A few hours in
‘Hopefully I can tell you what kind of game Freaking Meatbags wants to be’. Ever the optimist, Past Jarenth, ever the optimist.
I played a bunch of Freaking Meatbags. Didn’t quite completely clear it, but I beat about two-thirds of the levels. I figure that’s good enough for government review work. Am I right? Am I right, fellas? The fellas know what I’m talkin’ about.
And having put a grand total of several hours into Freaking Meatbags, what I can tell you about it with absolutely certainty is that…
…it’s… a video game?
Okay, that’s needlessly harsh. Let me start over:
Freaking Meatbags is a cautionary tale on the ‘kitchen sink’ approach of designing video games.
The thing about good game design is that it’s hard. Really hard. I don’t claim to be able to do it. And I’m not even talking about creation and development here! Just strictly design. There’s an art and a science to figuring out what goes into a good game. Which mechanics form the core of your game? And what narrative? And how do they interact and overlap? What are the themes of your game, what player fantasy experience is it intending to convey? And how do your mechanics line up with this? What can the player do in your game, and how? What are their goals, their possibilities, their obstacles, their empowerments? And what does that mean for their experience, and their fantasy?
Good game design is incredibly hard. The payoff is major: more than any other aspect, I feel that good design separates good, fun, interesting, memorable games from poor, uninteresting ones. There’s just something about games that take care to align themes, mechanics, and intentions that shines through in the eventual experience. It’s obviously not the only hallmark of game quality: the creation and implementation stage has its own pitfalls, graphics and sound design and controls and optimization and a thousand other things that can go wrong, and I’m sure you can all think of games that sounded cool on paper but turned out poor in practice. Hell, the shitty controls in Dark Souls almost turned me off more than the difficulty did. But all in all, I feel comfortable saying that the more care was put in the design of any given game, the more likely I am to give it glowing remarks.
I don’t think Freaking Meatbags is a very carefully designed game.
One of the more underrated difficult aspects in game design (I feel) is being able to keep the design limited. Particularly in AAA games, there’s a tendency to fit as many mechanics and systems in the design as can reasonably fit. The thinking is that, if gameplay element A is good and fun, and gameplay element B is good and fun, then a game that has elements A and B must be double good and fun! And if we also have gameplay element C, and D, and E… But bigger isn’t always better. Elements don’t just have to be good in isolation; they have to work together, earning their inclusion in the game by virtue of improving the holistic experience of play. When that doesn’t happen, it’s not uncommon to see systems that are fine in isolation feel out of place in the game as a whole, or to even see them detract from the experience. I’m looking at you, Far Cry 4, and your pointless crafting nonsense. Or Wolfenstein: The New Order. That game did not need levels and a skill tree.
I’m rambling, but my deadline is close and I own this website anyway, so I can post whatever the hell I want. Take that, editorial standards. But my point is: I think it’s a mistake to design games as bundles of unconnected systems. Everything that goes into a game’s design should contribute to the experience as a whole, in cooperation and connection with the other systems, elements, and mechanics. A game that uses a small set of tightly-connected mechanics and ideas will, for me, always beat a game that throws a lot of stuff together half-heartedly.
Freaking Meatbags is an example of a game that ‘throws a lot of stuff together half-heartedly’. I called it the ‘kitchen sink’ approach to design in the opening. But a more charitable description might be the ‘wouldn’t it be cool’ approach to design. As in, a lot of people saying, ‘wouldn’t it be cool if we included feature X in our game’?
‘Wouldn’t it be cool if we made a game where you’re a robot, mining doomed planets for resources?’
‘Yeah! And wouldn’t it be cool if there were humans on those planets, and you could control them to help you out?’
‘Yeah! And wouldn’t it be cool if there were more alien types, and you could mix and match their DNA?’
‘Yeah! And wouldn’t it be cool if there were wild robots, and they attacked at night, and you had to build towers to fight them off?’
‘Yeah! And wouldn’t it be cool if your robot avatar could also get gun drones and fight the wild robots themself?’
‘Yeah! And wouldn’t it be cool if we had a meta-game upgrade system where you unlock new towers and buildings and genes?’
‘Yeah! And wouldn’t it be cool if you could upgrade individual humans with rocket launchers and hoverboards?’
‘Yeah! And wouldn’t it be cool if we had a second upgrade system for the robot itself?’
‘Yeah! And wouldn’t it be cool if…’
I was struggling with an earlier version of the opening to this page, because I wanted to summarize for you what kind of game Freaking Meatbags is. And I can’t, really. Because Freaking Meatbags is all the stuff I outlined above. And probably more! I want to call it a tower defense game, or a tower defense/RTS hybrid, or maybe even a tower defense/RTS/top-down shooter triple hybrid, but the reality of the situation is that it just… is itself. Freaking Meatbags is the game wherein you do all the things that you do in Freaking Meatbags.
I can probably tell I’m not super enthusiastic about this. I don’t want to be too down on Freaking Meatbags; truthfully, I had some okay times in my moment-to-moment play. The levels can get tense, the DNA mixing is a fun mechanic, and the writing is… let’s call it ‘occasionally chuckle-worthy’. But for all that, the game just couldn’t grab me. And I think I blame the unfocused design for that. Freaking Meatbags isn’t the first unfocused-design-style game I’ve played. They all lose me over time, some more quickly than others. And I think that’s due to two problems inherent to this design style.
Problem number one is that the systems don’t really interact. There’s a lot happening at once in Freaking Meatbags: towers, and resources, and DNA genes, and wild robots, and exploring the map for hidden spaceships that your humans can explore — I didn’t even put that in the top list, did I? — and gold, and CPU cores, and upgrades, and day and night cycles, and four different kinds of resources… But they all exist in their own little worlds. So little of it actually interacts with anything else.
If I’m building towers to fight monster waves, why am I also exploring abandoned spaceships? If I can get drones to shoot robots myself with, why am I even building towers in the first place? Why do I care about micromanaging human DNA traits if all they do is mine resources, or give passive buffs to towers? Why am I even a separate battlefield robot that can move around? Why are some levels seemingly designed for maze-style tower defense gameplay, but others are pre-built mazes with open spots, and others yet are just hunting and killing robots? Why can I buy some new tower types for gold, but other tower types I get unlocked over time for free? Why is there a power mechanic? And why doesn’t that mechanic because functionally meaningful until almost ten levels in? Why are there different kinds of ground that I can and cannot build on, and why is this never explained or remarked on?
For that matter, why am I primarily fighting robots? Wasn’t my job to harvest resources from these semi-doomed planets?
I’m not saying that all of these questions are fair, or that none of them get answered over time. I’m saying that, in a more tightly controlled and designed game, they wouldn’t have been questions in the first place. I’m only stopping to ask how all these systems are meaningful because the game isn’t making them meaningful for me. I consider it a game design failing any time I stop playing something to ask ‘wait, how does this make any sense in the context of what I’ve been seeing and doing?’. And Freaking Meatbags is almost nothing but these moments.
To its credit, I can almost see what the design was going for. The early levels introduce new gameplay elements: towers, and humans, and shooty drones. And then later levels bring it all together. And that could have worked as an idea, if the game actually had a coherent vision of how all these systems were going to tie together. You can see a similar approach in Creeper World 3, But since Freaking Meatbags doesn’t (seem to) have this kind of overarching vision, we’re left with a bundle of systems that are introduced, and then just… left to their own devices. Rather than integrate everything with everything else, elements just exist side-by-side.
And problem number two is that the systems are shallow. A benefit of focusing on a small set of tightly connected systems is that you can afford to really optimize and fine-tune them. But in a game that tries to be everything, more often than not, the individual elements end up not being much of anything. Again, the AAA staple of ‘pointless leveling system’ or ‘tacked-on crafting’ comes to mind.
Freaking Meatbags is a tower defense game, but it’s a very shallow tower defense game: you only have three or so different towers, and most of them are simple variations on the theme of ‘shoot often at enemies until they die’. The only interesting enemy variation is the one that has high armor, which is singularly countered by the one armor-piercing missile tower. And while putting humans with different stats in the towers could be super interesting — the game plays at this a little with certain ‘optional genes’ — I never really felt like the end result mattered very much.
Freaking Meatbags is an RTS, but it’s kind of a dull RTS. There are four different combat resources, but colour aside, they’re all variations of ‘blocks on the ground that you pick up’. None of them feel meaningfully different, or more or less rare. They just… are. You have your humans, and those humans can have different genes and stats. But the stats never feel like they matter. And the genes are either ‘becomes marginally better at mining’ or ‘become marginally better at operating towers’. There’s no real reason to experiment, and no real reward for optimizing. Maybe the resource gathering numbers go up. Or the tower damage numbers go up. Oh, and you can buy equipment for your humans. The jetpacks are nice.
Freaking Meatbagsis a game that’s sometimes this:
And sometimes this:
And sometimes this:
And none of it feels like the core of the game. Nothing feels like the core of the game. The core of the game is whatever each particular level chooses to focus on. Sometimes it’s tactics, sometimes it’s gunplay, sometimes it’s careful base design. But none of it is deep, none of it is particularly interesting, and none of feels like it’s part of a coherent goal.
Freaking Meatbags is a game in which you do a lot of things. And then afterwards, when you try to write a review about it, you find that you can’t really remember what any of those things were. Or why you did them. Or why they mattered.
Or why you’d want to go back in the first place.
Freaking Meatbags is a game about a tardy robot who gets punished with a dangerous jobs: extracting minerals from dying planets. Except the game is in no way about extracting minerals from dying planets. The entire setup is discarded almost immediately: the missions aren’t about minerals, the planets aren’t in danger of dying, and halfway in some weird octopus alien from beyond time and space is introduced as the pointless architect behind everything. Like everything else in this game, it feels strange, and disconnected. ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if the final boss fight was with Chtulhu?’
Freaking Meatbags is a game that makes me sad, because I feel like I see what it could have been. What it wanted to be, maybe. A rigorous editing pass would have helped this game tremendously, I think. Pare away all the cruft, the personal shooting and the cores and the exploration and the pointless human stats for willingness to work. Keep the towers, the resource collection, and the gene mixing. And then focus on that. Really make it your own. Give us lots of interesting tower toys to play with, and interesting gene combinations that engender hard, meaningful choices. Give us playstyle choices. Give us a way to play.
As it stands, though, Freaking Meatbags is a game where a lot of systems don’t really do anything to earn their inclusion in the larger, formless whole. It might be fun for a while if you like shooting robots, or pestering humans, or if you really need some more towers in your life. But for ten bucks, I find it hard to give this game any kind of recommendation.
Jarenth thinks laser eyes are one of those ideas that sound neat, but probably lead to a lot more trouble around mirrors than he’s prepared to deal with. Follow him on Twitter or hang out with him on Steam. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?