I am not a gamer. I can’t even remember the last time I played a video game. I often think, “I should play video games, it might be relaxing”, but I know I never will. I use to play as a kid, but… anyway, not the point. Point is, even if you’re not into video games, the story of Super Meatboy and its creators Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes (“Team Meat”) is inspiring.
I learned about the game through a great documentary called Indie Game: The Movie. Meatboy is an independent video game designed by Edmund and Tommy. After being a flash game for the computer, it was released on Xbox 360. Though there was some drama along the way, it went on to be acclaimed both by the reviewers and players. It won all types of awards and sold more than one million copies as of the beginning of 2012. I asked them more about the game and their process, over Skype.
Serial Optimist: Hi guys, thanks talking to me. Tell me more about Super Meatboy, yourselves and sort of the game in general.
Edmund McMillen: I’ve been making independent games for; it’s hard to define exactly, because it went from a hobby to a career. Once everyone had a PC, you had basically all the tools to make a game yourself. But yeah, I got started around 2003. I made a game called Gish, which won the Independent Gaming Festival (IGF), which that part is actually featured in the movie. That’s when I proposed. There wasn’t really money in independent games at all until around 2008. Then suddenly all these options started opening up on console and it seemed like you could actually make money. That was around the time where I met up with Tommy.
Tommy: Back in 2000 we both had websites and they were part of the New Grounds Network. We were both linked to each other’s sites and we were familiar with each other’s works. Ed was working on Gish and other things. I actually went into the corporate video game world. I hated it and the company I worked for was stupid, so, I left there. I decided, “I don’t want to work for anybody anymore.” I was making a game called Goo and it ended up getting into the IGF in 2008. I was looking for past winners and I saw that Gish had won a couple years before and I saw that it was made by Edmund and I was like, “Hey, I know that guy.” I reached out to him and we reconnected. We decided to try to do a game together and that game was called Grey Matter. From there we saw that we work pretty well together and that’s when we sort of decided to work on Meatboy.
SO NOTE: The two banter back and forth, finish each other’s sentences and giggle like high school buds.
SO: Are you close friends or pretty much just working partners?
Edmund: Tommy’s like my only friend.
Tommy: He is a working acquaintance. I don’t give out my friendship so easily. (both laughing, obviously joking)No, he’s like the only guys I talk to.
Edmund: Tommy‘s always there. I was thinking about that he other day. I was thinking about how, since I met Tommy, I’ve spoken to him almost every single day since we started working together.
SO: Besides the technical skills, what would you say that you each bring that works for this business relationship, personality-wise.
Tommy: I bring the worry, when Edmund brings the optimism. And then when Edmund brings the worry, I bring the optimism.
Edmund: That’s true! That is true. It works out really well. Sadly for Tommy though, if the camera is on him, it catches him freaking out, but it never catches me.
SO: Oh! Yeah, that’s true in the movie (Indie Game).
Tommy: Yeah, they just caught me at the absolute worst time… in my life. I would rather have been diagnosed with diabetes again.
SO: Well, they had to have the drama.
Tommy: (in clear frustration) Yeah, well, they got it.
SO: Do you think you work better when you’re under pressure?
Edmund/Tommy: (simultaneously) No
Edmund: I think we could’ve made a much better game without that kind of pressure.
SO: Oh really?
Tommy: Maybe not as fast, but definitely more complete all around.
SO: Do you still play the game or can you not play it because you see all the mistakes, or what you call mistakes in it?
Tommy: I don’t play it anymore, because… I hate it. I hate all. I hate the PC port, I hate the MAC port. The only one I like is the Xbox port, but I fucking hate what Microsoft did to us.
SO NOTE: On the release day Xbox Live didn’t release Super MeatBoy to its Marketplace until halfway through the day, which highly affected the sales.
Tommy (cont.): It’s like looking at the guy who beat your son and trying to smile about it. Like, no thanks.
SO: I wanted to play the game first, so I could really talk to you about it, but it sounds intimidating. In very layman’s terms, explain the game to me.
Edmund: Ok, so the game is difficult, but not hard in a way that most people would be like, “Ahh, I’m so frustrated I never want to play a game again.” Old school games were really difficult because of how they presented the difficulty basically. They penalized you like crazy, because you only have three lives and you have to make it to the end. You know, you die and you have to start all over again. And when going into Meatboy, the focus was, we want to make a game difficult, because it’s very rewarding to do something and complete something that’s difficult, but we don’t want to frustrate the player to the point of not wanting to play the game because they feel like it’s too hard. Meatboy isn’t actually that difficult. My wife isn’t a gamer and she can beat the game. It’s just something that takes a little bit of persistence and eventually… I mean, we designed it to ease your way into the difficulty. It gets really really hard, but I personally believe that everyone can do it.
SO: What’s the goal of the game? You’re playing a boy who doesn’t have skin…
Edmond: And you’re trying to save your girlfriend, who’s made of bandages, from a fetus in a jar wearing a tuxedo and a monocle. It’s a play on old school villain tropes, basically. It’s a play on video games, on Mario; the whole princess is in a castle thing. We were constantly referencing characters from other independent games and just video game tropes in general, like the princess trope, the very basic villain trope. Dr. Fetus is basically the guy tying the damsel in distress down to a railroad track. The whole game was written as kind of a love letter to our experience with video games, period. Meatboy knows what it is. It’s constantly referencing the fact that it IS a video game.
SO: What was it like working on something that you cared about so much? What sort of advice would you give to other?
Edmond: I’d say for us it wasn’t that hard to work on, because we loved it so much. I don’t think it’s hard to work passionately on something you truly love. I am completely in love with making games. I think it’s an amazing art form. It just has so many different directions to go in the future that we haven’t even discovered yet. It just seems so… the potential is there. By 2003, barely anybody was making video games and there was just no bar there. Anybody could make something even if it was no good and that bar got raised so, so high. By 2008 independent game developers, you know, team of 1, 2, 3 people were out-doing large companies. Then you just kind of saw the potential and the fact that since this is an art form and since this isn’t about money… realistically. Like, it’s such a gamble with making games. If you go in trying to make money, you’re almost guaranteed to come out with nothing. You have to be passionate about what you’re doing. You have to be an artist to succeed and it’s like there’s this level playing field where an artist can come in with a vision of something and come out the other side actually competing with a large business, that’s meant to make blockbuster games and out-doing them in their own game. Because big business can’t take risks without potentially losing everything.
SO: Honestly, the Indie Game the first time I’ve ever looked at game developers as artists. Did you feel that the documentary did a good job of that, other than it showing Tommy on his worst possible day ever?
Tommy: Worst possible days. There were multiple days.
Edmond: Oh yeah, yeah. It was months.
SO: But do you feel that in general they captured it well. Were you happy with the results of the movie?
Tommy: Umm… yeah. I mean if you take away how it made me look like I was just this crazy person. Yeah, I think the movie was very, very good.
SO: I don’t think you came across crazy. Of all the guys there, in the movie… there were others that came… across… (Edmond starts laughing)
Tommy: Oh no, no, if you compare me to Phil, I look like the most levelheaded. Oh, I’m a children’s doctor.
SO: You seem like someone who is never satisfied with your work, that you’re a perfectionist.
Tommy: Um… to an extent, but sometimes you just HAVE to be satisfied with your work, because you don’t have a choice and that sucks. Overall, the movie does a very, very good job of just showing… I think the biggest complaint about the movie from those who actually wanted to complain about something in the movie is that it doesn’t tell them to make games. I don’t think the original purpose of the movie was that. It was to follow these three levels of developers. The guy struggling to make his game come out. The guys whose game is coming out, and the guy whose game came out and did well. It’s supposed to show the emotional connection to those with their games, based on their experience at that time in their career. In that way, it does it absolutely perfect.
Super Meat Boy Teaser
SO: Do you think your life changed more because of the success of Meatboy or because of the documentary?
Tommy: Definitely Meatboy, because the documentary just made us into these weird celebrities. We just want to make games and that makes it a little weird.
SO: And it wouldn’t of without the movie, obviously.
Tommy: Yeah, without the movie I doubt that would’ve ever happened, but with it that actually happens, quite a bit.
Edmond: Yeah, for the most part, when you make games, you’re kind of this unidentifiable artists. No one’s really going to point you out unless you happen to be wearing a T-shirt with Meatboy on it or something. After the movie, it’s quite literally, every other day, maybe ever day, depending on how often I’m leaving the house that someone will say something about the movie. Which is very, very weird and not at all WANTED or NEEDED. I think all of us come off a bit like caricatures of whom we are. You know the pieces of who we are are exaggerated a lot by the movie. I know, who am I to complain because I didn’t really come off like a crazy person…
Tommy: Yeah, you’re the most happy-go-lucky like, “Oh everything’s great!”. On launch day you’re sitting there with your wife eating a sandwich and I’m like, pulling my hair out.
Edmond: (laughing) See that’s annoying to me, because I’m NOT like that all the time and I’m not that person. Even though it wasn’t a hugely negative thing like everybody’s saying I’m an asshole, it was annoying to me to hear that I’m always… I’m jolly. I can be just as crazy if not crazier than everybody in the movie. I just happened to get captured at the right moments and not the wrong moments. I’m just as critical as Tommy when it comes to all that sort of stuff. All Tommy’s moods that are shown are all the things I’ve gone through as well. You can’t sum up a personality in an hour.
Tommy: I think the second line I say in the movie is, “If people want to play Halo they can, because I think those games are shit and I don’t make shit games.” That was my character introduction, so most people don’t get past that. They think I’m this extra critical, elicited indie person that won’t play mainstream games, which is totally not true, but I do think (giggling a bit) is not a good game. But yeah, I basically told a bunch of people that their sports team sucks within the first couple of minutes in the movie.
SO: I’m sure you’re hyper critical of yourselves. I watch a ton of documentaries and sometimes with these subgenres; the people come across as crazy, nerdy people. You kind of feel bad for them and I didn’t feel that with you.
Tommy Ed and I have talked about is that there’s… because I feel like I’m the most hated person in the movie, because of that first line. That’s also why I stopped reading everything on the Internet. It just kind of sucks and is horrible. I’d get frustrated, because people would be saying, “Tommy’s an asshole, and Phil is amazing.” And I’d think, “I’m worse than Phil.”
SO: Is Phil the one with fez hat?
Tommy: Yeah, the guy that threatened to kill himself and kill this other guy!
SO: You are not worse than Phil! (Ed and I are laughing)
Tommy: The conclusion that we’ve often come to is that everybody is going to relate to somebody in the movie differently. It’s a weird thing to go from, “Hey nobody knows who you are” to, “Hey, now everybody knows who you are AND they have an opinion on you AND they think they know you based on these, maybe 35 minutes I was on screen throughout the entire movie.
SO: Right. So what’s the weirdest super fan gift or moment that’s happened with Meatboy?
Edmund: Somebody sent me a picture of their tattoo that they got on their arm, which is a replica tattoo of my arm. That was fucking weird.
SO: What about you Tommy? Has someone ever come up to you and nerded out on you?
Tommy: Oh yeah, that’s happened all the time. I was on a flight and I’m on my phone as it’s getting ready to take off. I’m checking my Twitter and I see, “I think Tommy Refenesis on my flight.” I’m like, “Oh God.” And then I went to this breakfast place, right when I move here. I come back home, I look at Twitter and there’s a tweet at me that says, “Hey Pancake House, nice choice.” Oh God!
Tommy: Yeah, that kind of stuff happens a lot. It’s weird, but it’s totally harmless.
SO: It’s got to be surreal.
Tommy: It is. It’s kind of something that I never wanted. I live with it. It’s fine.
Edmund: It is very strange going in, because it happened around a time where there were three documentaries being made around indie games and all of them had interviewed either both of us or me. It was like, who knows if any of these will be released, but Indie Movie seemed to have the most potential, simply because the people behind it were the most passionate about what they were doing. I remember thinking well if this comes out, there’s that bit of celebrity that goes with it with the games and video game scene and that might be kind of cool. It turns out it’s like the thing that I hate about it the most is the guilt that I feel when somebody meet me and I feel like I don’t have anything to say. I want to be nice, but…
Tommy: Yeah, you’re like, “Umm.. thanks.”
Edmond: I don’t know how to answer their questions. I don’t know how to take their compliments. I’m just a weirdo like that and I don’t want their experience to be bad, because God knows I’ve met some of my heroes in the past and they’ve let me down and that’s all I’m thinking. “Don’t say something stupid.”
SO: You guys obviously have a good sense of humor and you talk about putting that into your games. What makes you both laugh?
Edmond: I think what makes us laugh is the more wrong something is, the more overly harsh and horrible. Almost every night when we hang up Skype we’ll say, “You realize if this Skype call somehow went public, we’d be destroyed.” Oh my god, very horrible, beyond Aristocrats stuff.
Tommy: Yeah, just really awful. Awful kind of stuff. (They break into laughter over the memory of their inside jokes.)
SO: What are you guys working on now? Anything new?
Tommy: We’re working on “Mew-Genics”.
SO: And what is that?
Tommy: It’s a game where you have cats and you breed them and you fight them.
Edmond: It’s a cat lady simulator
Tommy. Yeah. It’s weird.
SO: Do you have a release date?
Tommy: This year when it’s all done.
Edmond: It’s been an interesting one to tackle. From a design perspective, we are making the opposite game than Meatboy. It is not difficult; it’s just the opposite in everyway. It just seemed appropriate. Both Tommy and me are big cat fans.
Tommy: We love cats.
Edmond: I have multiple cats. I have four cats now.
SO: Are you going to have at least one bald cat in it for your wife? (Edmond promised his wife, Danielle that they could get a bald cat once the game was complete)
Edmond: The way the game works, there is almost an infinite number of possible…
Tommy: There’s like 25 sextillion combinations.
Edmond: Yeah, so many of those cats are hairless. Also, many have multiple eyes and are constantly vomiting and shitting all over the ground and exploding.
Tommy: Maybe one of them has a trashcan body.
SO: That’s great! Well, I’m following you both on Twitter now, so I can keep up with the progress. Don’t worry I won’t stalk you.
Edmond: I’ll tweet about “Rupaul’s Drag Race”.
SO: That’s my sister’s favorite show.
Edmond: I love that show!
Tommy: I’m only in the second episode.
Edmond: Goddamn Tommy!
Edmond: I don’t even know how you stop. I watched it all.
Tommy: Alright, here’s the thing and I might be able to get into it a little more now. Remember Nicole Stage Brookes?…
SO: I’m glad we’ve got your insight on “Rupaul’s Drag Race”. Well, I have to go, but real quick, what’s the best snack food to go along with video game playing?
Danielle (Edmund’s wife who has entered the room): Maybe like a Cheetos type of thing that you can pick up with your tongue.
SO: That’s smart.
Edmond: That actually is really good.
SO: Nyquil, insulin and Cheetos that you pick up with you tongue. Got it!
Edmond: (back to Tommy) Do you remember Tatiana. She’s super pretty.
Tommy: Tatiana? I don’t remember… oh… eww.. no. No, I don’t think that one’s very pretty.
Edmond: Well, there’s an even prettier one in the next season. But season 4 is the funniest and coolest season overall.
Tommy: The one we saw was the burlesque show. In season 2 and they were trying to sell cherry pie certificates on the street and then Nicole Paige Brookes girl….
Tommy: The one I think has the best transition is Pandora Box.
Edmond: Pandora Box is awesome…
SO NOTE: And the two of them rode off into the sunset talking about “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” This conversation could’ve easily gone on for another hour; it probably did after I hung up. This is what they do. They’re two passionate dudes that have found a great working relationship, a really awesome career and clearly, a ton of fun. Thanks again for talking to me guys.
Team Meat has a website with a blog. It’s supermeatboy.com. You’re reading this on the Internet, so I know you can’t wait for Meow Genics to come out. Also follow the guys on Twitter @edmundmcmillenn and @tommyrefenes.