“I’m always referencing my childhood experiences and the designers that inspired me.”
Welcome to Humans Who Make Games, a new podcast hosted by comedian Adam Conover that takes a deep dive into some of the most beloved games today with the brilliant designers behind them.
On the first episode, Conover chats with Edmund McMillen—the mind behind indie hits like the original Super Meat Boy, the End is Nigh, and The Binding of Isaac—about how he got started making games, the origin of his signature gruesome aesthetic, and the very personal approach he takes to designing games.
Regarding the design process behind Super Meat Boy, a critically-acclaimed platformer that features an incredible amount of challenge with a near-instantaneous restart time when you fail, McMillen said he begins with a “core theme” as the starting point when making games, in this case, overcoming challenge. “With Meat Boy, it was just about difficulty. It sounds super basic, but it was just like, ‘I want to make a game that kind of abstractly talks about how the struggle is what is most rewarding and not the reward,'” he explained.
In order to challenge players without leaving them feeling alienated or too frustrated to continue, McMillen worked to ensure Super Meat Boy wasn’t overly punishing. “It’s a delicate dance,” he said. “You’ve got that sweet spot where, if you could just dance on this little line here of frustration and almost wanting to give up, but having it challenging enough so when you do finally do it you feel super f—ing great, you can kind of hone in on that—the goal of making people realize, ‘oh it was really fun.’ The experience was fun, it wasn’t necessarily just getting to the end, it was just the culmination of it.”
McMillen also discussed how Super Mario Bros. was a huge inspiration for Super Meat Boy. “I think mechanically, it all comes from Mario. There’s a reason why it’s called Super Meat Boy,” he said, noting SMB is the abbreviation for both Super Meat Boy and Super Mario Bros. “I’m always referencing my childhood experiences and the designers that inspired me.”
The way I’m writing is how I believe musicians are writing songs, where there’s this vague, very personal-ness to everything that’s happening.
Much like how Super Meat Boy is McMillen’s take on Super Mario Bros., The Binding of Isaac is his spin of The Legend of Zelda. His unique interpretations of these iconic franchises stem from a very personal connection, and the way he approaches creating them is similar to how a musician’s experiences inform their music. “The way I’m writing is how I believe musicians are writing songs, where there’s this vague, very personal-ness to everything that’s happening. But it’s so personal that there’s no way to completely understand what they’re saying, but vague enough for other people to experience it,” McMillen explained. “I like to believe that it simply doesn’t matter if anybody is picking up what I’m putting down. Because either way at the very least they’ll say, ‘this is weird.’ And ‘this is weird’ usually translates to ‘this is unique, this is something that is odd to me, this is different,’ which is a huge win for me regardless of what’s going on.”
For more insight into McMillen’s approach to game design, including how drafting Magic the Gathering decks was a source of inspiration in the creation of The Binding of Isaac, as well as how his relationship with his wife and the first hardship they faced was foundational in his design process, listen to the full episode of Humans Who Make Games.
To ensure you don’t miss future episodes of the podcast, you can subscribe to Humans Who Make Games on iTunes.
Alex Osborn is an associate editor at IGN. You can follow him on Twitter.