The most enduring image of Tommy Refenes is of him sat dressed in a cap and hoodie, sizzling in the sodium light of a waffle house at 04:17. It’s a scene from Indie Game: The Movie, and he looks like a refugee from Hopper’s Nighthawks. But where the thoughts of Hopper’s subjects remain frozen and unknowable, we knew precisely what possessed Tommy. ‘I’m depressed now because I’m on the brink of something amazingly huge,’ he said. ‘But, it’ll fade because once it’s out it’s out, and that’s it.’
And for eight years, that was it. Team Meat, which comprised him and his partner, Edmund McMillen, released Super Meat Boy in 2010, and Refenes – still damp from a champagne shower of critical acclaim – has yet to release anything since. ‘Life happened,’ said Refenes, when I spoke to him recently about his next game, Super Meat Boy Forever. ‘When we first started SMBF, in 2014, it was supposed to be a little three month project,’ he explained. The game began as an endless runner, meant for mobile, but in the four years that followed, it transformed into a full sequel with expanded mechanics.
‘It was meant to be a palette cleanser in between some of the tougher design problems we were tackling with other projects,’ he told me, ‘We were going to have three chapters with three levels each, maybe some bosses and, yes, it was just going to come to mobile.’ He’s vague about particulars when it comes to why the project, a scrap of fresh inspiration, aged the way it did. ‘That prototype turned out to be extremely fun, but life happened and we weren’t able to work on it for quite some time.’
For around three years, in fact; it was only last year that Refenes decided to go back to the prototype that he had designed. ‘January 2017 came along, and I revisited that initial prototype, and I saw potential for something more than just a palette cleanser… I saw Super Meat Boy 2.’ Or at least, he saw the bones of a sequel; it would take him nearly two years to put meat on them. ‘I trashed what we had with the exception of the controls I designed and decided that this was going to be something substantial.’
Substantial indeed. Refenes knew he was onto something with the controls. Heroes Meat Boy and Bandage Girl now have the inclination to punch and kick their enemies, and SMBF has a two-button approach that allows a jump attack, a dive, and a slide. The addition of a single mechanic, in a game so lean and closely cut, can expand the scope of play massively, beyond what Refenes initially foresaw. ‘Almost 2 years and lots of time and money later, we’re coming close to the end of development and Forever has grown beyond what I initially saw.’
As much as it may sound blasphemous to the devoted, I was looking forward to something less meaty. The notion of an endless runner is enough to make some dash for the door, but something like Super Meat Boy, with gameplay as raw and refined as Refenes’, fits the twitchy, spartan formula like a skin. Sadly, after Super Meat Boy Forever evolved into what it is now, any plans for an endless runner became offcuts. ‘We have no plans to do a Meat Boy endless runner,’ he told me, ‘but there is a very solid chance that Super Meat Boy Forever will come to mobile at some point.’
It’s just as well; the ability to carry Super Meat Boy with you was always the sequel’s biggest draw for me – perfectly sliced, as it is, for short bursts. Moreover, Refenes is keen on mobile from a design perspective – ‘It plays perfectly on touch screen because of the two inputs.’ What’s clogging the process of getting SMBF onto mobile is one of business. ‘The problem is more “how do we sell a console quality game on a device that caters to free-to-play games?”’ He’s yet to arrive at an answer. ‘I don’t know the solution to that right now and the obvious solution of “make it free to play” doesn’t sit well with me.’
For now, he’s keen to keep focussed on what’s in front of him. ‘We’ll worry about that after we get this out on PC and consoles though.’ But what else is in front of him? It’s been almost a decade since Super Meat Boy, and life certainly happened to Refenes. I asked him what's different about making this game compared to the original. ‘When I was working on Super Meat Boy I always felt like I was doing something extremely important with my time. I had no social life and no money but every day I woke up happy and eager to work.’
It’s impossible to read those words and not think of the guy in the waffle house at 04:17. ‘The last few months of development were stressful but at no time did I want to give up or throw in the towel,’ he said. ‘I did want to sleep but I always wanted to wake up!’ Things are different now for a number of reasons. ‘With Forever, I have money, I have my wife, Shannon, of 4 years. Granted, with the birth of my son, Rhydian, I want to work less, but I still feel my time is not being wasted.’
Aside from the buoyancy and freedom rustled up by money, game developers – artists of all kinds – have long been burdened by the yoke of success. ‘What’s worse is dealing with expectations,’ he explained. ‘When Super Meat Boy was in development no one had any expectations… it was “just a platformer,” so the bar was pretty low. But despite the near decade wait for more Meat Boy, Refenes sounds confident in his sequel. ‘That pressure is real, but I have no doubt that Super Meat Boy Forever will meet and probably exceed people’s expectations.’
The other big difference between then and now is that, for SMBF, Refenes isn’t working – and stewing in the stresses of game development – with his old partner, Edmund McMillen. In Indie Game: The Movie, McMillen appeared a warm and jovial presence in comparison with Refenes, who was possessed by the avian and the anxious. McMillen went on from Super Meat Boy to develop The Binding of Isaac and The End is Nigh, an inky platformer dripping with dark atmosphere. I asked Refenes if the two are still in touch, and if they may work together again. ‘I still follow his work and I’m still a fan,’ he said. ‘We are on two different paths that I doubt will cross again.’
Refenes didn’t allude to any falling out, explaining that ‘Our individual paths are going to bring more and better games to the fans while keeping us both happy with the work we’re doing.’ Life happens. In the meantime, Super Meat Boy Forever is still listed as coming out this year, for console and PC. When I asked for a specific date, he demurred, saying, ‘News on this very very soon!’
For players who have already waited eight years for a sequel, or who felt short changed with the notion of an endless runner or a free-to-play mobile game, patience is in plentiful supply. After all, once it’s out it’s out, and that’s it.