It's Thanksgiving so let's talk about Meat...Circus and be thankful that most games don't have flaws like this anymore.
By bigsocrates 2 Comments
It’s Thanksgiving in the US today and even though I’ve been a vegetarian for almost 5 years this is the holiday I most associate with meat. Turkey meat may be popular on sandwiches, but cooking a whole bird in a home oven can be difficult. People have burned their houses down trying various methods like cooking in brine or roasting over a fire, but even for those who just stick it in the oven it’s easy to overdo it or forget to baste enough and end up with something that’s tough and unpleasant.
Tough and unpleasant are also the words I’d use to describe the Meat Circus level from the original Psychonauts. It’s not the hardest level in a 3D platformer and I think almost anyone can manage it if they put in the time, but the biggest problem is that it’s hard and annoying in ways that accentuate the game’s worst elements while not doing all that much to play to its strengths, at least when it comes to gameplay. It’s a wildly creative idea for a level and aesthetically and story wise it’s great and satisfying, but actually playing it just lays bare all the flaws in Psychonauts that the rest of the game covers up with a great look and relatively gentle difficulty.
Meat Circus starts with a vertical escort mission. You have to protect a young boy as he makes his way up a tower of acrobatic equipment constructed from meat in a circus bigtop. The visual of platforms and trapezes constructed out of flesh and bone could be terrifying but it’s not played for scares, it’s more designed to be gross out comedy, and it’s great. The escort mission itself, however, is awful. There are a number of reasons for it. One of them is that instead of actually escorting the boy, he teleports from location to location and you have to scramble up there to protect him and help him grab his bunny before moving to the next spot. This means that you’re effectively on a timer, because he takes damage when he’s out of your sight and you start quite far from him in each step of the mission. Psychonauts is a game without a lot of timed challenges, which is good because it’s also a game with inconsistent controls and a bad camera. The protagonist Razputin will often fail to grapple things he should, or have a double jump not fire off for some reason, and fall down. This is fine when you just fall down off a platform and have to climb back up, and usually not so bad when you fall to your death because the game gives you plenty of lives and is fairly generous with the checkpoints, even if you lose all your lives and get kicked out of a level. In Meat Circus, on the other hand, it’s easy to fall down to a platform below and be alive but have lost too much time to reach your objective. This effectively forces the player to waste a bunch of time waiting for the clock to run out so they can try again. That punitive design means that when the camera just won’t show you the next platform for whatever reason, or gets stuck in something (which happened to me several times in the level) or Raz just doesn’t jump like he should you feel incredibly frustrated because now you have to wait a minute to get another try. This issue is compounded by the lack of checkpoints in this part of the stage. There are four different stages to the level and you have to start from the first every time you fail. If you’ve got the first few parts down pat but are trying to figure out the timing on a later jump you need to repeat everything earlier to get back to the part you’re struggling with, and it’s frustrating and infuriating and awful. Now each camera problem that you could shrug off when it only cost you 10 seconds of progress is a teeth grinding experience that could cost you a couple minutes of boring repetition just to get back to the same jump and hope the camera worked better this time. Not good.
After the escort portion is a rail grinding section. This part is all memorization because you have to go fast to clear certain gaps in the rails but slow down for others where you only have a short section of rail to land on. In and of itself it’s fairly harmless and only takes a few tries to get through. The issue here is that I’m pretty sure that the next major checkpoint (the one you can return to if you lose all your lives) is after it, meaning that if you only have one or two lives left when you get to this section you might have to repeat the whole escort area again, which feels like a real kick in the face considering how miserable that part is. I didn’t die enough to find out but either way this section is just kind of there.
After this is a boss fight and I don’t have much to say about it. It’s not good per se and does the annoying thing where you just avoid attacks until the boss has a moment of vulnerability, but it comes after a major checkpoint and it’s not particularly difficult so….fine. I will say that the camera is a problem here too, but it’s a forgiving enough fight that even if you take a few unfair hits you should be fine.
After the boss fight is another timed platforming section where you have to get up yet another tower of obstacles while water rises from below to drown you. Unlike the escort section this is fairly checkpointed, but it’s also much tougher from a platforming perspective with tighter timing. The camera is brutal here, forcing you to make a number of blind jumps, hiding incoming projectiles, and sometimes seeming to intentionally obstruct your view, and also causing you to fall at times because you have to cross tightropes while an enemy lobs projectiles at you and if you jump to dodge without the camera being perfectly aligned you will jump off the tightrope and die. There’s a section where you have to jump between sections of floating fence and if your double jump doesn’t trigger you will die, and that in combination with the camera was so bad I seriously questioned whether this level was actually finished. Considering they changed it for the Steam re-release there’s a good chance it wasn’t. That happens sometimes, and it’s definitely beatable, but if they knew that the game’s controls and camera weren’t up to the challenge they should have fixed the checkpoints and the timer, lowering the difficulty to compensate without having to do a lot of work to the level itself.
That’s my primary issue with Meat Circus. There’s a mismatch between what the game wants you to do and what the controls enable you to do reliably. A lot of good games are quite difficult, but when you die it’s because you made a dumb mistake or weren’t fast or precise enough. When you fail in Meat Circus it’s often because the game failed you rather than the other way around. When you die because your camera is obstructed and you’re too busy doing precise platforming to move it into place you don’t get mad at yourself you get mad at the game. When a double jump doesn’t trigger despite you pressing the button, or the camera swings a little off axis and you jump to avoid an attack and plummet to your doom it doesn’t make you resolve to get better, it just makes you sigh and either give up or try again and hope things break your way. Psychonauts is a game with loose controls and a mediocre camera to begin with, but it’s a game that mostly asks you to do things with enough leeway that it never gets frustrating. In Meat Circus it asks you to do a lot of difficult platforming under time pressure but doesn’t give you the tools to reliably succeed. That takes what would otherwise be a tough but not brutally difficult level and makes it beyond frustrating, even though it’s definitely beatable with a little work and enough luck.
The final boss section of Meat Circus is again okay. This time you’re asked to lob projectiles from the ground at the boss and though collision detection and his reactions are dodgy it’s pretty easy to avoid his attacks and you get enough health pickups that if you’re playing well you’ll be fine even with the errant camera or other issue that makes you take a hit. The game reverts back to covering its flaws with its lower difficulty and it’s a relatively satisfying encounter with a nice narrative ending to go along with it. But it’s strange to me that the designers who made the easier boss sections of Meat Circus didn’t realize that the same kind of generosity and leeway in the main platforming sections would have fixed its problems. I really liked Psychonauts and I wanted to like Meat Circus, but its unkindness made me dislike it.
I think these kinds of issues in major games are rarer now. Games that are difficult are finely tuned to be fair challenges and people enjoy taking them on. Games generally have better cameras and controls so these kinds of issues crop up less. But Psychonauts’ final level is a reminder of some of the problems when you feel like you need to add difficult to the end of a game, whether or not that plays to the game’s strengths and acts as a culmination of everything it’s taught you or just exposes the game’s weaknesses and makes the player think less of it. Difficulty in a game has to be earned by appropriate rewards and most importantly by fairness. It’s like a form of power exchange. You trust the designers with your time and frustration and they have an obligation to treat that seriously and make sure that they have your best interests at heart and have done the work necessary to make it fun even when you’re repeating things. Playing Meat Circus is like being tied up by a careless lover who gives you rope burn and puts your arm in a location where it will cramp. The level needed a safe word of some kind. For the most part things are better now, but it’s a lesson that some designers could use a refresher course in.