Once upon a time, console platformers (Super Mario Bros., Sonic the Hedgehog, Wonder Boy, etc.) gave the player three lives to beat the level. In the case of Super Mario Bros., you got three lives to beat the whole game. You may be thinking “but you’ve got 1ups!” and yes, that’s true, but allow me to pull you into a stressful part of your past…
You (as Mario) are standing on a platform with a particularly treacherous jump. There are hammer brothers and a smattering of koopa troopas that pass juuuuuuust at the time you need to jump. Your heart races. Your getting warm and your face is flushed. Your breathing accelerates and one thought cuts into your consciousness:
I don’t know if I can make it and I only have three lives.
Then you jump… and you don’t make it.
You wasted one of your lives because you made a mistake, now you only have two lives left! You can’t get that life back!
However, you need to try again… and you die. One life left.
In a last ditch effort to beat the level and continue forward to the game’s conclusion. You attempt the terrifying jump… and you die.
Then you see it, what you’ve been dreading all along: GAME OVER.
Life message: You tried and you just weren’t good enough.
Let me present another scenario. You see an amazing power-up at the top of the screen in an underwater level, but it’s being patrolled by cheep-cheeps and those squidy guys. You mull it over in your head for a while, then remember that you only have three lives and you can’t risk it.
Life message: The best things in life have risk attached and, if you want to get to the end, it’s best not to go for them.
Now, I’m no educational psychologist or sociologist, but those sound like pretty bad messages to send to kids. I know that there are no game designers laughing maniacally in some Japanese lab, trying to crush the dreams of schoolchildren, but the messages stand. This is the plight of older console games, especially the ones at the nexus of limited lives and extreme difficulty.
Strangely, that nexus resonated with one of the game designers of Super Meat Boy. In Indie Game: The Movie, Tommy Refenes talks about his love of hard games, especially older console games. I say “strangely” because there is one real difference between Super Meat Boy and platformers across all gaming generations:
The player has unlimited lives. It’s not even a cheat code, it’s a legitimate part of the game design.
The game is also punishingly difficult, and notoriously so. And, as a player, it’s okay that the game is hard because I get an unlimited number of lives in order to achieve my goal.
Life message #1: You can always try again.
Furthermore, every level has an ending that’s really achievable and many people have done it. That doesn’t mean that it’s not hard, it means that success is possible for every player and, as said above, you can always try again.
Life message #2: It’s hard, but you can do it.
Life message #3: You can achieve the success that other people have also achieved. They are not special or better than you, they just put in the work and time it takes to be successful.
Because you have infinite lives, the player isn’t afraid to take risks because you can always try again. There are no consequences for failure. In fact, the respawn time after you die is almost immediate. Imagine if, every time you failed, you immediately picked yourself up and tried something new?
Life message #4: In order to succeed, two of the most important qualities you must develop are persistency and resiliency.
The game requires you to take risks in order to find the solution because it’s often not where you expect, or it demands a certain level of ability. If you have it, you’ll beat the level and continue to one more difficult; if you don’t, then you’ll die a whole bunch of times until you finally achieve the dexterity and finesse you need to win.
Life message #5: Practice makes perfect.
Life message #6: No risk, no return.
The amazing thing about Super Meat Boy is that it not only demands risk, it also demands failure. You need to fall down sometimes. You may jump into a wall full of needles when practicing your jump timing. Then you die and respawn immediately, before you get the chance to wallow in your own failure. In fact, it often achieves the opposite effect: You get inspired to win. By the time you’ve actually realized that you died, you’re already back at the start, ready to start again.
Life message #7: Allow failure to be motivating, instead of demoralizing. If you don’t find it motivating, see Life messages 1-6.
Beating a level in Super Meat Boy is so rewarding because it’s just so damn hard. Before we move on, let’s address how awesome that feels.
Life message #8: If you want a feeling of genuine success, find a genuine challenge and overcome it by being persistent and resilient.
It feels amazing because of a wonderful combination of personal risk, failure, persistance, resiliency, and finally victory. After you beat the level, the designers put in a replay where you get to watch every round that you played on that level at the same time. So you watch your ten or twenty or thirty or forty Meat Boys at the same time jumping, racing, running and dying.
All except one. That Meat Boy makes it to the end and succeeds. That’s you 🙂
There is no consequence for dying; in fact, it’s celebrated.
Watch an example of the bone-crushing difficulty of Super Meat Boy, at least from the opening to 4:15. The re-run happens at 4:00, but it’s important to watch this player fail for four minutes straight. He must fail thirty times. Then watch him get back up and try something new. Watch him keep going. Watch him being resilient. Watch him being persistent.
Now imagine if we all did that in our own lives. Imagine if we picked ourselves up every time we fell down. Imagine if we didn’t internalize failure and just treated it as something that happens whenever we start something new. Imagine that failure was not only expected, but celebrated as risk taking. Imagine taking a risk that was meaningful to you. Imagine going all in on everything important to you.
What if we failed, got up, and tried something different every time?
What if you learned that at 16 years old?
Imagine how different your life could be. If that makes you emotional, let it. If you are a teenager/young adult, take that to heart and go for it. If you’re older than that, it’s not too late. It’s never too late.
The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago; the next best time is now. 🙂