Team Meat talks Mew-Genics.
When I first spoke to Edmund McMillen in 2008, life was very different and commercial success wasn’t even a fantasy. “I’m staying indie until I’m homeless,” he declared obstinately. “Until then it’s Top Ramen and indie games.” But, as it turns out, he wasn’t destined to play the starving artist forever. A few months later, he and programmer Tommy Refenes began work on Super Meat Boy, the breakthrough hit that would change both of their lives. The title went on to become a million-selling blockbuster, and a flagship of the indie games movement. Its development was chronicled in last year’s Indie Game: The Movie, and Tommy and Edmund have become unlikely celebrities in the gaming press.
But success hasn’t changed Team Meat much. Last year, the duo decided to pause work on the much-anticipated pseudo-sequel to Super Meat Boy in favor of Mew-Genics, a black and white “cat lady sim” that couldn’t be further from the arcade action they’ve become known for. It seems like a risky move, given their new-found fame, and Team Meat is definitely feeling some pressure. “I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t worried about how Mew-Genics will be received,” Edmund admits.
The detour that is Mew-Genics began last summer, as Tommy was toiling on technical foundation for a new Meat Boy title. The two decided to participate (unofficially) in Ludum Dare 24, a game jam that asked devs to riff on the theme of evolution. “It was a way for me to get away from the stuff I was working on,” Tommy remembers, “and for Ed and me to do something together. I was working on new stuff for Super Meat Boy: The Game, and Ed was itching to do something new.”
They settled on the feline theme because really, who doesn’t like cats? “Cats and animals in general are superior species to humans,” Edmund quips. “[My wife] Danielle and I currently own four cats, and there has been a lot of talk about a fifth… But I’m fighting it!” Mew-Genics hopes to tap into the cat hoarder in all of us that can’t resist just one more cat. Like real cats, the critters in Mew-Genics each have their own personalities and stubborn wills, and Team Meat is trying to create a working simulation of all the behavioral subtleties of cat society. Cats will fight, mate, and breed. They’re prone to psychological trauma and positive reinforcement. Some of them are dominant, some of them are submissive, and some of them just really don’t belong in the same room together.
“As we were making [Mew-Genics] during the game jam we realized that it had a bunch of potential,” Tommy recalls. “It wasn’t a tough decision to put SMB:TG on hold.” Mew-Genics was never even an official entry in Ludum Dare, but the “just for fun” project took on a life of its own. Unlike Super Meat Boy, which packed hundreds of short stages, Mew-Genics has been about gradually adding complexity to its small world. “Early on, it was really hard to see how Mew-Genics was going to be fun,” Edmund confesses, “but the more we add the more complex things get, the more surprises it will throw at you that you didn’t know were possible.” Team Meat’s hope is that the game will pack enough depth that stories will emerge on their own.
Where Super Meat Boy was a retro-tinged, blood-stained homage to gaming’s past, Mew-Genics pays tribute to depression-era animation, full of soft, round edges and strong, black outlines, all rendered with a monochrome palette. “I wanted to make a game that looked like a ‘30s or ‘40s cartoon,” Edmund explains. “I’m a big fan of grayscale and black-and-white art, so I was drawn to this look.” Edmund promises that still screenshots can’t do their game justice: “A lot of the shots we have shown so far don’t really have any effects on them yet. In the end, the game will look a lot more like something from Steamboat Willie and will feature a ton of animation to make things look and feel very alive.”
Mew-Genics’ soundtrack promises to be just as distinctive as its look. To compose the tunes, Team Meat has brought on Ridiculon, a duo comprised of multi-instrumentalists Matthias Bossi and John Evans. Initially, Team Meat wanted a pre-World War II sound to match the visuals, but as time went on, it evolved into something completely unique. “Basically we’re throwing the kitchen sink at it,” Bossi teased in an earlier interview. “Every time we think we’ve crossed the threshold into actual wrongness, we level up and get encouraged.” The few tracks that have been revealed so far seem to confirm that, with a weird and wonderful mélange of sounds that can only be compared to Terry S. Taylor’s timeless soundtrack for the The Neverhood.
This also marks Team Meat’s first real foray into the world of mobile gaming, with a planned launch on Steam, iOS, and Android. Team Meat had previously mocked mobile gaming with the satirical iOS release Super Meat Boy Handheld, so it’s a move the two are not taking lightly. “The current mobile scene is just beginning,” Tommy laments. “People have figured out how to make mountains of money, but I don’t think anyone has really created a memorable experience that people will be talking about for years to come.” Edmund has likewise been an outspoken critic of the mobile gaming market, and has promised Team Meat’s games will be free of the sort of money-making schemes that range from “abusive and manipulative money making tactics, to flat-out stealing.”
Mew-Genics is not the game anyone expected from Team Meat. Most developers would be content to ride their success with sequels, ports, and expansions for years to come. But success hasn’t corrupted Edmund or Tommy; it’s freed them to follow their whims. “Following up a game like SMB is a pretty crazy feat, but I think that’s why we went with a game that’s nothing like it at all,” Edmund reflects. “I’m a lot less concerned with profits now that we are ok money-wise… We can relax and enjoy the game we are developing without worrying about becoming homeless.”
Ridiculon jamming Mew-Genics’ theme…