video games

Molded Meat

[Following my stated possible trend in the last post, I am going to continue to look at constructed spaces and how we, as players, interact with them. This time, Super Meat Boy.]

In the book The Meaning of Built Environments (of which I am currently reading), Amos Rapoport speaks about ways an environment can encode meaning and, just by experiencing an environment, certain behaviors can be prompted from a variety of cues, both social and cultural. Taking one of those ideas, I thought it would be interesting to apply it to something I’m sure Amos would have never expected, a video game. In particular, Super Meat Boy.

You may not know it, but Super Meat Boy is in fact a great example of how knowledge (literacy), pasted through interaction with other games, can be used — even expected — in order to play a game. I would go so far as to say that you must play and understand the basic tenets of the Platformer genre before taking on Super Meat Boy. While I won’t go into the story here, which serves to only hold the game ‘worlds’ together through a very loose way, I will speak to the tropes we should know about.

Routinization provides interpretation consistency.

Spikes will kill you.

I’m not sure when that started but I know I first came across it in Mega Man. Landing on the spikes in that game would be mean certain death and you learn very quickly to avoid them. This trope, nearly ubiquitous in Platformers now, provides a visual delimiter of where you can jump and where you cannot. Avoid the spikes and you might continue to play.

Super Mean Boy takes this idea. Then twists it in the form of sawblades. By no means is that something exclusive (LIMBO uses it too), but they provide a consistency across many, many levels. Both spikes, and their sup’d-up cousin the sawblades, show up in level after level as a way to provide a consistent reminder of their threat and as a visual way of telling the player one simple thing: “Do not touch!”

Right way.

“In the Platformer genre, you will go to the right.” As if inscribed in some ancient tomb or solid stone, this rule applies to nearly all games within the genre*. Some games, however, have perverted this method. Examples such as Metroid come to mind that expect you to figure, quickly, that in this game, you will go left AND right. Other examples include, should you go right in some Super Mario 2 levels, the ability to access warp areas. (Should you play LIMBO, consider that you can in fact walk in both directions.)

Super Meat Boy is not different. You will, in nearly every level, always start going to the right. The very first level teaches you this. Pointing you to your goal, Bandage Girl. (Despite not wanting to talk about the story, I will say that the basic premise is that of so many Mario games. A girl has been stolen and you must seek her out and, in the course of the game, fight her kidnapper thus proving your love. Or masochism, depending on your interpretation of what the player must go through. That’s probably another blog post, however.) So, in each level you must seek out Bandage Girl. The very first level introduces you to your goal, the girl, by having you look at the right of the screen where she is standing.

Mind the gap.

The concept is pretty simple. Anywhere there is a gap in the ground, jump over it. I first ran into this concept in Mario Bros. (Is this what truly happens in these holes?) Games even previous to that, Pitfall! for example, had the idea with it originating somewhere in the mists of the game industry timeline. Regardless, this has given us another piece of the gamer’s environmental experience: jump over the gap.

In what very well may be that same first level that has you facing right, has you jumping over a gap. A significant one.  In order to reach your goal, the girl, you must jump over gap. However, you will probably fail the first time. Why? Because you must also learn to do something else that game has you learn the hard way: run and then jump, you will go farther.

Momentum from motion.

“Hold down the button, you will run faster.” I remember giving that advice to my sister while she played Super Mario Bros. 3. The advice meaning that as you held the B-button, you could build up speed and the game would, upon you executing a jump, propel you farther than a normal jump would. The origin this too is probably lost in the mists of time. However, Mario Bros would certainly popularize it.

There is a run button in Super Meant Boy. You learn to use it very quickly. You will need to have a running start and then jump to reach that same first girl in the level I keep mentioning over and over. (The fact that the develop was able to cram the teaching of several different techniques through one level is quite neat, actually. There is probably a whole post in talking about games that manage to teach the gamer the required mechanics in as simple a way as possible.

* Romance Languages (i.e. that are based in Latin) are read from left to right. This would, in my opinion and in support of linguistic determinism, mean that native people of those languages would prefer to read from left to right. Their trained eyes would scan that way in search of information, checking each loop for some danger. Of course, this is just my opinion on the subject.

[I’m going to have to come back to this. I do try to keep my posts under a thousand words. Expect more on built environments and how they affect people in the future.]