‘We’ve made a kick-ass sequel’: Tommy Refenes talks Super Meat Boy Forever

First teased under the mysterious anagram ‘A Voyeur For September’, Super Meat Boy Forever will soon be hitting our virtual shelves. We interviewed outspoken indie-dev Tommy Refenes ahead of his long-awaited sequel.

“If people want to buy Modern Warfare or Halo: Reach that’s fine because I think those games are shit. If that’s what people want then people don’t want the games that I make because I don’t make shit games”, states Tommy Refenes in 2012’s Indie Game: The Movie. The critically acclaimed documentary captured some of the most ingenious minds in indie development during the build up and release of their era-defining games, introducing many to the always irreverent Refenes as he co-created breakthrough hit Super Meat Boy. 

Refenes oddball charisma and sense of humour filter into every aspect of his work. Super Meat Boy, released in 2010, was grim, beautiful, unforgiving and unbelievably frustrating. It was also satisfying as hell.  A game that gave a winking tease of “This is tough, but it just makes you love me more, doesn’t it?” and deservedly became a career-changing success for Refenes and fellow developer Edmund McMillen.

Originally just an experiment he made in his hotel room during some downtime at GDC 2011, Super Meat Boy Forever was never meant to be a full-on sequel. Refenes explains the ebbs and flows of the development process: “Work on Super Meat Boy Forever had stalled right after we debuted it at PAX West 2014 and I hadn’t played it in a while. At the beginning of 2017 I was able to continue work on it and I went back and played that original build. I realized the design and what we showed only scratched the surface of what the game could be. The original scope of Super Meat Boy Forever was very small but when I picked it up again I thought “This is a sequel”….then I went for it.”

Team Meat(ing) the fans: Edmund McMillen (left) and Tommy Refenes (right)

Now married and expecting kids, it’s possible that Refenes has mellowed in the eight years since Super Meat Boy’s release. There is certainly apprehension amongst fans that Super Meat Boy Forever has diluted his hallmark game series. The original required dexterity, instinct and Herculean patience. A millimetre shift on the analog stick could spell the difference between breaking through a level and yet another agonising death.

Forever is an auto-runner using only two buttons. A refinement which has made some fans concerned that the new game will lose the series’ cutting edge in favour of accessibility, something Refenes is keen to deny:

“It’s accessible because it uses less buttons (no more holding down the run button hand cramps), not because it’s easier”. “Super Meat Boy had that trademark difficulty without feeling unfair and stupid because the controls complemented the level design. Super Meat Boy Forever is no different. I showed Super Meat Boy at a ton of events (E3, PAX, etc) during it’s 2009 – 2010 development time and I show Super Meat Boy Forever at those same events and people react the same way. If I speculate on how people will receive this game based only on the reactions of people that have played it I feel confident that we’ve made a kick-ass sequel worthy of the title “Super Meat Boy”.

It’s a fair defence. Keeping the mechanics largely the same and just adding new levels would have been more out of line with the originality that defines Super Meat Boy. Or, as Team Meat patiently explain on their website: “Here’s the thing: shut up.”

“As a designer, programmer, and gamer it hits all of my sweet spots.”

Forever’s levels are built around 40-50 separate ‘chunks’ that are rearranged each time to ramp up the difficulty. Though a significant departure from the previous game, Refenes views this as essentially a continuity of the previous system: “The levels in Super Meat Boy Forever are made the same way the levels in Super Meat Boy were made: Concept, play, refine, repeat until perfection.  The biggest challenge was creating a system that could smash all of these level chunks together in a meaningful [way] to make fun and rewarding levels. As a designer, programmer, and gamer it hits all of my sweet spots.”

Tommy Refenes is known for his rebellious sense of humour. After all, he is the man that once stated at GDC “If any of you know me you know me…you know that I absolutely fucking hate the iPhone App store” and yet is now promising a iOS version of the Super Meat Boy Sequel.  A brief peruse through his twitter proves this characteristic has fortunately changed very little over the years. Still, as Indie Game: The Movie illustrated, the life of a game developer can test anyone to their limits. 

The world’s first game developer and life coach?

Indie Game: The Movie showed the last 3 months of development which were very stressful due to deadlines that were imposed on us and self imposed by us”, Refenes admits. Still, he’s keen to clarify that making the game “didn’t feel like a job or a burden up until those last 3 months and even though those last 3 months were stressful I still look back on them as one of the most enjoyable and meaningful times of my life.”

Nevertheless, having people document some of your most testing career moments could feel understandably invasive; one wonders if Refenes ever regretted letting filmmakers James Swirsky and Lisanne Pajot’s into the Team Meat universe. Tommy claims they “changed nothing with the creation process…[“They’re] amazing filmmakers and they just blended into the background. There’s a shot of my gross looking toes in that movie and I do not remember Lisanne crawling around on the floor of my kitchen. That’s how good they are.”

Tommy sounds confident ahead of release. The new game “feels just as good if not better” than its predecessor, “I get to do more with this game and it’s scratching a bunch of design itches I didn’t even know I had.” Prospective filmmakers, it seems, would have found much less drama to capture this time round. 

So what’s next? A non-stop schedule by the looks of it: “I had a long enough break in between SMB and SMBF. Game 3 is already in preproduction and I do want to get the rights to ActRaiser one day so I can make ActRaiser 3. The chances of that happening are low but there are plenty more games in the pipeline.”

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