Edmund McMillen is a game designer I admire above all others. He’s a little different from what you’d imagine when using that term, however. Edmund never produced a triple-A title. He hasn’t had people queuing at midnight to lay hands on his latest blockbuster. He’s never made anything in 3D. What he has done, for the past eight years, is create games that offer unique experiences and share, in stark contrast, his thoughts, fears and joys. The Basement Collection, released earlier this month via Steam, is a chance to delve through the highlights of his career and find out a bit more about the processes behind their creation.
The Basement Collection is made up of five previously released titles (although they were only really readily available via Flash gaming portal, Newgrounds):
• Triachnid – a physics puzzler where you guide a three-legged spider across a craggy landscape.
• Coil – the most experimental game, covering the short lifespan of a collection of developing cells.
• Meat Boy – precursor to the amazing Super Meat Boy.
• Aether – an adventure game set in a lonely universe.
• Grey-Matter – a bullet hell anti-shooter where your ship is your weapon.
• Spewer – a puzzle platformer starring an adorable vomiting blob.
• Time Fcuk – a puzzle game with a dark time-manipulation mechanic.
Completing each game also unlocks bonuses that range from additional level packs to early art (really early art – from the mind of a four-year-old) to candid interviews about special titles.
The Basement Collection is a tricky piece of work to review in the same way as other games. The first thing most people want to know about a game is, “is it fun?”. When playing through any of these titles, my answer sits somewhere around “maybe?”. Each game is challenging, even devilish in its design and, like Team Meat’s most successful release, completing each one is deeply satisfying. It’s weird though. Playing these games, it doesn’t feel like making it fun in the traditional sense is the main goal.
Each game, as Edmund describes in his intros and commentaries, was thought up in response to an insecurity about the world. Triachnid has real trouble navigating the landscape it calls its home, Meat Boy and the “ship” you control in Grey-Matter are fragile, fleeting things. Spewer just looks like it’s in pain whenever you propel it across the level on a trail of its own puke. I never felt comfortable in Time Fcuk thanks to the oppressive art style and buzzing musiccc and Aether, well Aether just made me sad. Through all of this stress and concern for the characters, I came away feeling like I’d connected with the games far more than I could by just jumping in a sports car or blowing away a wave of alien scum.
The Basement Collection is game design with the benefit of hindsight. McMillen admits that not everyone enjoyed the games when they were first unveiled, especially the shorter, more abstract experiences like Coil. By bundling them up with interviews, post-mortems and design notes, it adds context to each piece of work and gives the feeling of being able to peek over the creator’s shoulder and get a glance at their notes.
Some games do, unfortunately, fair poorly against the time since their release. With Super Meat Boy still costing untold millions in broken controllers, its predecessor feels primitive and clunky (especially as you’re forced to play with a keyboard – no gamepad support here). Grey-Matter is almost impossibly hard and, possibly due to my own impatience, I often found myself failing in Triachnid by getting caught on the level geometry (although this added to the overall sense of frustration and futility so it’s almost excusable as intentional design).
Still, it’s refreshing and inspiring to see a designer who wears his heart so plainly on his sleeve. Every game creates a connection with someone you’ve probably never met. It’s the most candid, honest and, despite the weight of many of the subjects, playful set of games I’ve encountered in a long time. Indie gaming is all about expression and unique ideas and Edmund McMillen has made some of the best to date.
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