Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Written In Blood


In M. Night Shyamalan’s film The Sixth Sense, fate curses Bruce Willis with the supernatural ability to see dead people. My curse is the ability to spot juicy metaphors that can be flogged until they’re dead. I'm a metaphor junkie. I guess it’s just my cross to b—arghhhh, see! (Almost walked right smack into that one.) Recently I’ve been struck by how perfectly the indie platformer Super Meat Boy functions as a metaphor for the writing process. I’ll begin by spelling out the metaphorical equivalents of the game’s various bits.
  • Overall game = writing project (novel, essay, dissertation, etc).
  • World/stage = paragraph unit.
  • Level = sentence unit.
  • Bandage Girl = period at the end of the sentence.
  • Meat Boy = Microsoft Word's blinking cursor.
  • Meat Boy’s bloody red trail = spilled “ink.”
  • Rescuing Bandage Girl = completion of a given sentence.
  • Timer = measure of concision and clarity in each sentence.
  • Lethal obstacles—saw blades, lava, spikes, salt deposits—scattered across the level = grammatical errors and typos.
  • Meat Boy’s path from the beginning of the level to its completion = the series of words you choose to make your point.
  • Replay function = the self-editing step of the writing process (deleting a particular sentence and attempting a different wording, construction, etc.)
  • Each stage’s degree of difficulty = the level of complexity in the idea you’re attempting to convey.
Part of the joy of writing is the creativity required to figure out the best way to get your point across. In the same way that writing a long, rambling, verbose sentence—like I'm doing right now by using a series of three adjectives when one would do just fine—obscures your intended meaning, a long roundabout path to Bandage Girl in Super Meat Boy guarantees you a poor completion time on the level. The point of the game is to find the most direct path to her, which means careful consideration of the route you take. At first a level may seem like it requires a long detour when, in fact, there’s a more direct line there to be carved, even if you overlooked it on your first several passes.

Super Meat Boy tantalizes players with the knowledge that any given level could be played better. Just as changing a single word in a sentence can sharpen your idea, something as basic as adjusting the trajectory of your jump can shave precious hundredths of a second. As the ever-quotable Mark Twain wrote in an 1888 letter to fellow author George Bainton, "The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter—it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning."

Super Meat Boy's story may have a conclusion, but the game leaves itself open to infinite subtle revisions. Even if you’ve battled your way to 100% completion, any given level can be revisited and tightened up to reduce your overall time quotient and improve your standings on the leaderboards. Similarly a piece of writing can never be perfected, merely tightened in its execution. You may have finished writing your book/essay/etc., but you could spend the rest of your natural life going back and tweaking each and every sentence to increase the quality of the work as a whole.

The game of writing can make even the most talented practitioner feel tempted to rage quit now and again. In other words, if you'll allow me one final metaphor: writing is a bitch.

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Any interest in helping me stretch the metaphor until it cries "Freeeeeee-dom!" like Mel Gibson getting tortured in Braveheart? I could use writing-related metaphors for Dr. Fetus, the warp zones, the alternate playable characters, Brownie, etc, etc. Leave your ideas in the comment thread.

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Read my formal review of Super Meat Boy for Paste here.