I hold the work of Edmund McMillen, creator of such well-known indie games as Super Meat Boy and The Binding of Isaac, in very high regard. Not just because his games excel at being instantly rapturous experiences, but because they come from a unique, uncompromising, honest place.
For all the nods, references, and winks to other titles from the past, his games ultimately feel like they could have only come from him. There is a structure to them rooted in his masterful skill of game design. Even when they seem wildly unpredictable, there is a system in place to guarantee your success, if you’re willing to pay attention.
What makes The End Is Nigh (TEIN) so unique to me, personally, is that these types of games normally do not interest me, simply because I find my stress level outweighs my enjoyment level. Oddly enough, I said the same thing about “bullet hell” style games before I discovered Isaac.
By the time Nigh was released on the Nintendo Switch, I was already an unapologetic McMillen fan, so naturally, I bought it day one. It was never a question of if. I knew going in that I was going to be subjected to the type of gameplay that my older reaction time was simply no longer equipped to handle.
But here’s the thing about The End is Nigh in my personal experience: it is indeed everything I find stressful about video games, and yet I rarely got stressed out—at least not in the bad way that made me peace-out of other games in the past. I knew going in that it would have some of Super Meat Boy‘s DNA in it. It was a tight platformer that would require accuracy, skill, and patience; three things that have been in short supply, for me as a gamer, the more the years amble on. Before I expound on that though, let’s dive into the story.
The game is draped in melancholy from the very beginning. The first thing you hear is the somber keys of a piano and the gentle sound of rain. The game is drab looking, and the few bits of color are intentionally washed out, and rarely—if ever—do two different drab colors appear on the screen at the same time.
The game’s story begins at the end of the world. Ash, the amorphous blob is left existing in an unexplained (although the game’s loading screen suggests some sort of atomic bomb situation) post-apocalyptic world. He is in his apartment getting ready to live stream his playthrough of his favorite retro game, the titular The End Is Nigh. He pops the cartridge in and begins, only to have the game glitch on level 1.
This is a clever bit in itself, as the game gives you control of Ash briefly as you navigate your way through an impossible-looking first screen, until you thump into something, triggering the aforementioned glitch.
Ash panics, resets the game, pulls the cartridge out, blows on it, but still no luck. He realizes (after having a sadly, all-too-realistic breakdown over a cartridge not working) that he should venture out into the world, perhaps even make a friend. I mean, there’s more to life than video games, and Ash has nothing left to lose—except his other eye.
I want to take a moment and analyze why this short intro says so much about McMillen as a storyteller. While the game I’ve described to this point sounds downbeat, it’s far from it. Our hero, Ash, is basically doing a Let’s Play during the apocalypse. His screen name is ASH_DIES_ALONE, and the counter at the bottom of the screen indicates he indeed has zero viewers.
Aside from the NES-style blowing on the cartridge bit, the dialogue is also deceptively clever. Anyone who has watched a YouTuber do a playthrough of a game will instantly recognize Ash’s awkward and familiar way of speaking. Not only that, but when Ash calms down and decides to venture out and make a friend, he writes a note to “whoever” stating he’ll probably be dead by the time they read it. He’s going to head out and see what is left of the world, now that he can’t be immersed in the video game that he’s devoted all his time to.
You see, when he said he’s going to go out and make a friend, he didn’t mean he was going to befriend someone, he meant it more in the way Angela Bettis makes a friend in the movie May. This means Ash’s main objective in the game is collect things such as a head, a heart, and a soul to concoct a new friend piecemeal.
The reason I love spending time in the world of McMillen’s games is because they are deeply rewarding experiences hiding under a seemingly basic idea. The world of Nigh to me is a starkly personal metaphor for depression and isolation. The fear that the world has either passed you by, or is so dark and unforgiving, and the only choice is to subject yourself to it; even though you’re certain the results will be fatalistic.
As someone who has had lifelong depression, I am well aware of how all these themes strike a familiar—and often sensitive—chord, but I am also aware that sharing the darkness with others helps heal not only you, but them as well.
McMillen has said the game was about his own personal struggles at the time; often considering this game to be his potential swan song (although thankfully it is not). To him, the story is about a game designer so immersed in making games that the real world, and all the people in it, got neglected.
To me, it was the universal story of despair and loneliness. It was a reminder that when you’re deep in the valley of your thoughts, and all seems lost, and that one thing in your life that “inspired joy” in you goes on the fritz… you have no choice but to move forward and keep trying, no matter how daunting a task may seem.
The themes of fatalism are everywhere in the game. Outside of the big examples, such as the fact that depression often seems like it’s the end of the world and everything feels washed out, you have the characters you encounter during the game. They are few and far between, but they speak to you in a very recognizable way. They are often single-minded with a hint of self-loathing, trying to make conversation with you, until they peter out and tell you to go away. Their behavior evokes sympathy, even when they are being curt and antisocial, mostly because the touches of humor make them that way.
As someone who would best be described as an “indoor kid”, I understand anxiety and stress. What I love about this game is that these small, seemingly inconsequential interactions with nonplayable characters are part of the subtle world-building the game does. These short conversations are like snapshots of people who embody those qualities. After the first few levels, they don’t even offer up any game related purpose, they merely serve the story. I often found myself traversing perilous landscapes merely to be rewarded with a short conversation simply because I didn’t want to miss out on what they had to say.
Which brings me back to the game itself, and how it takes those dark themes and explores them through the experience of playing it. Like I said before, for a game that is punishingly difficult (even if you mainly stick to the main story path), I rarely got genuinely upset.
After the first few days with the game, I came to the conclusion that TEIN was going to be a game I most likely would never fully complete. As of this writing, I’ve completed the main story of the game, and am playing through the post-game content. I have died a total of 8164 times, and have the total completion rating of 70% after over 22 hours of gameplay.
Each the main level sections are kept to a single screen and death is immediately followed by a screen reset and respawn back to where you entered the screen. You die constantly, but the speed with which you are immediately launched back into the game is instantaneous and creates its own type of rhythmic flow.
In every screen, in the linear path of the game, there is a small tumor you need to collect. Well, you don’t need to collect it, but if you plan to tackle the game’s post-credit section you will, as the game will ostensibly turn the hundreds of tumors you’ve collected in the main game into lives. The game up to that point does not employ a “lives” system, meaning you can die over and over without much consequence during the initial campaign.
McMillen designed all the levels in the main path of the game, while occasional collaborator Tyler Glaiel did the far more unforgiving secret areas. The secret areas are, as you might assume, optional, but reward you with large tumors (+5 tumors) and carts (which look like NES game cartridges) that you can playback at your home at the start of the game.
It took me much longer than I care to admit it to realize that many of the cartridge games were merely 4-bit recreations of the main levels, with collectible coins in them. Some of the games are so difficult, I honestly don’t think I’ll ever complete them (looking at you Denial, Anger, and Bargaining), while others are challenging, but highly rewarding when completed. I completed Spike Tales just yesterday, and it was very satisfying and even rewarding (you earn extra tumors for getting in-game achievements for meeting certain criteria).
The controls are exactly what you’d expect from McMillen and Glaiel, with Ash’s movements somewhat reminiscent of Super Meat Boy (SMB), but unique enough to stand on its own. There is no wall bouncing, and Ash doesn’t leave a trail of himself on the level the way Meat does in his game, so you can’t use your previous deaths to gauge where you should possibly jump next.
Time was a factor in SMB as well (rewarding you for not only beating a level, but doing it with speed), and it is much less so in this game. There are levels where you need a little hustle to succeed, but for the most part, the levels are more like puzzles that need to be solved. Sometimes, if I couldn’t get a handle on what I needed to do, I would simply fire off and see what would happen. This often led to moments of surprise and discovery. Sometimes it simply got me just a little further than the time before, but every bit of progress felt good.
I’ve recently been playing Super Mario Maker 2, and I have found it’s emphasis on creating a puzzle platformer inspiring. It’s not so much about going left to right, as it is about how you go about it. There is a lot more thinking involved, outside the box thinking, and I appreciate that type of game design.
Often times, I’ll play a game and be stumped by some challenge or obstacle. I’ll sit there and ponder why I can’t accomplish my goal. I’ll come up with creative ways of overcoming it, and if necessary I’ll look it up online. I had to look up the solution to a screen in this game one time, and that was simply because I had stepped away from the game, and when I returned, I had forgotten there are certain enemies you can bounce off of to advance. That’s not the game’s fault, that’s mine. When I saw the clip of the solution I felt dumb, but I had reached a roadblock and needed to move past it. Again, I was merely stumped due to my own forgetfulness and the “pick up and play” nature of the Nintendo Switch, and not from any game design flaw.
The map system, which allows you to warp around and check your progress (once you glean what all those tiny icons on the map screen actually mean), is somewhat tricky to navigate at times. Be warned: I have accidentally left areas, or warped back to home, on more than a few occasions. Again, this is user error, but be sure to get a firm understanding of it early on, because it can result in some heartache if you are not careful.
Plus, the game features a few crossroads, meaning you can tackle certain levels in the order of your choosing. More than likely, you will choose one path, play until you get stuck, warp back to the crossroad and try a different path. This, along with the frantic bonus levels means you may often be stumped, but you’ll most likely never be stuck in just one place until the very end of the game.
AND IN THE END…
Ash, and his collection of tumors and game cartridges have a seriously tough road to traverse. The game is considered to be relatively short by modern gaming standards. However, if you are someone that has the insatiable desire to find as many secrets as possible, you will spend hours playing this game, uncovering its many well-hidden diversions and distractions.
The End is Nigh is not Sisyphean but it will challenge you. I remember repeatedly failing at one specific level constantly, thinking that perhaps this game was a metaphor for Nietzsche’s theory of Eternal Recurrence, before realizing that was both inaccurate and more than a tad pretentious. You’re not living and dying the same way over and over again. You’re ultimately in control of your destiny, and the little bursts of success and accomplishment push you forward in the face of insurmountable odds.
Besides, what do you have to lose? The apocalypse strikes once, maybe twice.