(It is awfully sunny and warm there, though!)
"I can't seem to stay happy without having something to work on," admitted McMillen during a recent email conversation.
Instead, he got in touch with Florian Himsl, a programmer he'd previously collaborated with on smaller Flash-based projects like Twin Hobo Rocket and Coil. Both of them were in-between games, and began a week-long game jam. A what now? A game jam is meant to foster innovation by having a developer create prototypes at a rapid-fire pace.
Himsl and McMillen produced something they both felt good about at the end of it. That prototype was then fleshed out into The Binding of Isaac, which McMillen announced on its blog last month.
The ups and downs of Super Meat Boy's final stages of development were filmed as part of Indie Game: The Movie, but McMillen pushed back on the public perception regarding that final stretch, despite what they said at the time.
"I know we talked a lot openly about the stresses of SMB dev," he said, "but that was a very isolated incident, the stress was brought on by the pressure of [a] console release, and the time we were forced to get the game finished in. Most indie game dev isnt at all this stressful and very fun and relaxing for the most part. Isaac was very much my vacation."
The Binding of Isaac would be best described as a Smash TV-esque roguelike set within a dungeon structure modeled after The Legend of Zelda. It's awfully hard to not smile at the craziness of the mashup, which fits perfectly in line with McMillen's past work, whether with Himsl or Refenes.
I haven't played the game yet, but the released screen shots and artwork suggest the same sort of cartoonish absurdity that rightly encouraged comparisons to Red and Stimpy with Super Meat Boy.
"One of the things that I love about Edmund's art is that it can be disturbing and disgusting, but also adorable," explained Super Meat Boy composer Danny Baranowsky, a close friend of McMillen's and the man behind Isaac's music. "To me, that's incredibly interesting. I'm not at all an artist, so I don't really understand the technical reasons or whatever, but I love the idea of...there's blood and shit everywhere and deformed people and headless children and stuff--but it's adorable."
Baranowsky and McMillen have only met in person a few times--Baranowsky isn't even sure of the exact number. Two? Maybe three? In any case, the two chat constantly on instant messager. Their relationship sounds less like one of a designer and composer, and more like a guy who designs games and a guy who composes music who just happen to be good friends and can collaborate with one another.
At this point, if McMillen is working on a new game, Baranowsky is composing the music. No question. The only other designer Baranowsky has such a relationship with is Adam Saltsman, the designer of Canabalt.
As with Super Meat Boy, Baranowsky started composing The Binding of Isaac's music when a playable version was dropped into his lap. He started playing Super Meat Boy a full year before it was actually released. The turnaround time on The Binding of Isaac is much faster, but Baranowsky, who describes his work on this one as "dark," underscored the importance of actually playing the game before getting down to work.
"The very worst thing you could do with game music is take people out of it," he said. "It's very easy to do. If you overdo it or way underdo it, if you're just not matching up with how the game feels, it's just something people are going to want to mute. It's just one thing that people are conscious of a lot of the time--'there's something about this game I don't like and I don't understand it.' I guess it's not really shooting for the moon just to try avoid not sucking [laughs], but that's definitely the first consideration."
The Binding of Isaac is a roguelike, a niche subgenre of RPGs with a descriptor lifted from Rogue, a D&D-based game released in 1980. Roguelikes are best known for their harsh death penalties, and typically involve players winding through dungeon after dungeon in search of new loot. True roguelikes feature ASCII or tile graphics, but if the gameplay sounds familiar, that's because developers like Blizzard co-opted roguelike mechanics for mainstream success in games like Diablo.
McMillen is still working out the specifics of how The Binding of Isaac will play into traditional roguelike tropes. The game will have endings, for example, but he's unsure of the implementation.
"Isaac is going to be a very hard game, but not in the same way SMB was," he said.
The game will encourage players to keep coming back, even if they unlock an ending. More of the story will be revealed the more times you play. When you die, though, it's truly Game Over.
"So in that aspect the game is more hardcore then SMB," he said, "but also easier to continue to play because every game will be totally different."
As for the "Isaac" name check, McMillen is still mulling over how overt the biblical references will be in the game. He admitted to becoming enamored with over-the-top Christian scare tapes he's found online, chronicling tales of ritual sacrifice and satanism. In some respects, they've influenced the game, but with the narrative bits of The Binding of Isaac still up in the air, it's hard to say how they'll surface.
"I don't want anyone thinking the themes are serious in any way," he said.
There was discussion of releasing McMillen and Himsl's game jam projects for free, but after they started running with The Binding of Isaac, it was decided to release this as a real thing. It's not the next proper game from Team Meat, but it is the first game being released by one of them since that game. As such, headlines often read "from the co-creator of Super Meat Boy," creating a certain set of expectations.
These expectations make McMillen nervous. He's unsure if his newfound fans will dig this one.
"I have no fucking clue, I've been reading press and it's starting to scare me," he said. "Isaac isn't SMB, and I'm not sure this game will be something SMB fans will dig at all. I'm in the dark here. [...] If it gets more people into roguelikes or more weird themed games then awesome. If they hate it I can just remind them that this isn't a Team Meat game, and they can hold their bitching till we release game two."
McMillen is not one to mince words. He's brutally honest, even outright blasting Microsoft's handling of Super Meat Boy's release in a post mortem feature for Game Developer (it's recommended reading). He's a creator that wears his heart on his sleeve, an endearing quality that no doubt contributes to why his fans love him so dearly and the games he works on resonate.
"Either way I try not to care or think about that stuff when deving," he said. "I'm just making games because I want to play them and they keep me sane."
You'll notice that McMillen did mention "game two" from Team Meat.
Yes, it's coming. Eventually.
When The Binding of Isaac releases next month, he'll head back into hiding with Refenes. McMillen doesn't have a timeline for the next one, but when it does get revealed, he hopes the final game will be about a year off--but no guarantees. Their experience with Microsoft over Super Meat Boy hasn't pushed them away from consoles, either.
"It's just made us a bit smarter on how to deal with business when it comes to console," he said. "We can say this about game two, it sure as hell won't be exclusive to console."
I told you he doesn't mince words.
The Binding of Isaac arrives next month through Steam for an unspecified price, but McMillen promises it won't cost that much.