorson’s name in the future.

Also, for what it’s worth, Runman‘s level-selection screen plays a recording of Helen Humes singing Song of the Wanderer, the same background music as the level-selection screen for Immortal Defense. I suppose there are only so many public-domain jazz recordings out there, and Runman uses many of them, but unless this is a deliberate reference, it’s a strange coincidence. Or maybe there’s just something about that song that suggests “level select screen” to indie developers? I’m definitely going to use it for that purpose if I ever write a game with a level-select screen. It’s too good an in-joke not to share.

Super Meat Boy: Hell

I spent a bit more time on Super Meat Boy last night, beating one more boss (or, well, world-end-level; it was more of a race against time, without any real boss monster to beat) and then going to Hell. “Hell” is that game’s name for its traditional lava-and-fireballs world. I suppose there’s an ice level next? A big part of this game’s schtick is riffing on 2D platformer clichés. The first world is an idyllic forest, just like the first world in every Sonic the Hedgehog game, except there are enormous circular saws mounted all over the place for no apparent practical purpose, and I don’t think Dr. Robotnik ever went as far as to just burn the whole forest down — something played for laughs here. Sonic was marketed as the bad-boy counterpart to Mario, but Meat Boy, with his irrepressable grotesque-cuteness, his glee in the face of repeated gory death, and his utter disregard for censors or parents, has him beat hands-down in the bad-boy department without even making a big deal of it. And Hell is part of this: lots of games have lava worlds, but only a few are so forthright about what we’re all thinking. (Fun fact: the Japanese version of Um Jammer Lammy has Lammy die, go to Hell, and escape. The North American version timidly replaced this whole scenario with a tropical island, robbing Lammy of her heroic journey’s most directly mythic component.)

Fittingly, Hell seems to be the place where the difficulty ratchets up to just beyond my abilities. I may well change my mind about this — a good platformer makes things seem like they’re beyond your abilities but then trains you up to the point where they’re not. I remember Crash Bandicoot as being particularly good about putting collectibles in seemingly-impossible places that I skipped over on the first pass but came back for later with greater confidence. The “Veni Vidi Vici” sequence in VVVVVV looked daunting at first, but yielded to persistent practice. Still, those are both matters of hunting for optional collectibles. Here in SMB it’s the main path through the game, and I’m not even on the last world yet. I’m winding up doing the opposite of what I did in Crash and VVVVVV: going back to find collectibles and bonus areas because it’s the easier alternative.

Well, I knew what I was getting into when I started playing. This game has a reputation for extreme difficulty. I’ve seen this school of game design described as “masocore”, although there are differing definitions of that — the author of Super Jill Off contends that a true masocore game has to subvert genre expectations. I suppose SMB does that to some extent, though. Just the sheer abnormal distance that you can leap is something of a subversion, in that it allows the designers to create levels where the best and safest route through a series of obstacles is to just clear them all in one go.

Super Meat Boy

Maybe my perspective on things is skewed — I don’t pay much attention to the mainstream gaming press, and the blogs I read tend to focus on indie stuff. But then, indie stuff is big enough these days to get official recognition on consoles. Regardless, it really seems to me that this year, the year that gave us the long-awaited Starcraft sequel and the most significant World of Warcraft expansion yet, the title that’s generated biggest buzz has been Super Meat Boy. (Or possibly Minecraft, but that’ll have to wait for another post.) It’s being called the apotheosis of the 2D platformer, the ultimate expression of the form. And it encourages this sort of thinking by being kind of a living summary of what’s been done before, full of references to other games.

The most obvious references are the unlockable characters, mostly from other indie platformers — Braid, VVVVVV, and Mighty Jill Off, to name just a few — most of which I’m familiar with, some of which I’m not. Like the Smash Bros. and Kingdom Hearts series, it suggests that all these games are part of the same family, a sort of indie platformer club. Also, the characters carry with them an approximation of the mechanics from their source games, which effectively makes them demos for any of the games that you haven’t played. I have to wonder how much SMB has affected sales of these other games, and how much this was a factor in the decision of their creators to allow their inclusion. (It doesn’t have to be a factor at all — game developers are quite capable of making agreements like this just on the basis that they think it would be cool.) But viewed from the other side, it’s effectively making a statement that SMB is a generalization of the platformer, broad enough to include all these other games within it.

Some of the unlockable characters are accessed by collecting bandages (collectibles in hard-to-reach places), others are located in special “warp zones” that make you play through a few levels in the style of their games of origin. There are also “retro” warp zones that use the normal Meat Boy mechanics, but in the graphical style of, say, a NES or a Gameboy (or even a glitched-out version of same) — another kind of reference to things that have come before, this time appealing directly to the nostalgia factor. Note that any reference to a modern platformer can also be an indirect nostalgia appeal, because the nostalgia factor is pretty big in 2D platformers to begin with. The three examples I gave above of games that provide SMB with guest stars are heavily based on specific older games — Braid on Super Mario Brothers, VVVVVV on Jet Set Willy 1Actually, Terry Cavanaugh says he never played Jet Set Willy and that VVVVVV was really inspired by the games that imitated it, making this even more indirect., Mighty Jill Off on Mighty Bomb Jack. I didn’t pick those three games with this in mind. It’s just that the 2D platformer genre has become so intra-referential in modern times that it’s hard to avoid. SMB embraces this tendency a little more thoroughly and inclusively than most, to the point that it becomes recursive: its referencing of other games is itself a reference to those games referencing other games.

Then there are subtler shout-outs. I’ve been through one level that’s a blatant imitation of Canabalt, but it’s only blatant if you’re familiar with Canabalt. This makes me wonder what else there is that I’ve been missing. I’ve found an article explaining how the world intro cutscenes are all shot-by-shot imitations of intros from various classic games, but it’s the sort of thing where there could easily be references that no one has even noticed yet.

1 Actually, Terry Cavanaugh says he never played Jet Set Willy and that VVVVVV was really inspired by the games that imitated it, making this even more indirect.