[11 January 2009]
PopMatters Associate Multimedia Editor
Since its introduction in 1996, Flash has been a handy way to make websites more interactive and engaging for users. It also spawned an offshoot of the video game scene that is just now starting to achieve mainstream acceptance. With the advent of websites like Newgrounds and the initial success of their titles on services such as Xbox Live, this area of games is starting to come into its own. Independent developers and first-time game designers are given a chance to show off their work in a community that has come to expect their games to be different.
Now that these websites have all been in place for a while, it’s possible to start looking back and see how the scene has evolved. Edmund McMillen’s recent release of This is a Cry for Help, a collection of his Flash work over the past ten years, shows the slow shift from just making games with an artistic edge, through the indie scene, and to the subsequent art games that are starting to become popular now.
If you’ve never heard of McMillen, he’s the creator of the 2005 Independent Games Festival winner Gish along with the more recent flash game The C Word. He also did some of the initial concept work and animation for Jonathan Blow’s Braid before David Hellman took over and redid portions of it. Although Hellman had to step in and adjust the characters to match his extensive background work, he notes on his website that the game was still based around McMillen’s designs.
Starting out as an artist for a small indie music magazine called Your Music Magazine, there’s an extensive element of punk rock aesthetic throughout his art. Combine that with a love for the organic curvature of John Kricfalusi’s style (the creator of Ren & Stimpy) and you get an idea of what McMillen, the artist, typically conveys with his work. A few misguided jobs and hopping around with his portfolio resulted in his ending up working for a video game company and according to the brief file on the CD, he has not yet looked back.
The CD he released is not so much a game or even an autobiographical collection, it’s basically what would happen if McMillen copied a portion of his hard drive onto a disk and handed it to you. There’s something vaguely modern and raw about the presentation, as if a director told you he was going to give you the uncut version of a film and then literally handed you the disc with all the files on it. The disc contains his early flash videos, comics, along with an extensive collection of games that McMillen drew and helped design. So long as you have flash on your computer you’ll be able to play any of the games and store information within the system. There are a few videos of McMillen with his wife Danielle making random jokes, commentary on each game, and a brief essay about his life making games.
A screen from Carious Weltling
Sticking with the focus of his work with games, the first thing that’s noticeable about McMillen’s artistic style is the creation of a sense of insecurity. In the 2-D jumping game Cereus Peashy you play a strange creature in a cactus suit that constantly trips and waves his arms. In Clubby the Seal you play a fat, bouncing baby seal with Bambi eyes. Or the aesthetically disturbing Carious Weltling where you play what looks like a blind baby bird hocking up projectiles at incoming targets. Nowhere is the beefy marine or sleek, angular cut of a Japanese anime character. These are characters with curves, their animation is fluid yet gawky, and there is something intrinsically susceptible about them. Your characters don’t just stop moving, they flop over in exhaustion. They don’t walk, they bound along in a way that is both awkward and yet the only way they ever could move.
This idea is presented at its most literal in the game Meat Boy, where McMillen has you play a protagonist who is literally a walking wound. Rather than lava, your biggest dangers are salt and buzz saws. Rather than stars, you collect band-aids. The long bloody trails you leave behind as you progress through each level creates a standard theme for the rest of McMillen’s games. You, Meat Boy, need the band aid Princess because it is the only way to fix your wound. You don’t play as someone perfect embarking on a grand quest, you play as someone whose flaws are visceral and stylistically apparent. Sometimes McMillen gives a lighthearted take on this concept, as in Twin Hobo Rocket where you play two drunks hallucinating a journey through outer-space while begging for change from aliens. Sometimes he’s quite dark, as when you play a competing sperm penetrating an egg in Coil. Every time, though, the animation and art depicts insecurity, a sense that these are strange heroes. They are not the beautiful and graceful characters we wish we could be but instead represent the awkward amalgamation of our selves translated into video games.
Part of the intro to Meat Boy
In terms of game design, McMillen could be classified as a fairly nuts and bolts kind of person. Many of his games take basic systems like Missile Command‘s formula and throw in a few unique twists to make them interesting for the brief spurt the typical flash session provides. He has a sharp eye when it comes to spotting a simple design that can generate hours of play such as with Meat Boy. His willingness to define the meaning of those game designs in new and increasingly strange ways was his chief discriminator for several years. Making a 2-D brawler about a baby seal fighting against his Eskimo oppressors clearly takes the genre in directions that Super Mario Brothers never quite expected. His first attempts with Art Games began when he helped create Triachnid, a mouse-based physics game about moving a spider across a hostile world.
Although McMillen has always been quite effective at communicating a sense of loneliness and despair, it isn’t until his most recent game Aether that he starts to coordinate game design and plot extensively. Aether is about exploring a small boy’s dream world. In it you ride a grand creature who uses his tongue to swing himself from cloud to cloud, launching the pair into space and eventually to explore a wide variety of tiny planets. The sensation of falling and the surrealism of swinging around clouds works nicely for creating the dream experience. On each planet is an emotion or idea, visually represented to be a part of the boy you play. Each of these is a puzzle that allows you to respond to the emotion. Given his gift with communicating fragility through art and animation, the game is an excellent centerpiece to the disc showing McMillen’s development both as an artist and as someone realizing that games can go far beyond the initial titles he worked on.
It’s easy to see why Jonathan Blow needed someone like McMillen for Braid. While the game design was an exercise in time, emotions, and forgiveness, Blow needed someone like McMillen to give the protagonist a face, an everyman countenance that didn’t just make him a character, but portrayed him as someone onto whom we could fixate an emotion and even a sense of loss. McMillen’s ability to draw a strange, cartoony creature that makes the player feel a mixture of empathy and humor by is what makes this collection of games interesting to dig through. The numerous programmers he has worked with over the years like Florian Himsl or Alex Austin equally relied on it. At ten bucks for the entire disc, there are a decent number of really fun games to pass the time with combined with several others that are interesting to try once or twice. By having the player experience being someone awkward, by having their input manifest through the animation, McMillen gets the player to experience the full depth of that simple image. If the collection This is a Cry for Help is indeed meant to be a personal statement, then perhaps McMillen’s ultimate contribution is finding a way to get the player to chime in with it.