Ben Sledge 31st August 2018
You’d be forgiven for not having heard of Extreme Meatpunks Forever. It’s not a “big game”; it’s not made by one of the big studios and it hasn’t been advertised much. In fact, it’s been developed by just one person: Heather Robertson, who along with a small team, has self-published the episodic dystopia.
But, it’s an indie phenomenon — rated five stars by gamers on itch.io — and described by critics as “stirring” and “gorgeous”.
Chatting to The Overtake, Robertson explains what the hell it’s all about, starting with how she came up with the idea of characters fighting fascists in suits made of meat.
“Back in September , in the middle of a high-octane posting spree, I posted the phrase ‘extreme meatpunk forever’. The next morning I woke up, saw that post again and thought, ‘Hey, there might be something there,’ and then spent the next eleven months of my life making a video game that would deserve the title.”
Once the idea had taken root in her mind, Robertson set about creating the game. Almost as a by-product, the “meatpunk” genre (like cyberpunk but, well, meat) grew with it, and as such, she produced an expletive-laden manifesto to make sure everyone was on the same page.
It is a long-held belief of mine that ‘subtlety is for fuckers’
“If you look to part two of my manifesto, you can see that it is a long-held belief of mine that ‘subtlety is for fuckers’. This is a conscious decision on my part, as I believe that all art is political and that if you fail to make those political leanings clear within the text, you may find yourself accidentally speaking for the wrong side.”
This is an argument that has bedogged Twitter accounts such as the Racism Watchdog, which simply retweets racist statements onto its followers’ timelines with a bunch of “woofs” as a comment, effectively spreading the ideologies further. Brexit-bashing videogame Not Tonight has faced similar accusations of not actively criticising the hostile political climate it portrayed.
This is unlikely the case for Robertson and Extreme Meatpunks Forever, which is best described by its website: “A serial visual novel/mech brawler about four gay disasters beating up neo-nazis in giant robots made of meat. Get ready for the worst road trip of all time.”
Subtlety is for fuckers, indeed.
While Robertson has (probably) not fought any nazis while wearing a suit made of meat, the game is based on her own experiences as a transgender person who grew up in the Bible Belt of America.
“The game may be a fantastical post-reality blood-filled mech brawl, but it’s very much based on real feelings: growing up queer in the void between the South and the Midwest, feeling at odds with my own body, trying to cope with the fact that it seems like, every single year, the world gets worse.
“I got into game development the way I get into most things: with great fury and very little forethought. Before this project, my longest piece of interactive fiction was a thousand words long. Extreme Meatpunks Forever is twenty thousand words and growing.
It’s honestly a miracle that it came together in the first place
“I don’t know exactly why I decided to combine a full-length visual novel — which I had never written — with an experimental character-based fighting game — which I had also never done — but, I sure as hell did that, anyways. This game is an experiment five ways from Sunday; it’s honestly a miracle that it came together in the first place.”
Meatpunk, itself, is a play on the established cyberpunk genre, the latter of which is sometimes criticised for sexism, racism and transphobia. The cyberpunk niche of science fiction is populated by androgynous people with blue mohicans and a robot arm, but more often than not these stereotypes of transgender people end up as the victims, while a more gender-conforming character saves the day.
Cyberpunk is becoming more and more mainstream, and with that, it has become more bastardised. The genre can be a space to talk about issues of transhumanism and bring forward questions about what it means to be human, but it has become more about smartphone skins and shooting people.
Cyberpunk may also be bringing some of its old-fashioned prejudices with it into the modern world. The widely-anticipated game Cyberpunk 2077 recently tweeted a transphobic joke, which brought the problems of the genre to the forefront of many people’s minds.
I will not rest until 0% of game developers are male
Robertson combats this in Meatpunks through her four main characters: all gay, some transgender, all hilarious. Robertson’s meticulous script makes the game about more than just representation. The characters are more than happy to talk about how they are feeling in any situation, encouraging the same in the player, simply by normalising deeper discussions.
And, while specific to their individual experiences of their gender identities, the issues brought up will resonate with everyone, as the characters are uncomfortable in their bodies, their situations and their meat suits. Their everyday anxieties are perfectly nuanced and replicated, and the serial novel aspect of the game allows these conversations to thrive, often overshadowing the periods of meched-up combat, rather than vice versa.
However, Robertson is not only challenging people’s preconceptions of queerness. She is also challenging the games companies, themselves.
The problems of cyberpunk are never more defined than in the games industry. The irony of huge technology corporations producing games where very similar, huge technology corporations are the villains is lost on some people — not least the technology companies, themselves. The games they produce in the cyberpunk genre so often focus on, or at least feature, women being victims, while 74% of games developers are male.
“I will not rest until 0% of game developers are male, the way that God intended,” she adds.
Women rarely write roles for women in games, and transgender writers write transgender roles even less. This means that the voices of those who do not traditionally and stereotypically play videogames are not heard, their genders and experiences are just used to tell the stories that male developers want to be heard.
Games continuing to show the themes of transgender or non-binary people suffering violent attacks only perpetuate the fear of what already happens in the real world. The cyberpunk setting ceases to be a dystopia and just reiterates modern day issues without comment or critique.
Robertson hopes meatpunk can become the foil to cyberpunk, a pillar of liberalism and champion of the oppressed. She has done this not only through the game’s content, but also in the team that created it.
While she self-published the game on popular independent games marketplace itch.io, as well as programming, writing, designing and leading the project, it was not without a team helping her along the way.
Passion may start a project, but the thing that carries it to completion is discipline and self-care
“The game has about nine people who have contributed to it, if I remember correctly, including Aimee Zhang, who did the character art, and Josie Brechner/Visager, who did the music.
“Making a video game is very hard. I loved almost every minute of it, but a labour of love is still labour. Passion may start a project, but the thing that carries it to completion is discipline and self-care. Working when I can, taking precaution against crunch and doing my best to find moderation in all aspects of development.”
Robertson’s attitudes and work ethic are reflected in Extreme Meatpunks Forever. Self-care is always important, arguably even more so when working on a project so close to her heart. Whether beating up fascists or developing a game, both Robertson and her characters are open when talking about their feelings and mental health, and the positivity surrounded by opening up encourages players and meatpunks to do the same.
Robertson also faces up to hate and trolling with a similar level of positivity. When offering advice for people who don’t enjoy the game, for whatever reason, she suggests tweeting about it.
“Please talk at length on Twitter about how much you dislike this game. I love watching people be wrong. Plus, if you use the hashtag #meatpunks to complain, I might steal your name and name a character you hate after you!”
Ben Sledge 31st August 2018